1993 Anniversary Celebration: Westminster Abbey
A conference arranged by NAPARC was held in London, England, September 23-25, 1993, to celebrate the work of the Westminster Assembly, 350 years ago. One of our contributing editors, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, was a guest speaker at the conference and he writes our lead article on the Westminster Assembly and this year's celebration. "Clips" from the speeches of two other speakers are also featured in this issue.
It is important that all of us as Reformed Christians become more aware and appreciative of the Westminster Standards even if they are not part of those adopted by our own denomination (such as the CRC). The times in which we live are mandating a much closer union between members of various Reformed and Presbyterian bodies. A closer look at the Westminster Standards which are embraced by our brothers and sisters in close fellowship with us, will aid greatly in enhancing our mutual quest for communion. The Editors
The majority of the Reformed churches in the world today are descended either from the Dutch Reformed tradition or from the British Reformed tradition. The Dutch Reformed have spread their confessional standards – the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort – to many parts of the world. So have the British Reformed. But while the Dutch Reformed standards were written in several parts of Europe in quite different times and circumstances (between 1559 and 1619), the British Reformed standards were written between 1643 and 1649 in the difficult circumstances of the English Civil War. These standards are known as the Westminster Standards produced by the Westminster Assembly.
The Westminster Assembly
The Westminster Assembly was not actually a church assembly, but rather an assembly called and authorized by the English parliament. It served at the pleasure of parliament and reported to parliament for approval for its actions. The Assembly derived its name from the place of its meetings: the precincts of the Westminster Abbey in England. The first meetings were in the Henry VII Chapel in the Abbey itself and the meetings later were moved to a room adjoining the Abbey known as the Jerusalem Chamber.
The Westminster Assembly initially had only English delegates, but was later augmented by Scottish commissioners. These delegates produced very remarkable documents that have deeply influenced the course of Presbyterianism around the world. The Assembly prepared the Westminster Confession of Faith as well as the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. It also prepared a Form of Church Government, a Directory for Public Worship and a Psalter.
The political environment in which the Assembly met was polarized and increasingly violent. By 1643 the parliament had become the focus of opposition to King Charles I in his efforts to rule without parliament. The supporters of parliament's rights were often Puritans who also opposed the King on the religious establishment in England. Puritans wanted a reform of the church to simplify the ceremonies and worship of the church and to emphasize the church's Calvinism. English Puritans received support from Scottish Presbyterians as King Charles tried to impose bishops and a prayer book on the Church of Scotland. The result of this conflict was civil war in which the King was defeated and finally executed in 1649.
Although the parliament and the Westminster Assembly were dominated by Presbyterians, under Oliver Cromwell the parliamentary army became strongly congregationalist. Cromwell became Lord Protector of England (1653-1658) and ended hopes of a Presbyterian England. England restored an episcopal church when the monarchy was restored under King Charles II in 1660.
The work of the Presbyterians at the Westminster Assembly, then, had its great impact not in England, but in Scotland and northern Ireland. There Scottish and Scot-Irish Presbyterians eagerly embraced the documents of Westminster and carried them to the New World and around the globe.
The National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (composed of the Christian Reformed Church and five Presbyterian denominations - NAPARC) decided that it would be good to honor the Westminster Standards on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the beginning of the Assembly. A conference was held in London, September 23-25 this year to celebrate the work of the Assembly through worship and lectures. Three worship services and nine lectures examined and rejoiced in the great heritage of Westminster.
The Celebration Conference
The conference began in a very special way. The opening service was held in Westminster Abbey itself. The Abbey is probably Britain's most famous and most important church. It is the burial place of many of Britain's most famous subjects and is the site of the coronations of its monarchs. Some five hundred people gathered for the worship service where God was praised in hymn and psalm. James Montgomery Boice, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, preached a powerful sermon on the sovereignty of God. He spoke from Daniel 4 on how God vindicated His glory by His judgment on Nebuchadnezzar.
The worshipers were greeted by a member of the Abbey clergy who reminded us that a church had stood on that spot for over 1000 years and that since the sixteenth century the church had been Anglican, except for the period in the middle of the seventeenth century when the Presbyterians came and drove the Anglicans out. He welcomed the Presbyterians back - but hoped they would not stay too long.
The next day the conference met in an historic church – Westminster Chapel - a few blocks from the Abbey. This independent church was pastored in the past by G. Campbell Morgan and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The current pastor is R.T. Kendall.
The 225 registrants heard six lectures on various aspects of the Assembly's works. William Barker and Samuel Logan from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia spoke on the participants, work, and variety of views at the Assembly. John Richard de Witt, pastor of Seventh Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, spoke of the difficult issue of church government before the Assembly. Wayne Spear of the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh lectured on the doctrine of Scripture in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Douglas Kelly of Reformed Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, spoke of the great importance and influence of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I spoke on the spiritual vitality of the Westminster Larger Catechism and the need to revive its use.
The day was concluded with a worship service in which Joel Nederhood preached on the preeminence of Christ. The day had been long, but we were stirringly reminded of the greatness and goodness of the work of Christ for our redemption. Dr. Nederhood spoke of his own discovery anew of how powerfully the Westminster Confession presented Christ and His glory.
The last day of the conference was held at St. Margaret's Church, a large and beautiful church built right next to Westminster Abbey. As we gathered there on September 25,1993, speakers reminded us that exactly 350 years ago - on September 25, 1643 - the parliament and the Assembly had met together in that church to worship God and to sign the Solemn League and Covenant. This covenant was an alliance between England and Scotland to advance the cause of Calvinism and the reform of the church according to the Word of God. On the basis of this covenant the Scottish commissioners joined the Westminster Assembly.
In this historic church we heard two lectures. One by lain Murray of the Banner of Truth Trust on the principles of Reformed worship presented in the Westminster Directory of Public Worship. The other was an address by Robert Norris, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., about the powerful preaching that inspired and sustained the Assembly in the years that it met. We also had opportunity to visit the Jerusalem Chamber and hear readings from letters written by some of the Scottish commissioners describing events at the Assembly.
After these presentations we adjourned to the Church House Conference Center in the grounds of the Abbey for a celebration luncheon. Jay Adams, Associate Reformed Presbyterian pastor and professor at Westminster Seminary in California, spoke on the influence of Westminster. He noted how for centuries in many parts of the world the Westminster Standards have nurtured the faith of Reformed people.
The conference concluded in St. Margaret's Church with a worship service following the principles of the Westminster Directory. We sang Psalter texts prepared by the Assembly without musical accompaniment. The singing was glorious. Then Eric Alexander, pastor of St. George's Tron Church in Glasgow, preached on the application of redemption. He exalted the grace of God and the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in bringing Christ and His benefits to the elect.
The conference proved to be a marvelous time of reflection, learning, worship and fellowship. It reminded us that God has done great things for His people in the most difficult of times through those who stood forthrightly for His truth. Let us hope and pray that the powerful religious work done at Westminster may continue to motivate us to faithful service for the Lord. Let us harness Westminster's wisdom for advancing the Lord's work through us today.
Previously published in The Outlook, December 1993 by Reformed Fellowship, Inc.
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