The Story of the Open Brethren in Britain and Ireland
Category: Church History
The story of the Open Brethren is one of the most fascinating stories of recent church history. Without any central organisational structure and riven with argument and disputes, they have exercised an enormous influence on British evangelicalism, while often keeping their distance from it. And they have had an impact on world mission that far outweighs their size. Refusing to recognise any paid ministry, at least until very recently, they have nurtured many a Bible teacher only for other denominations to benefit from their leadership. While most were distinctly sceptical about Bible Colleges, they played a crucial role, in the person of John Laing and Montague Goodman, in the formative years of London Bible College (LBC). And, of course, for almost forty years church history was taught at LBC by Harold Rowdon.
The standard histories of the movement — Harold Rowdon's and Roy Coad's — needed bringing up-to-date and Tim Grass (LBC, 1979-1981) is to be congratulated on a magnificent job in doing so. His volume is comprehensive, detailed, balanced, judicious and readable. Do not be put off by its length.
Never losing the central thread of the development, expansion and then retraction of the Open Brethren, he is able to set their story in a wider context, examine some of the tensions and splits, as well as grasp their global significance.
It is true that in recent years the Brethren have suffered from an identity crisis and are a shadow of their former selves, but Tim Grass offers tentative hope for their future, believing that reports of their imminent demise are exaggerated. In identifying what he believes to be their six distinctive hallmarks he rejects the idea that separatism is one of them or even has ever been universally acknowledged as a virtue among them. But the hallmarks, namely, the rejection of the clergy-lay divide, believers' baptism, the centrality of communion, the sole authority of Scripture, the independence of the local church and a commitment to mission, still have much to offer the wider church.
This work must surely be recognised as the authority in its field for many years to come. The criticisms are very trivial and easily correctable. The cover is awful. And, while plenty of photographs are included, it is odd that there are none of F F Bruce or Harold Rowdon who justifiably receive quite a bit of attention in the recent part of the story.
Maybe history will teach us that all our efforts to create a church which is truer to scripture than those that exist are bound to fail. Maybe it will teach us that all movements have their time. But neither lesson detracts from the astounding accomplishments of a group of 'assemblies' who, according to accepted churchly wisdom, have got it all wrong. Maybe bureaucratic organisations, bishops and clergy, HQs and centralised resources are not necessary to further the kingdom.
Derek Tidball, July 2007
Derek Tidball is Principal at London School of Theology and author of many books including The Message of Leviticus (Bible Speaks Today Series, IVP, 2005) and How Does God Guide? (Christian Focus, 2001).
Previously published by London School of Theology. Reused here by kind permission.Order from www.christianbookshops.org
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