“. . . As Others See Us.”
Dr. James F. Spink, F.R.G.S., Collingdale, U. S. A.
Because it is useful to know what visitors think about us and tell others about us, we appreciate an American visitor’s permission to print a letter he has written to Christians across the Atlantic. Do not imagine we agree with all he says.
AFTER being three months in the British Isles, serving the Lord in the Assemblies, I thought the Christians in the U.S.A. and Canada might be interested in knowing the conditions this side of the Atlantic. I consulted some of the leaders over here before sending this report, so that the views expressed are not exclusively my own.
Despite the relatively small size of the British Isles, conditions vary so considerably that it is impossible to generalise on the condition of the assemblies. Ireland, for example, has been scarcely touched by the War. In Eire, the war has brought a greater prosperity than ever before. The same is true to a great extent of Ulster, but the war-time restrictions and controls were, in fact, imposed upon the latter. Even in Ulster, however, there was no conscription, and the assemblies were not, therefore, denuded of their young men during the war, as the English and Scottish assemblies were. A number of the more prominent brethren in Britain were, however, exempted from military service on the ground that they were essential to the spiritual welfare of their local assembly.
One’s first impression of British Assemblies is that the folk are generally harder than they used to be. Everyone has had to work longer hours during the war and the strain and tension have made a very marked impression, particularly in London and the South, where the air raids were also very largely experienced. There is a general tiredness which makes it impossible for them to assimilate as easily as they used.
Whilst no one is starving, very few are satisfied physically, and the coming winter may have a serious effect upon a large number. Food is plainer and is severely rationed; there is little variety, and meals are usually unexciting. Preachers who are taking a week-end’s meetings normally take their food rations with them—morsels of butter, sugar, tea, bacon, etc.—and even well-to-do hostesses welcome (if not expect) this contribution to the family rations. Hospitality, whilst somewhat more limited than formerly, is gladly given, but it sometimes means self-sacrifice for those who give it. I cannot speak too highly of my hostesses, who have to line up for their meagre rations.
Week-night meetings are not so well attended as they used to be in the towns, but there is little difference in country districts. Townspeople are still working harder and longer, and in many instances can get to the meetings only by sacrificing a much needed meal. Those who attend meetings expect a fairly solid message and feel that their time has been wasted if they are forced to listen to a superficial address. There is probably a greater appreciation by God’s people of the value of spiritual things than there was before the war.
Gospel work is becoming more difficult. During the war there was a response on the part of Servicemen and civilians which was unparalleled in history; literally thousands were saved. That phase has passed and the unconverted have no interest in spiritual things. There are, of course, exceptions. In Manchester, for example, Eric Hutchings, Noel Knight and others from various assemblies, hold large Gospel rallies in the Houldsworth Hall on Saturday evenings. On one occasion they took the large Bellevue Stadium, which holds 6,000-—and filled it; there were many professions. In Glasgow, Aberdeen, Liverpool, Preston, etc., large scale evangelistic efforts meet with great success. In London, J. B. Watson, F. A. Tatford and others are holding rallies for Christians at Westminster Chapel (where Dr. Campbell Morgan used to preach) with a view to reviving the spirituality of the Assemblies of the Metropolis and later of holding big evangelistic campaigns. (The Report of the first series of Rallies, “Revival in our Time,” price 2/-, from the Paternoster Press, Ludgate House, London, E.C. 4, is well worth reading.) Tent campaigns were never more difficult and it is proving more and more necessary to adopt new methods of bringing the Gospel to the unconverted. Factory meetings, talks for miners at the pithead, canteen gatherings, etc., are the most fruitful methods nowadays. Vacation conferences, when a hundred or so young people gather together for a week’s Bible Study, are as popular as ever they were. An Assembly Conference Centre has been opened this year at Matlock, under the direction of D. L. Clifford. Montague Goodman, D. B. Dobson, J. Capper, and F. A. Tatford form the Committee.
Tom Rees, whose wife is in fellowship with the Assemblies and whose own sympathies seem to lean in that direction, runs another very successful Conference Centre at Hildenborough. Speakers are drawn from many circles, but include well-known brethren such as D. W. Brealey, Montague Goodman, Harold St. John, F. A. Tatford, Prof. Rendle Short and others. During the winter, Tom Rees holds evangelistic rallies at the Royal Albert Hall, when up to 8,000 young people gather and professions run into hundreds.
The evacuation from the metropolis to the country greatly weakened London Assemblies and, although most of the evacuees have now returned, the Assemblies are not as strong and vigorous as they formerly were. Many young men and women have returned home in all parts from National Service, with a spirit of restlessness, which is having an obvious effect on the Assemblies all over the country. Where older brethren have had the common-sense to give young folk their lead, the pent-up energy has been transferred into useful service. In some places, however, there has been an unnecessary curbing, which may easily result in friction and disagreement if things are not handled carefully. Leadership in Assemblies is changing hands. Before the war, the leading brethren in the Assemblies were mainly of the upper middle class. This was perhaps inevitable because of education, leisure time, social position, etc. (I am not speaking favourably or unfavourably of it, but merely stating a fact.) The Socialisation of Britain has flattened out the middle class and the general democratic spirit has taken away any respect for betters. In consequence, Assemblies are often devoid of definite leadership, although there are naturally brethren who undertake Assembly business.
Even the general shabbiness of clothes (applicable to all classes) has had the tendency of removing the respect once paid. Whilst a more materialistic spirit is inevitably in evidence (people naturally talk of shortages), the British Assemblies are probably stronger and better taught on the average than some other countries. It is, however, much more difficult to inspire them. So many false promises have been made to the people in the past few years that no one can inspire or arouse the enthusiasm of the British to-day. The “Youth for Christ” movement has had no effect upon the Assemblies at all. In fact, it has left very little impression on Britain as a whole, despite the glowing reports made about it. In general, the phlegmatic British regard it with suspicion. They don’t like their religion mixed with entertainment, and the Assemblies have merely left it alone. Many of the Assemblies have their own “Youth Rallies” on Saturday nights.
Americans will find it difficult to appreciate how extensively the war has affected Britain. It is not only in blitzed buildings and blasted churches, but in shattered nerves, in limited food, in shabbiness of clothing, in bitterness that there is no brighter prospect, that the effects most clearly show. All this finds some reflection in the Assemblies and it is difficult to keep people’s minds off the material and on the spiritual. Whereas ministering brethren used to expound chapters and doctrines, there is a greater tendency to deal with practical things. One very pronounced characteristic of the British Assemblies is a growing scepticism (particularly among the young) of the value of tradition. So long as tradition is brought to the test of the Word of God, this is all to the good, but there is a tendency to “debunk” everything.
There is a significant movement back to the precepts of the early brethren, however, and a refusal to accept anything savouring of sectarianism, and there may be in this the germ of a great spiritual revival yet. Brethremsm is not more Scriptural than any other ism, and it may be that the Lord is re-awakening His people to the reality of New Testament Principles.
I have not had one disappointing meeting in England or Ireland, and am looking forward now to visiting Scotland where, I hear, the meetings are progressive.
I expect to sail for U.S.A. on Nov. 20th, and am looking forward with keen pleasure to be home again.
James F. Spink.