Barrie White who died recently will be remembered for being an outstanding church historian of his generation. I remember him more as a prophet.
If the task of an historian is to provide commentary on past events; the same gift of insight can be applied to the present and that is what Barrie did; especially on one occasion which I attended.
He was the key-note speaker at the first Mainstream Conference in 1980. Mainstream, depending on your point of view was either a group of young Baptist (some not so young) agitators who were bent on re-shaping the Baptist Union to their Charismatic ideals or the pioneers of a renewal that would restore the fortunes of an ailing-church system.
That Barrie White, a significant academic and principal of Regents Park College, Oxford had accepted the invitation to speak was regarded by some as a gamekeeper running with the poachers and by others as a shrewd attempt to help shape a burgeoning response to a fresh out pouring of the Holy Spirit.
His address was based on Revelation 3:14-22 where the messenger to the church at Laodicea tells its members, using Barrie’s summary ‘that she had money, doctrinal orthodoxy, leadership and her situation was set fair for church growth and she had crowded congregations, what did lack? She lacked the One without who all else she possessed was doomed to die. She lacked the crucified and risen, and what was worse, she did not recognise her lack, and she did not hunger for her Lord.Jesus was on the outside knocking to be allowed in – hence Barrie’s title was OPENING OUR DOORS to GOD.
This was an uncomfortable beginning. He was targeting the very signs of blessing that many ministers and congregations rate as success and a sign of God’s favour.
Barrie then went on to outline what is required for healthy churches; observing as he went that: spiritual health for the believer, for the church, for the denomination, is dependent upon having more of Christ and not being satisfied with that which so far we have of him.
His recipe for such health was a continual hunger for God – explored in a disciplined life of private prayer, through shared worship which opened the doors to Christ with a balanced diet of worship, penitence, intercession and dwelling on the Word and finally by a re-acquaintance with the wider significance of the Lord’s Supper (he was adamant that too many Baptists thought it no more than a repeat of the Last Supper) and the Lord’s Prayer.
Reading this over 35 years later there is nothing remarkable in what he is saying but the timing of it is.
He had the prophetic insight to see where matters were moving; he was anticipating the ‘worship wars’ which dominated many a Baptist church’s life in the 80s and 90s and cost many a minister and church member dear.
He notes the absence of intercession in many Sunday services – I observe this is still too often the case. I believe that until a church bows its head in heartfelt lament and intercession for the world it will not leave its buildings with missionary zeal.
He is speaking about ‘healthy’ churches long before this would become the call-sign of our current generation of leaders.
He even advocates ‘covenant’ as the basis of relationship among Baptists. Of course he would, he was a historian of the early English Baptists. But four decades later Baptists talk much about covenant but still haven’t turned it into a reality.
He spoke of having a hunger for God; haven’t I heard that as a regular theme of Baptist Assembly speakers every few years or so since his address?
I heard him give this address and asked him afterwards why he had agreed to give it to an audience which were not his natural habitat. His answer was typical of the man: there are some who believe they are more concerned about the churches than others. I am here to show that the others are concerned too.
It was a reply typical of the man and reading the text of his address you might feel it to be hectoring and arrogant but that was not the tone in which he gave it.
It is a lament over the future of the Baptist movement which he loved and cherished both as a historian and a theologian. A movement which he feared would lose its identity and soul. He feared a Laodicean future for Baptists.
I read it now chastened and regretful that he was not heeded more but I am glad to have the text still and to have heard him deliver it.
Many of the leaders of Mainstream in its early days went on to have significant impact on the denomination. It would be interesting to know what they think of Barrie’s words from the early days.
A footnote: in 1964 Barrie was a tutor at Regents Park and preached at my home church. I was introduced to him as someone who was considering being a Baptist minister. In the afternoon he took me for a drive in his car and we parked overlooking Torbay.
I cannot recall much of the conversation. He told me that I should try very hard not to become a Baptist minister, at least not yet – I was only 15! He also recommended I read two books. One I cannot remember, the other was ‘Teach yourself to pray’ by Alexander White. He commented that a minister without prayer is not much use to God.
He recalled that book 16 years later in that Mainstream address at Swanwick; either he hadn’t kept up with his reading on prayer or he was reminding the Evangelicals of that time that they should keep in touch with the Evangelicals of the past for the sake of what would emerge in the future.
A historian would say that wouldn’t he and so too would a prophet