Monday 14 December 2015

Stanley Gower: A Westminster Divine's Approach to Christmas

"To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled", Titus 1:15.

It is interesting to me, how so many views are propounded as to how Christians should respond to Christmas. Sadly, in the West, this time of the year has descended to a secular feast of materialism, peppered with Santa Claus narratives and a good helping of Christmas specials on the TV. Turkey may abound, but do people understand the message of Christmas? "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" John 1:14.

While as Christians, we may well want to distance ourselves from the wordiness exhibited at this time of the year, we should consider how we can approach Christmas sensibly. Rev Stanley Gower was the founding minister of Hill Top Chapel, Sheffield and he became a Westminster divine. Following his time in Sheffield, he served as a minister in Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire and during this time he was accused by the liturgical and Arminian officials of the Church of England. Here are the a list of charges brought against him:

I. He reads the confession, but altogether neglects [to read] the absolution.
II.He seldom or never reads the Lord’s Prayer.
III. He never reads the Litany [these were liturgical petitions read by the leader with fixed responses
by the congregation].
IV. He seldom reads the [Ten] Commandments and neglects to read them at communion.
V. He does not permit people to stand at readings from the gospels or to bow at the name of Jesus.
VI. In his sermons he dissuades people from kneeling in prayer when they enter the church.
VII. He asserts that it is not the church building that is holy, but it is when the ordinance of God is
performed, that is of itself holy.
VIII. He seldom or never wears the surplice [a white linen cassock as worn by clergy or choristers]
nor baptises with the sign of the cross.
IX. The communion table has no rail and it is brought from the altar at the east end of the church
into the body of the church
X. He did not follow the liturgical calendar or read common prayers for set days, except Christmas
and New Years day.
XI. He does catechise the youth that are aged 14-15 upon previous sermons with questions and answers.

All of these charges reveal something of the theology of moderate Presbyterian and puritan convictions prior to the Westminster Assembly (1643-52). Did you notice charge X refers to the liturgical calendar and Christmas? Christmas and New Years Day were two times when Stanley Gower broke his normal pattern of expositional preaching on the Lord's Day to preach obviously topical sermons at Christmas.

Sometimes I have read articles which assert that all the puritans were against Christmas of any kind. This is not true though, it may be an emotive assertion to foster a kind of fear of so-called Paganism. Christmas has never been a pagan celebration by the church but it afforded the church the opportunity to place special emphasis upon the conception and birth of Jesus, as Easter affords the opportunity to place emphasis on the death and resurrection of God's Son.

I have to confess that though we will have a service on Christmas Day, I do not walk the room wishing people a happy Christmas, neither do I follow the Church of England liturgical or church calendar. Let us make use of the season for the glory of God and give room for conscience regarding the giving of presents, Christmas trees and other matters.

The Nicene Creed states:
I believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made: Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man;

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