Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A tale of two tabernacles


Recently during our brief break in London, we faced the usual question of where to worship.  We settled on East London Tabernacle in the morning, and the MetropolitanTabernacle in the evening. 

East London Tabernacle

Where have all the preachers gone? Gone to America, every one… But here’s one who came the other way.  Ken Brownell is American, an able preacher, and the Pastor of ELT.  I was at LTS with him 30+ years ago, and he’s been at ELT almost ever since. 

Founded by Archibald Brown – one of Spurgeon’s friends – this church is close to Mile End tube station, and close to another church advertising ‘miracle service here every alternate Sunday…’, which struck me as singularly unambitious! 

The philosophy of the church is very much that of MBC I imagine: sound and reformed teaching, a mixture of old songs and new songs led by a good band and pianist.  The preaching – on Jeremiah 13:1-15 (the linen belt) – was certainly good – good clear headings that got to the point of the passage well and applied the passage to the church at ELT.  It did, I felt, lack that indefinable ‘punch’ though – perhaps because it is a difficult passage.  The church was very friendly and welcoming and we had several invitations to stay to lunch.

Metropolitan Tabernacle

The big decision for me was to attend the Met Tab in the evening – my regular reader will know that I have blogged about it, and its pastor, from time to time.  Dr Peter Masters has been pastor here for around 40 years – yes, honestly!  It’s about 36 years since I last visited on a Sunday and was keen to do so this time because – well, he can’t go on forever.

From my point of view the Met Tab does most of the unimportant things wrong, and does so by conviction.  They are VERY separated: the FIEC and even the Grace Baptists seem to be too compromised for PM.  He believes (edited: see comments) that only the AV should be used in public worship, only the organ should accompany the singing, no songs at all from a charismatic stable should ever be sung (the Tab have produced their own large but narrow hymn-book), people should dress in ‘Sunday best’ to come to church, God must be addressed as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, never ‘you’ (PM calls it ‘the reverent tense’ which really bugs me: it’s not reverent and it’s certainly not a tense!) and so on.

It would be wrong though to say that ‘there are no concessions to anything modern’ – the building is large, light and airy for example – nothing gloomy about it.  All their literature is brilliantly produced, crisp and modern-looking and in full colour; a screen at the front carries a simultaneous transcript of the sermon (!) for a number of deaf folk who sit there, and there is also ‘signing’ for them, and simultaneous translation via headphones into Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and French - now that's impressive.  While in many respects it is old-fashioned (and I believe wrongly so), it is not ‘for the sake of it’ – where it is old-fashioned it is as a matter of principle.  Three out of the four songs sung that evening were Psalms, or psalm-settings.

There were around 400+ people there; the surprising thing to me was that between one-quarter and one-third (a guess, obviously) were young people – twenties or younger.  (Attendance in the mornings is, I was told, upwards of 700.)  Everything was very formal: all the sidesmen were in grey suits, as was the secretary who read the notices, (edited: see the comments) the men who took up the offering, the church leaders who accompanied Dr Masters from the vestry.  PM began the service with a solemn ‘Let us pray’ – on the stroke of 6.30.  Everything, from there, ran like a well-oiled machine. 

The preaching was very good indeed: PM always preaches evangelistically in the evening (Hooray!  Somebody ought to!), and on Sunday he was on the centurion (Luke 7:1-10) whose servant was healed.  PM’s points were breathtakingly simple – even obvious: 1. The centurion was awakened to his need.  2. He recognised his unworthiness.  3.  He realised the uniqueness of the Lord Jesus.  (If you’re interested, you can hear it or watch it by following the link here (http://www.metropolitantabernacle.org/) to ‘When spiritual need dawns’.)  Though PM began the service hoarse and looking rather pale and frail (he is well into his seventies) there was little sign of it when he preached.

This too was a friendly church; on my way to the door I was stopped twice (by men in grey suits!) who introduced themselves, chatted for a while, and were very welcoming.  Exactly the same, I remember, happened the last time I was there – they’re (rightly) determined not to let anyone out without someone speaking to them.

First-thought lessons:

  1. Strong convictions build a church (under the Holy Spirit – need I add that?)  PM is different from most, but he knows what he wants and why, his leaders seem to be united around that and the church has grown a multi-cultural and multi-age congregation.  It may be that (humanly speaking, this time) it is their very distinctiveness that has served to attract people.  Which brings me to…

  1. A church where everyone knows why they do what they do is likely to be a strong church; hence there’s a need not just for convictions but for communication. 

  1. Big men have big faults – I do think PM’s separatism has crossed the line (but see Romans 14.4).  Our faults, however, do not prevent God from working mightily.  (The Met Tab was more-or-less a dying church when PM went there.)

  1. It is possible, and important, to do things well.  The Holy Spirit does not require sloppiness and has not promised to bless it.  Everything that is done in church therefore, being done ‘as to the Lord’, can and should be done as well as possible – whether it’s music, stewarding, preaching/leading, upkeep of the buildings, Sunday School and so on.  The impression of competence is important, not least because it reinforces the belief that the service of God is important. 

  1. There are benefits to a long ministry – what one preacher called ‘a long obedience in the same direction’.  Of course there may be dangers, too – and perhaps PM’s failure, in his seventies, to have someone ‘in situ’ ready to take over will have disastrous consequences, as it did at Westminster Chapel.  But the benefits (provided it is a good, visionary ministry) surely outweigh the risk.


Jonathan Hunt said...

Gary, you're wrong that PM believes that only the AV should be used in public worship, unless you know something I don't.

Jonathan Hunt said...

Oh, and the church doesn't have a secretary. That was my Dad ;-)

Anonymous said...

The NKJV is sold in the bookshop. I distinctly remember PM saying that he felt the KJV could, indeed, be improved upon although I don't recall the details.

At one LRBS he said "I don't recommend having a church secretary!"

Gary Benfold said...

I gladly accept the above corrections, and am grateful for them. And the bit about 'grey suits' was, of course, hyperbole: not all the men were in suits, but very many were; not all the suits were grey, either. The point was and is just: people at the Met Tab tend to dress formally for church; it's not a cricitism, just an observation.
I hope, in fact, that it's clear that I was being positive about both 'Tabs'? And that the Met Tab got most attention because it is so different from my own church.
I fear sometimes that when we say 'I admire this man, and agree with him on all kinds of massive issues. But I do disagree with him on some lesser issues...' all some people can see is a negative review. Wouldn't it be nice if we had the maturity to see past that? If we could just be nicer to one another?

Ben said...

I fully agree with you that the 'reverent tense' is neither reverent nor a tense. It's interesting that in the seventeenth century when the second person singular pronoun was in regular use in English between intimates, some Quakers (who enjoyed upsetting people) liked to address their social superiors as 'thee' in order to make the point that they themselves were no respecter of persons. But language is constantly in flux and the pronouns have very different connotations for English speakers now.

I not sure though why you have such a problem with men in church wearing suits. This is perfectly normal wear for men for many different occasions, including Sunday worship. It’s also perfectly normal in most cultures for people representing their employer or organisation to be expected to follow a dress code of some kind. I know that dress-down Sunday has crept into some churches recently but I don’t think it reflects any credit on anybody. It says to more conservative worshippers “We don’t care how you feel about it: this is our time to relax and be more casual”. As for visitors, it looks a bit weird and lacking in real seriousness and commitment. I don’t see the fashion lasting, not least because of the high risk of being confused with the Exclusive Brethren, who for some time have forbidden their men to wear ties.

Organ accompaniment to sung praise is also perfectly normal in church services. As I remember them the Met Tab rules specify that hymn accompaniment be on either a piano or organ, but not both simultaneously. Why should the detailed policy of an independent church on such matters be the concern of others?

As for separation, I do applaud the Tabernacle’s firmly Biblical stance; I don’t think you should confuse details of their policies on whom they choose to allow to use their premises for public meetings, for example, with issues of principle on separation from false teaching and false worship, which are commanded by God.

But taking up an offering during an evangelistic service? Horrors … .

Gary Benfold said...


Thanks for your comments; allow me to respond.

First, I don’t have a problem with men in church wearing suits; indeed, though I wasn’t preaching this past Sunday, I wore one myself and usually do, preaching or not. I don’t have a problem – but such a preponderance of suits in church is rare these days; I was observing, far more than commenting. As for the fashion of casual wear not lasting – who knows? Things change. But there’s almost-zero risk of being confused with the Exclusive Brethren, because a) very, very few people have ever heard of them, b) even fewer know that they don’t wear ties, and c) they wear suits even when they don’t wear ties. If I do have a concern with men wearing suits in church it would be well illustrated by this, for those who defend it (as a principle) often do so with arguments like this, that simply don’t hold water.

Of course, organ accompaniment is fairly normal in church services; less so now, but still normal. (Are you aware how abnormal it once was? And that Spurgeon himself hated it and spoke against it? Things change.) It isn’t a ‘matter of concern’ for me; I was observing, that’s all. I believe in the independence of the local church, and each church should have its own policy.

And I didn’t comment, did I, on the taking up of an offering, except to say that the men concerned were also suited. But perhaps you’re telling me that you don’t approve – in which case, I don’t see why the detailed policy of an independent church on such matters should be your concern! ;)

Every blessing – to you, and the excellent Two Tabs

Ben said...

"Are you aware how abnormal it once was? And that Spurgeon himself hated it and spoke against it?"

Fairly well aware. I believe Spurgeon's comment was "It praises its maker well" but I can't supply a source for that.

Tim Gamston said...

Hi Gary, how interesting that all the comments relate to PM, the Met Tab and secondary issues! I just want to say how encouraged I am that American pastors are willing to come to the UK and stay and serve us and that PM has such a conviction to preach the gospel every Sunday. Praise God for the way HE works through men of clay to build HIS kingdom on earth. It's a testimony to his grace.

Ashley said...

I don't think that separation and the aversion to Charismatic choruses could be classed as 'unimportant things'. Surely the worship of God and separation from error are VERY important things.

Gary Benfold said...


Thanks for your contribution. Of course, the worship of God and separation from error are very important things. But – that’s not to say that a difference of opinion about worship ‘styles’ is one of the things of first importance, or that there is no room for difference of opinion on just what errors we should separate from, and how thoroughly.

Don’t be put off by the idea of ‘styles’ – there is not only one style. You would not (unless you are very unusual) be happy with the ‘style’ of worship in Calvin’s Geneva, nor (for that matter) in Keach’s chapel. And on the other hand, Spurgeon seems to have been (relatively) happy with Moody-and-Sankey-ism, and I’m (most definitely) not.

Your use of the phrase ‘Charismatic choruses’ suggests, I think, that you are out of touch with contemporary song-writing AND with the stance of the Met Tab. It would be impossible to describe ‘In Christ alone’ as a chorus; in fact it is a fairly standard (in form, while outstanding in content) hymn, but its author is from a charismatic stable. On that ground alone, I understand, our friends at the Met Tab wouldn’t sing it. That’s fine; but their stance is not (as has been shown several times) that of CHS, who was concerned only about the words of a hymn, not its ancestry. Nor is it that of Gadsby, who justifies in one of his prefaces the inclusion of hymns from the Arminian Charles Wesley. Plainly, he had had (or expected) some complaints; but regarded Wesley as plainly converted and some of his hymns as well worth singing.

Which brings me to separation from error. Yes – that’s a Biblical teaching. And so is maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. The difficulty is, how to do both when we have grounds for believing that someone who is in error is, nonetheless, a believer.

For example, the Met Tab does not separate from Presbyterians; Joel Beeke is a regular speaker at their conferences. And rightly so; but paedo-baptism is a serious error (in my opinion) and has already done far more damage to Christianity than the charismatic movement. Or, to put the shoe on the other foot, Beeke believes that credo-baptism is a serious error; yet he freely associates with Baptists at the Tab. ‘Ah,’ you might say, ‘but this is not a fundamental error, it is not a gospel issue’ – and perhaps you’re right. Experience shows that men may be wrong on baptism (and therefore, I would argue, wrong on the source of authority) and yet remain faithful to the gospel. But what if someone else thinks it is a gospel issue? Who is to decide? On the other hand, you can find websites that denounce Beeke as a heretic for daring to believe that Charles Wesley was saved! Enough for now – we can debate it if you like!

Julian Smithe said...

I have attended the Met Tab for many years. He is an incredibly gifted gospel preacher, one of the best in London. The hymns are also wonderful God honouring hymns. However it is known that he has shifted away from the doctrines of grace (the 5 points of calvinism) that he was much stronger on when he first arrived.

Jonathan Hunt said...

Julian Smithe: What a bizarre comment. If you had a scintilla of evidence to advance rather than vague sweeping statements, we might listen to you rather than laughing out loud. If you really had 'attended the Met Tab for many years' you simply would not say what you do. Put up, or shut up. Don't wander the internet spreading gossipy nonsense.