Thursday 6 January 2011

Bernard Manning

Everyone has heard of Bernard Manning. He's dead now, and once he wandered around his house in vest and underpants justifying his jokes told on stage in his own Embassy Club and on television. Here is a couple of his jokes, cleaned up and made suitable for adults.

A fellow went on Stars in their Eyes as Glen Miller. He walked through the mist and no one has seen him since.

Two layabouts went around with their new found tall friend and then he died in the street. The police asked what they knew about him and they said nothing, except that he had two arseholes. The policeman asked how they knew that and one said because when they went into the pub the publican said, "Here's that tall chap with two arseholes."

But there is another Bernard Manning, who wrote about Old Dissent. He was a Congregationalist and often gave his full name Bernard Lord Manning.

Congregationalism like Presbyterianism was part of Old Dissent along with the Baptists. English Presbyterianism without a Presbyterian system of governance was formed and Congregationalism increased when the Church of England was restored with its 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Old Dissenters were Puritans and Calvinists, and all immediately started to decline. Both were later revived, but very differently. And Bernard Manning asks if the usual history of revival is sufficient:

Is the story of the eighteenth century Congregationalism a story of a depression after the Toleration Act, an inglorious sleep, and then a waking to the trumpet of Wesley and Whitefield?... That is the specious, the popular, the classical theory. I venture to suggest that it is wrong, that it makes nonsense of history, that it hides the supreme achievement of eighteenth century Congregationalism for the catholic faith.

Manning, Bernard (1939), Essays in Orthodox Dissent, London: Independent Press, 185)

No, it is not sufficient:

...If nothing particular was happening in Congregationalism in the first three quarters of the century, why do we find Congregationalism at the end of it still as orthodox as at the beginning, vigorous and evangelical, whilst its former companion, Presbyterianism, has lapsed from its orthodoxy to Unitarianism and is rationalistic and dwindling? It is no reply to argue that theological rancour has exaggerated the significance of these doctrinal differences and to point out that in the earlier part of the century the churches which were to remain orthodox lost as much ground as those that were to fall to Unitarianism. Granted that there was a decline all round, for orthodox and for less orthodox, the problem is to discover why after that decline one denomination, the Congregational, had in it the capacity to receive the fire of the evangelical revival and another denomination, the Presbyterian, had not. (Manning, 1939, 185-186)

They both declined, though he fails to say that both revived. Here's how he continued:

There were in the century two main currents of religious thought. One was Arian, developing into Socinianisrn and Unitarianism. The other was evangelical. Leaving aside detail, we may say that English Presbyterians with a few gallant exceptions were swept on by the first current, losing their Calvinism and providing the foundations of the modern Unitarian denomination. Congregationalists were swept on by the second current; and to their Calvinism added Evangelicalism. (1939, 186)

He has his bias of course, which he combines with this historical explanation:

In the day when Presbyterianism was destroyed by Latitudinarian and Unitarian doctrine, and when Anglicanism was riddled by it, our forefathers (after some sad lapses and desperate struggles) kept the faith. This was their first achievement as a tolerated church, and had they done nothing more they would have made the place of their pilgrimage glorious.

There was, of course, nothing which predisposed Presbyterians as such to abandon the catholic and evangelical faith in the Son of God. Nor was there anything which preserved Congregationalists as such from the Arian tendencies of the time. On the one hand in the first generation after the Toleration Act no churchmen were more vigorous in loyalty to that faith than the Presbyterians. On the other hand some Congregational ministers had a prominent, I will not say distinguished, part in developing and spreading Arian and Socinian opinions. At the famous Synod in Salters’ Hall in 1718 Congregationalists and Presbyterians were to be found on each side, though it seems fair to say that even at that early date a larger proportion of Presbyterians than of Congregationalists showed a willingness to temporise with unorthodoxy. (186-187)

In 1718 there were some who favoured leaving ideas to come along themselves, but others against subscription especially among the Presbyterians were so because of confidence in the Bible. They opposed human religion, and creeds and articles were part of human religion. So Bernard Manning goes on to give his explanation for the differences; however, we need to go back a bit where he explains that the loss of Presbyterian governance meant the loss of examining communicants in church with no church meeting to take the place of the absent Presbyterian courts, and:

Less care was taken about rolls of church membership and about professions of faith. Presbyterian churches too often became societies of seat-holders and subscribers. Decisive authority fell too often into the hands of trustees. These controlled the buildings and the endowments, and in effect often appointed the minister. (183)

And so via a focus on Congregationalists we get the difference:

The first reason for the steady attachment of Congregationalists to orthodoxy we may find in that reality of their church fellowship which we have already observed. They were concerned for one another’s faith. That declaration of personal faith in the Redeemer, required before a candidate’s name was inscribed on the roll of membership, meant some-thing. Doubtless it was often crude, at times formal, always inadequate as an exposition of theology. But it constantly reminded members of our churches of the redemption wrought by Christ and of their own share in His redemption... (187)

Reason one then, the opposite being that Presbyterians had a parish church attitude and you could just come in and in the longer term rent a pew. Next reason then for Congregationalist orthodoxy (though he sees the two connected as one) is that:

The reality of our church fellowship showed itself too in the close bond between the ministers and the faithful laity. The church itself bore the responsibility of calling and ordaining the ministers. Calling was not the privilege of a handful of trustees. Ordaining was not the privilege of a group of ministers. ...our risk was less. Unsound Arianising opinions, ready to degenerate into mere Unitarianism, crept gradually and often unsuspected into Presbyterianism. Not a few Presbyterian congregations woke up groaning to find themselves unexpectedly Arian. To be confronted regularly by the classical doctrine is of great value in a time of theological flux and lapse... (187-188)

Then we get to what they did, and an apparent greater flexibility in Presbyterian churches than in Congregationalist. I'm not sure I wholly buy this argument:

I refer to the liturgy of eighteenth century Congregationalism. In its liturgy or form of service the church preserves and regularly presents to the world, and to itself; the faith which it has received of the Lord, the faith on which it calls its members to lay hold. At any particular moment any particular individual may not have a complete apprehension of the whole faith; but in its liturgy the church sets before him the commands and promises of God, and the experience and faith of the saints, as the goal which he can reach, which he is on the way to reaching... Into the passing opinions of ministers and people heresy may creep: on these or those individuals, catholic, apostolic, evangelical faith may have a lessening hold; but this matters less, even for the individuals concerned, if the norm of faith constantly presents itself in the framework of divine service. The flock is not then starved on the crank diet to which some minister who is a spiritual vegetarian wantonly restricts himself, and would restrict his flock... (188-189)

I love that phrase, a 'spiritual vegetarian'. Presumably it is to be contrasted against the red meat of Christianity! A little bit later we have:

Now in the early eighteenth century the fashionable theology both in the Established Church and in the Three Dissenting Bodies had little in it that was exhilarating or inspiring. A cautious rationalism almost always influenced and often dominated it. This cautious rationalism tried to commend the Gospel by showing how sensible and how commonplace it was. In an age producing such works as Christianity not mysterious theological students drifted unconsciously towards a rationalising Arianism. Many biographies illustrate this. Who can tell how much depended in these circumstances on the maintenance of orthodox standards in the liturgy of Congregationalism, the permanent framework of worship, by which the vagaries of ministers might be to some extent confined? This liturgy, this framework of worship, consisted mainly of our metrical psalms, paraphrases, and hymns. (189)

He recalls Isaac Watts as a teacher of the faith:

He put the Psalms not merely into metre: he put them into Christian theology too... (190)

...At the end of his sacramental hymns Watts wrote: "I cannot persuade myself to put a full period to these Divine Hymns, till I have addressed a special song of glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." (191)

Now there might be too much emphasis here regarding difference, as there is no doubt that Unitarianism became liturgical first only at its birth, because it was an ex-Anglican priest who used Samuel Clarke's rewrite of the Book of Common Prayer, and then later liturgies evolved among the Free Christian anti-denominational wing of the movement. Prior to this a huge amount in English Presbyerianism depended on the minister's learning and on the presentation of the service from him (and it was him until 1904) but they had psalms too. Also, how come the Established Church was "riddled" with Latitudinarianism and Unitarian doctrine (186) if it too maintained a tight liturgical presentation?

Then there is the issue of preserving Calvinist doctrine:

In a century when the solvent acids of rationalism were so potent was it a misfortune (as is often suggested), was it not an authentic gift of God for our churches, that a hard, bitter rind of tough Calvinism covered their faith? Would anything else have protected it so effectively from the mildew and the cankerworm that were then destroying Presbyterianism? One thing at least we can assert. Soon after the Revolution rigid Calvinism began to be less common among the Presbyterians and the General Baptists than among us, and they were in the long run less successful than we in resisting Socinianism. Unlike as they appear at first sight, the rigid Calvinism of the Congregationalists and the warm Arminianism of the Wesleys were in substance the same. Both rested on the one foundation, faith in the Lamb in the midst of the throne as it had been slain from the foundation of the world. Not by accident did the Calvinists and the Arminians share equally in the evangelical movements of the later part of the century. (191-192)

He's making a mistake here, and it is a common one. Many of the Presbyterians were Arminians and not Arians. They were moving towards a position of universalism via Arminianism. The Arminianism was that 'of the head', in which individuals had a role in coming to faith, whereas God of course still knew who would be saved and who would be damned. But if you went to faith, you were one of the chosen, and God had known it. Wesley was Arminian, but 'of the heart', and in addition had a great stress on personal experience and knowledge and warned against backsliding. Whereas many Calvinists and Arminians had looked for external evidence of their salvation (as in the 'Capitalist spirit', as one example, for which godly behaviour was demanded of the self and others), Wesley looked for internal emotional evidence and the individual's outward behaviour.

Arminianism and Arianism were ideas that were both in the Dissenting Academies, so that these theological colleges connected these ideas. For many, the Trinity was preserved even if it was a kind of logical nonsense, rather as in the weak explanations heard for it so often these days. The chapels were then hit by a new Unitarian wave that matched the spirit of the age: materialist, rational spirituality.

Later Bernard Manning continues his argument, that Calvinism provided cover prior to Evangelicalism:

But until our fathers had set themselves securely in English society, had decisively repelled Arian doctrine, and had emerged from their crust of rigid Calvinism, they showed perhaps a certain lethargy about the evangelisation of the world. The historian of the nineteenth, not of the eighteenth, century has to recount the triumphs and sacrifices of our churches, once the evangelical fervour had possessed them. (194)

For Bernard Manning, congregationalists:

...showed once for all that ecclesiastical liberty and orthodox doctrine were not incompatible. They exhibited the two side by side. They asserted triumphantly in the most unfavourable circumstances that the irresistible grace of God preserves the faith in freedom and freedom in the faith. Upon faith and freedom loyally guarded there fell in due time the fire from heaven, the fire of the evangelical revival. Then the Word had free course and was glorified. (195)

Incidentally, many a Congregationalist church did liberalise, and during the Second World War one of these helped the Hull Unitarian Church (which had enjoyed mergers from Unitarian Baptists) continue after the church received bomb damage.

Most congregationalists merged into the United Reformed Church, and the URC is now recognised as a broad Church, and it is undergoing significant decline. So are the Unitarians, but the Unitarians retain a unique selling point if only they would sell it.

Nevertheless, in the history of why one Old Dissenting Church liberalised and another did not, including past the hallmark of trinitarianism, this is the explanation: that one had congregations like a parish church run by trustees, and another had a congregationalist faith-checking system, and one was revived by Unitarian views and the other by evangelicalism.

No comments: