A visit to George Whitefield’s Gloucester
During Easter Week Alec MacDougall of Trinity Baptist Church Gloucester took myself and my nephew David on a history tour of that city. We saw the memorial church, built on a site where George Whitefield preached in the open air. I would guess it was built as a Presbyterian chapel. It’s URC now–and devoid of evangelical life. Then the Raikes monument in the park. Then St Mary de Crypt: the church where Whitefield preached his first sermon and drove fifteen people mad. Very shabby now, used by a handful of worshippers. We were welcomed by a voluble black- gowned Reader with a bushy beard and an Irish accent, anxious to show us round. He dragged us round Raikes’ grave; the schoolroom where Whitefield may have studied as a child, the pulpit from which he preached that historic sermon. I was amused by the stream of unrequested information–there was something endearing about his enthusiasm.
Finally he relinquished his hold on us and began to turn away reluctantly, still talking over his shoulder. ‘But why’ we interjected ‘don’t you have a bookstall with a selection of Whitefield’s works? They’re all in print you know’. He spun round. ‘Oh we’re not commercial you know’. ‘No of course not–but wouldn’t it be wonderful to encourage people to read Whitefield’s sermons? Sermons that changed the lives of thousands–and they’re still changing lives today’. So for the next ten minutes we were talking about Whitefield’s gospel and its unchanging power. Our friend believes it’s important to listen to what others are saying–even (wait for it!) the Pentecostals! (‘Some people think that they’re a bit extreme but…’). He enjoys reading the works of the saints. But he had never read anything by George Whitefield. So Alec was swift to offer complimentary copies of Whitefield’s Select Sermons for the benefit of visitors to the church. That was good: an opportunity seized. They exchanged phone numbers and promised to be in touch. Cast your bread upon the waters. I picked up a leaflet before we moved on. ‘St Mary de Crypt’s small congregation is determined to forge a new future, bringing the word of Christ to visitors, shoppers and people who work in the city. The aim is to celebrate the God-given gift of speech in many different ways through a project to be known as the Centre for the Spoken Word. Through poetry, storytelling for children, words and music, and services timed to be accessible to workers and visitors, we intend to usher in the year 2000. We believe that George Whitefield and Robert Raikes would have approved.’ Really?
On to the Bell Inn. Or rather the spot where the Bell Inn once stood. A gaudy shop now. Across the road, a house where Robert Raikes once lived. And then to the spot where John Hooper was burned. I read Foxe’s account of Hooper’s martyrdom to our congregation a little while ago and folk wept. I felt the tears pricking in my eyes again as I read the inscription on the monument. And I asked myself ‘How long before we know persecution again in this land? And how ready will we be?’
Our time was gone. No more than a whistle-stop tour of the Cathedral. Whenever I visit one of these wonderful edifices I’m left profoundly confused. I’m awed by the scale, the grandeur, the majesty, the solidity of it all. And the realisation of antiquity sends a shiver down my back. To walk on stones worn smooth by centuries of worshippers makes me feel the transience of life and the rootedness of the Church. I want to believe that these places were built ad maiorem Dei gloriam; that the builders and craftsmen who gave themselves to a task that they knew would take half a dozen lifetimes to complete were impelled by the vision of an eternal city. But still my Protestant soul rebels against the ornateness, the vast expenditure, the identification of God’s temple with stone and wood. What has all this to do with the simplicity of the upper room? And I know enough history to dismiss the notion that all the men who built these gigantic structures were motivated by the love of God. William Golding in The Spire captures so exactly my own emotional confusion; the dizzying achievement of the mediaeval cathedral; the corruption of motive that so often lay at the heart of it all. Our temples are built of living stones.
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