Keswick: Its Impact on Clergy and Ministers
Clergy and Ministers at Keswick
by the Rev. Canon A. E. Barnes-Lawrence, M.A.
Let me come closer to Thee, Jesus;
Oh, closer day by day!
Let me lean harder on Thee, Jesus,
Yes, harder all the way.
Let me show forth Thy beauty, Jesus,
Like sunshine on the hills;
Oh, let my lips pour forth Thy sweetness
In joyous, sparkling rills!
Yes, like a fountain, precious Jesus,
Make me and let me be;
Keep me and use me daily, Jesus,
For Thee, for only Thee.
In all my heart and will, O Jesus,
Be altogether King!
Make me a loyal subject, Jesus,
To Thee in everything.
Thirsting and hungering for Thee, Jesus,
With blessed hunger here,
Longing for home on Zion’s mountain
No thirst, no hunger there.
From "LLANTHONY ABBEY HYMNS”.
Clergy and Ministers at Keswick
IT was inevitable from the outset that a sober and thoughtful movement for the promotion of practical holiness should attract the special attention of ministers generally. The Convention at Keswick was, to start with, a clerical foundation ; it was the direct outcome, as an earlier chapter has shown, of the deep spiritual impression made by the Oxford gathering of 1874 upon the Vicar of St. John’s, Keswick. The message from God that had illuminated his own soul and transformed his ministry was one that he naturally felt constrained to pass on. No one could have anticipated the result of the first little conference in 1875, but for 32 years there has been an ever-increasing number of ordained men coming to Keswick.
It is a matter for regret that the Keswick Convention has never succeeded in claiming from English Nonconformity quite the same regard that it has certainly won from Evangelical Churchmen. This has certainly not been due to any fault of the Management. Some of the most valued speakers year by year have been Free Churchmen. The motto, "All one in Christ Jesus," which faces all who enter the Tents has been joyously observed both in the spirit and the letter, and the brotherly intercourse both of the platform and of the visitors has been an invariable feature of each Convention. From Scotland, and particularly from the Scotch ministers, the response to the Trustees invitation has been increasingly cordial. Theology, a duty in England, has always been a passion in Scotland. It was well nigh incredible to a well-equipped Presbyterian divine that he could learn anything of the Sacred Science south of the Tweed. But the early adhesion and support of the Rev. Dr. Elder Cumming, of Glasgow, a man of recognised authority in the Councils of the Established Church, and later, that of two Free Churchmen, the Rev. Geo. H. C. Macgregor, the widely-known young minister of the East Church, Aberdeen, and the Rev. Dr. John Smith, of Broughton Place Church, Edinburgh, a scholar of established reputation, removed prejudice; and year by year the number of Scotch ministers crossing the Border has steadily increased. To these must be added representatives of the Reformed Churches on the Continent, of whom Pasteur Theodore Monod, of Paris, and Pasteur Stockmayer, of Switzerland, were probably the best known. From the United States came at different times Mr. Moody, whose evangelistic labours had stirred England and Scotland about the time of the foundation of the Keswick Convention, Dr. Torrey, Dr. Pierson, and others. Indeed, it is nothing more than truth to say that from every part of the world where there is a Protestant Church or missionary work, ordained men have travelled to our shores for the express purpose of attending a Convention.
What if curiosity has sometimes been the dominant motive? The ministerial mind is nothing if it is not critical; a quick scent for heresy is surely part of a complete clerical equipment, and to "spy out the land" a primary duty of orthodoxy? We are free to admit that from the Keswick platform have been heard at times statements not true to the sacred balance of Holy Scripture. The presentation of one glorious side of truth may easily lend itself to exaggeration, nay, to positive error. Principles must be judged by practice, and these have not always been counterparts. But this is true not only of Keswick. To condemn a great spiritual movement because of occasional lapses would be to condemn every Church and indeed every Christian.
Much more wonderful, we venture to think, than such errors, which after all are " accidental," not essential, to Keswick, is the way in which the Convention has been guarded and kept through a whole generation on lines that are at once sober and Scriptural. At no time have its leaders laid special claim to inerrancy, and, as men desirous above all things to be taught of God, they have ever welcomed candid brotherly criticism, basing itself upon any legitimate interpretation of Scripture.
But there is another class of visitor to Keswick; men who go there far removed from any disposition to criticise, but with a great thirst at their hearts and eager to learn. "I spent a long time," said one of these to the present writer, " in preaching the simple Gospel to a large artisan congregation ; God blessed the message to the conversion of many, but I then found myself without any further message; I had nothing to say to them, and I went to Keswick with honest heart that I might be taught what to say and how to say it."
We are free to confess to some degree of envy of the clerical brother who greets us at the familiar crowded station platform at Keswick with the information that it is his first visit to a Convention. The recollection of our own first visit has not faded with the course of years, and it is pleasant to think of that blessed experience as repeating itself again in the new-comer. He has come probably from some noisy crowded parish, where heart and brain have been overtaxed, into one of the fairest spots on earth, whose quietness and beauty steal into his being almost as a spiritual, rather than physical, refreshment.
It is a fact, pregnant with significance, that from the very dawn of history matter has ministered to the religious development of spirit. Long before the immanence of God in nature was discussed it was realised. That an occasional Lucretius is unconscious of such an influence merely conduces to prove the rule. Who can forget standing, it may be on the evening of arrival, near the resting-place of Canon and Mrs. Harford-Battersby in St. Johns Churchyard and gazing upon Derwentwater, its islands, its wooded borders climbing up into green hills, the whole fair scene bathed in the glory of the setting sun ? Or who, as the dew of the summer night fell and the stars began to move along the edges of the hills, has strolled forth into the silence alone but has heard the voice of the everlasting hills speaking peace to his soul? Amongst the ministries of matter, its service to religion is pre-eminently the chiefest, and it is part of our Heavenly Father’s goodness that the message of the Keswick platform is so supplemented and confirmed by the message of the place itself.
Let us follow then in thought a cleric of devout mind who for the first time has come to Keswick, prepared to find fault, but for the moment is withholding his judgment. It is 7 a.m., and he finds himself within one of the great Tents at the first of the early Prayer-meetings. He will probably confess that the experience is totally new to him. At that early hour, and on perhaps a wet morning, he was not prepared to find at least two thousand worshippers gathered to seek God’s blessing on the day. He cannot fail to be struck by the quiet tone, the subdued fervency, the heartfelt Amen that marks the close of the prayers, praise and thanksgivings that are led from the platform. Our friend is "convinced of all, he is judged of all, and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest, and so he will worship God and report that God is in you of a truth." On leaving he will notice streams of people coming from the other Tent, and he will learn with surprise that another Prayer-meeting as largely attended as his own has been held with special reference to the Mission field. If we are not greatly mistaken, it is these early Prayer-meetings through the week that break down prejudice and prepare the way for days of blessing.
We cannot attempt to follow in detail the rest of an average Keswick day. The Bible Readings will probably strike our visitor most; the flood of melody as the hymn is taken up by the great assembly is impressive enough, but more so the sudden hush and expectant quietness that falls upon the Tent as the speaker rises to expound some familiar Scripture. It is a new experience to our cleric to notice thousands of intelligent listeners, many of them skilled teachers, following with open Bibles and notebooks a simple exposition enforced by homely pointed illustration. He will notice that there is nothing of "platform eloquence," it would be out of place; nothing of laboured argument, it would be destructive. The truth is that the speaker facing this vast expectant throng is chiefly conscious of his impotence; the careful preparation, the previous prayer, and even previous usefulness in the same place do not suffice the need. It is not the messenger who counts here, but the message; the speaker knows it, and for that message he is simply cast back upon God. Now the visitor, if a cleric such as we have in view, soon gets in touch with the speaker, he enters as no ordinary layman can into the secrets of his soul ; he is en rapport, he is sympathetic. And that is a great gain, for sympathy sometimes passes into introspection: "Why cannot I preach like that at home ? Why do my best sermons awake so languid an interest? Why are my people not keen like these?" He entered the tent prepared to criticize the speaker, he leaves it criticizing himself.
It is in some such way as this that many a minister of Christ at Keswick has become conscious of his own lack: " It was not the address, certainly not ; there was really nothing new in it, and I should have treated that last point quite differently myself; but there was something, an undefinable power, that seemed to probe the verv heart of us, and leave us naked under the eyes of God." Such a testimony is not unfrequent, and it carries its own imprimatur.
One of the special features of the Conventions for years past have been the Ministers Meetings. These are informal gatherings in a small Hall; a hymn is followed by prayer, and then the speaker rises at once. The address is simple, pointed, homely ; it presses home the fact that to yield to any evil tendency of our nature, however deep-rooted, is sin, that sin means separation from God, that separation from God means ministerial failure. A minister speaking to his brethren gathered for the purpose is wont to lay bare his own soul, to tell his own spiritual experience. Perhaps on no occasion is the presence of the Spirit of God more manifest than in these unpretentious gatherings. The secrets of hearts are disclosed ; sins of temper, of ministerial unfaithfulness, of pulpit pride, of worldly ambition cloaked by the garb of devotion, are seen in the light of God’s countenance. Men are broken down under the sense of personal sin and of ministerial failure. One wrote: "I have been searched through and through, and bared and exposed and scorched by God’s searching Spirit.* Such a process is of course preliminary only. Keswick stands for a positive message, and that message is the reality of the mystical union between Christ and the believing soul, and the cleansing, keeping, enabling power of the Spirit of God. With that we need not deal here ; we will merely record the simple fact that hundreds of ministerial lives have been transformed in influence and power through the reception of that message.
The Ministers Communion Service, which is held in St. John s Church on the Thursday morning of the Convention at 7 a.m., was initiated by the late Rev. J. N. Hoare, when Vicar of St. John s, and has been continued by the kind invitation of his successors; ministers of all denominations are invited, and thus the true unity of believers is demonstrated in a special manner, and much blessing has resulted from this solemn service.
We cannot close this chapter without some reference to the brotherliness that characterises the too brief intercourse of clergy and ministers during the Keswick week. High Churchmen and Low Churchmen, Churchmen and Nonconformists, find, if spiritual men, that the things on which they honestly differ are as nothing compared to that living Unity in Christ which there asserts its pre-eminence. Spiritual affinities are felt to be stronger than denominational divergencies. The chief reason why we find it so difficult to define the Church is because we are all politicians; in Keswick we have no difficulty about it because we are all Christians. If the day comes when Home Reunion is an established fact and Church and Dissent join hands in the work of the Gospel, we are convinced that it will be on no lower platform than that which, in the goodness of God, has been laid down at Keswick. May it please the Holy Spirit to hasten that day.
A. E. BARNES-LAWRENCE.