Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Grace Baptist Churches in England

Grace Baptist Churches in England by Philip Tait, pastor of Hardwick Baptist Church, Stockton-on-Tees, England

To understand where we are now, we need to go back a bit. Until the Nineteenth Century, the vast majority of English Baptist Churches, whether Open or Strict, were Particular in doctrine. When the Baptist Union was formed, it was a union of Particular Baptist churches. However, there was a drift into Arminianism during the Nineteenth Century, so that by the end of the century, the position was that the majority of Baptist churches were General and Open, while a substantial minority were Strict and Particular – and were thereafter usually referred to as “Strict Baptist Churches”. (This is quite distinct from the usage of the Seventeenth Century, where “strict Baptist” – with a small “s” – meant a church that insisted on believers’ baptism as a condition of membership.)

However, the Strict Baptist Churches were divided among themselves over quite minor points of doctrine. The different groups were identified by which magazine they read (from the most strict to the most liberal): The Gospel Standard, The Christian’s Pathway, and The Gospel Herald. This gave rise to what is the most distinctive thing about Strict/ Particular/Grace Baptist Churches to this day, namely that there a large number of overlapping organisations, but no central body.

The Baptist Union having deserted the Particular position, some of the Strict Baptist Churches organised themselves into these groupings:

« The Metropolitan Association of Strict Baptist Churches, now The Association of Grace Baptist Churches (South East).
« The Suffolk and Norfolk Association of Strict Baptist Churches, now The Association of Grace Baptist Churches (East Anglia).
« The Cambridge and East Midlands Union of Strict Baptist Churches, now The Association of Grace Baptist Churches (East Midlands).
« The Northern Union of Particular Baptist Churches. During the Twentieth Century, the Northern Union was wound up. Its financial and legal responsibilities were transferred to the smaller of the two Particular Baptist trust companies, The Strict and Particular Baptist Trust Corporation (now the Grace Baptist Trust Corporation). The spiritual side of the work was transferred to a new organisation, the Northern Fellowship of Particular Baptist Churches. Later, the Northern Fellowship adopted a regional form of organisation, before it was eventually disbanded altogether.

Meanwhile, the Standard churches organised themselves, with very tight central control. There are four separate organisations run by the same committee, and known collectively as “The Gospel Standard Societies”. There has been very little connection between the Standard churches and others since 1900.

In the 1960s the different Strict Baptist churches came to see how much they had in common. There were a number of impulses that pushed the churches in that direction. First, the arrival of men who had left other denominations to associate with the Strict Baptists, to whom the old divisions meant nothing.

Second, the financial failure (practically simultaneous) of The Christian’s Pathway and The Gospel Herald. A third magazine, The Free Grace Record, took over the assets of The Gospel Herald, and became the new denominational magazine, Grace Magazine. Unlike the old magazines has been for all the churches, and not just one group of them. Grace Magazine was also later given half the assets of The Christian’s Pathway.

Third, the emergence of other Particular Baptist Churches that had never been associated with the Strict Baptists. These included old churches (some hundreds of years old) that had never been in any kind of association at any time in their history, new churches that had recently been formed, and churches that had recently seceded from the Baptist Union or other non-Evangelical denominations. These churches, along with some Strict Baptist Churches, began to meet annually in The Assembly of Baptised Churches Holding the Doctrines of Grace (ABCDG). Meanwhile, the Strict Baptist Churches had also begun to meet annually as the National Assembly of Strict Baptist Pastors and Deacons. The National Assembly was responsible for issuing the 1966 Baptist Affirmation of Faith, which is one of two doctrinal statements used by our churches, the other being the 1689 London Confession of Faith (which is the basis of, and virtually identical with, the American Philadelphia Confession).

The Assemblies were wound up in 1980. (I was at the last meeting of the ABCDG, which was held in St John’s Wood Road Baptist Church in central London. I never imagined at the time that I would become Pastor of that church in 1989!) The new annual conference, formed by merging the old Assemblies, is Grace Baptist Assembly, which has met most years since 1981. It has no organisation – only a steering committee to make the arrangements – and no authority over the churches. It is not a denomination, and exists only while it is sitting.

The Grace Baptist Churches are listed in the Grace Directory. The magazine – though it is a separate organisation from the directory – distributes copies with the January issue each year. Today two things give the Grace Baptist Churches today their common identity:

« They are Particular/Reformed/Calvinistic in their theology. This is expressed by adherence to either the 1689 Confession or the 1966 Affirmation.
« They have a closed/baptised membership. Churches that admit members who have not been baptised as believers are not eligible to be listed in the Grace Directory. Some also practise Strict Communion (including all the churches in the three area associations).

My own background is virtually paradigmatic of all this. My father was a Congregational minister, who was baptised as believer in a Strict Baptist church during the 1960s, and became a Strict Baptist pastor in 1969. I was pastor of St John’s Wood Road Baptist Church, London, from 1989 to 2004. This is an old nineteenth-century Strict Baptist church – but in a fine 1989 building. It is a member of the South-East Association, though history records that when the Association was formed in the Nineteenth Century, the church refused to join, on the grounds that the doctrinal formulations were not tight enough. Since 2004 I have been in the north of England, at a church in Stockton-on-Tees that has recently withdrawn from the Baptist Union, so the history of the 1960s is being repeated.

This description of Grace Baptist Churches applies only to England. There are a few churches in other countries that choose to identify with us, and the churches belonging to the Fellowship of Reformed Baptist Churches in New Zealand are also listed in the Grace Directory. But even places as near to home as Scotland, Wales and Ireland have their own quite separate history and traditions.

In addition to pastoring Hardwick, Brother Tait teaches Biblical Theology at the Teesside School of Christian Studies. He also added a booklist, which will be helpful. Most of the books are published in the UK.

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