out of action

Just to let you know things may well be quite quiet here for a few more days yet. Some of you will already know the sad events that took place at the weekend, when our congregation suddenly lost a very special person, a kind and caring friend. I’m not naming names out of respect for the privacy for the people most directly affected (and just in case there are any comments I’d ask you to do the same), but this is a very great loss for a lot of people, both in the congregation and further afield.

‘Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pities them that fear him. For he knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children, to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.’


in season and out

A recent (2006) booklet by John Cheeseman on the (very possibly under-discussed) topic of preaching and the work of the preacher includes the following excerpt from Edmund Clowney:

“The work of the apostolic preacher is described in contrast to jovial flippancy, high-flown speculation, sentimental gush, moralistic nagging, and a dozen other abuses of the pulpit. Nor can it be applied readily to such sermon substitutes as book reviews, interpretative dancing, feature movies or baptised vaudeville.”

(Without access to Clowney’s book I can’t be sure, but I expect that ‘apostolic preachers’ are not so much actual apostles but preachers whose message is the same as what the apostles taught.)

Not only the reading of the scriptures but the preaching of them is said to be one way for people to be converted and built up in the faith – which means, I suppose, not only that (i) the preaching of the Word is not something that churches should shy away from or feel the need to apologise for, but also that (ii) the messages which come from teachers and leaders in churches should be material which consciously and deliberately aims at the conversion and building up of the hearers.

These two points are things which seem to have been taken for granted by Thomas Watson, the 17th century pastor of St Stephen’s church in Walbrook, London. The following piece of advice, for example, in a small volume written for a very general audience, simply assumes that people will be regular attenders at a place of worship, that a significant portion of their time of worship will be taken up with listening to the preaching of the Word, and that the preaching will deal primarily with matters relating to their souls, their need of reconciliation with God, and their everyday lives here and now seen from the perspective of eternity ahead.

“Let us consider the weightiness of the matters delivered to us, as Moses said to Israel, ‘I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death,’ Deut 30:19.We preach to men of Christ and of eternal recompences; here are the magnalia legis, the weighty matters of the law; and does not all this call for serious attention? There is a great deal of difference between a letter of news read to us, and a letter of special business wherein our whole land and estate are concerned. In the Word preached, our salvation is concerned; here we are instructed towards the kingdom of God; and if ever we will be serious, it should be now. ‘It is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life,’ Deut 32:47.”

As he explained earlier, “When we come to the Word preached, we come to a matter of the highest importance; therefore we should stir up ourselves and hear with the greatest devotion.” Although churches which neglect to treat the preaching of the Word as a matter of the highest importance are doing their members and attendees a great disservice, it is no less of a problem that people who do have access to the frank and serious preaching of the weighty matters of the Word let it wash over them as if they weren’t much concerned in it. The call that goes out in the gospel is a universal call that excludes nobody, whether people hear or whether they forbear, but nobody should be under any illusions that its contents can be lightly dismissed.


John Cheeseman (2006), The Priority of Preaching. Banner of Truth
Thomas Watson (1992 [1669]), Heaven Taken by Storm. Soli Deo Gloria

role sharing

Who writes these things? Here’s the Code of Practice for research students and their supervisors:

“The principal supervisor … is the person primarily responsible for giving the research student help and advice to obtain good training in research, choosing a topic of appropriate scope and significance, organising the research, composing a thesis that meets the University’s specifications, and submitting it in due time.”

So according to the Code of Practice, it’s not me but my my supervisor who is technically responsible for everything from choosing my topic to composing my thesis to submitting it.

Obviously what they meant to say was something like,

“the supervisor is responsible for giving the student advice on how to: obtain good training, choose a topic, organise the research, compose a thesis …”

but that’s not what it says.

There is a big box on the first page which states that “this Code of Practice sets down guidelines on good practice … It does not in itself constitute or in anyway supersede the University’s rules and regulations …”

Hopefully whoever draws up the actual rules and regulations has a slightly better eye for the implications of their syntax than this.

on the Treaty

When Ming Campbell called for a referendum, he was talking about a referendum on the question of being “in or out” of Europe – not one on the more specific question of the Reform Treaty (aka Constitution), even though the Lib Dems are-or-were seemingly in favour of a referendum on the treaty itself.

The I Want a Referendum people were quoted in the Independent the other day as saying,

“The Liberal Democrats want an honest debate so they must not try to force people into a false choice between giving even more powers to the EU and leaving altogether. The overwhelming majority of people in Britain want to co-operate in Europe but not give more powers away.”

On Radio 4’s Any Questions a couple of weeks ago, both these questions were put to the audience – admittedly not a rigorously random sample by any means, but from what I remember, a clear majority were in favour of being in Europe, but separately, a clear majority were against the treaty. If we held a referendum only on being in-or-out, and if the majority voted for “in,” it would be easy enough to claim that that would give a mandate for signing the treaty – easy, but wholly inappropriate. We need a referendum on the treaty itself, whether or not we’re also polled on ‘in-or-out’.

the universal warrant

I borrowed an old book from my dad when I was home last – the inside front cover reveals it was sold for “£2.50 NOT COMPLETE,” and neither it is; the last page stops half way through a sentence. Maybe some day I’ll get hold of a complete copy, but in the meantime there was enough to be going on with on the extant 488 pages, in spite of the lack of details about when it was published, who edited it, and why they misspelled the title in gold letters on the Ralph Erskine spine. So all I know is that its contents were written (or sometimes spoken?) by Ralph Erskine, whose portrait at the front looks a bit like this (with apologies for the exceptionally poor quality photo taken on my phone).

As it happens I did also know that he was a minister in Dunfermline in the eighteenth century and had a brother called Ebenezer who was also a minister. They were both highly regarded as preachers, and I have to say this book, The Beauties of Ralph Erskine, vindicates both that reputation and indeed its title, which he presumably didn’t bestow on it himself.

One very prominent theme which I was struck with several times is the clear and consistent teaching that, when the gospel calls people to repent and believe, it’s a call which goes out to everyone, everywhere, and demands to be taken personally and seriously by every individual who encounters it – it’s a universal call which everyone can take as addressed personally to themselves.

I think it’s in the universal call that Erskine locates the universal warrant to believe. What the warrant means is that, quite apart from the obligation which everyone is under to respond to the Saviour with faith and repentance, there is this aspect too – that nobody has a right to exclude themselves from the gospel call, and rather, that everyone has the right, in the warrant, both to listen to what the gospel message says about how perfectly suited the Saviour is to meet all their needs as sinners, and how infinitely capable he is of saving them completely and utterly from their sin and its consequences, and to take this Saviour to be a Saviour personally to themselves.

“There is a giving of Christ in point of exhibition and gospel offer; … and this giving is a foundation of our title to receive Christ, and our claim of right to take this gift out of the hand of the Giver. A right of possession none have, till they believe, and take the gift that is offered, but a right of access and warrant to believe, all have, whether they believe or not, or whether they take this gift out of God’s hands or not.

That Christ is God’s gift to a whole visible church in this sense is a great privilege, whatever the world may think or say about it, and it is a part of my errand this day, to tell you of it: if it be disgusting doctrine to any, and will not go down, we cannot help it; it is Bible doctrine, and gospel doctrine, and therefore we must preach it …

But, I think, it should be welcome doctrine to all that hear me, that Christ is given to all the people in this house, in the same manner that the manna was given to all the people of old, John 6:32 … It is such a gift and warrant, as warrants a man to believe, and receive the gift; for this end HE is given to a perishing world; ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him might not perish, but have everlasting life.’ …”

Nobody can exclude themselves – not with the excuse that they don’t know if God wants to save them, because whoever they are, ‘to you is the word of this salvation sent;’ ‘whosoever believes in him will not perish’ – and not with the excuse that it would be too bold and over-confident to take the Saviour to be their Saviour, because the very offering and announcing of the existence of a Saviour for sinners to believe on, is our warrant to do just that. Simply on the basis of hearing that God has provided this Saviour we are both obliged and warranted to believe in him for salvation – as Erskine points out, the Son of God was sent to the world for the precise end and purpose that whosoever believes on him would not perish, but have everlasting life.

I want to post some more excerpts from the book, hoping that the syntax etc isn’t too antiquated – his big-hearted, all-encompassing approach that excludes nobody and encourages everybody to come and share in this ‘so great salvation’ is spoken both authoritatively and kindly – I think it did me good to read it, and its a message that bears repeating.

the voice of experience from 1878

Noticed this pithy remark by RL Stevenson quoted in Saturday’s paper, still sitting on the table when I had my breakfast this morning.

“The most patient people grow weary at last with being continually wetted with rain; except, of course, in the Scottish Highlands, where there are not enough fine intervals to point the difference.”

take that as a no then

A while back there was a petition on the government’s petition website, which called on the government to defend the right of university Christian Unions to decide who can be leaders in the CU. As the creators of the petition pointed out, “a Christian Union should be able to expect leaders to share the declared beliefs of that CU,” and importantly, “this right should not exclude [the] CU’s access to premises” and other facilities “on a par with other societies.”

I can’t remember what exactly the background to this particular petition was, but if it wasn’t directly related to the case of Hull University CU, it was probably something similar. (The Hull Student Union was threatening to revoke the CU’s status as a university society because the CU maintained that the members of its executive committee were required to sign up to the CU’s statement of belief. (A few more details here, eg.))

Anyway, 15,000 people signed the petition and the government has now made its response. It’s hardly a resounding affirmation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, however; nor does it even go so far as the Guidance from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, which states that, “unions must exhibit conspicuous fairness and tolerance in relation to the societies that may be established, however offensive may be the particular aims or polices of that group. Provided that they act within the law and do not encroach upon the rights of others or seek to silence others, they have every right to exist and function.” (See this pdf for full reference.)

Instead, the Prime Minister’s response to the petition was exactly this, no more and no less:

“Legitimate faith groups on university campuses should be affiliated with the relevant students’ union provided they are operating within the law and the students’ union framework. Students’ unions should be inclusive and generally require all affiliated bodies to be open to any student.
The Education Act 1994 requires university governing bodies to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure the student union operates in a fair and democratic manner – and they are expected to do so in cases involving faith groups or any others.”

The bit about “generally” requiring societies to be open to any student, incidentally, should presumably be taken in the context of the Vice-Chancellors’ Guidance, which does state that, “We think it may be reasonable for some clubs or societies to have restricted eligibility, say on religious or nationality grounds. Otherwise, it would be open to a group hostile to the club or society to join and take it over in a way that would be quite wrong.” (Cited here (pdf).) But the response prefers to be neither so realistic nor so even handed in this case.

And although it’s not quite the same issue, it’s as well to pick up on what the Laodiceans are saying about the situation at St Andrews University, where a pro-life society has been prevented from holding a stall at the freshers’ fair, somehow on the grounds that “students should have the right to make an informed decision,” although how they propose to ensure that students have “the freedom to make the right decisions for themselves” while preventing the same students from being exposed to all the options is something that apparently isn’t made so clear.

well, it would be nice

In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a new cross-party campaign started up, called I Want a Referendum.

Whether or not you’re in favour of closer European integration, there can’t be any harm in seeing whether the population at large is actually in favour of the constitution that the government is proposing to sign us up for.

If it is indeed their suspicion that people don’t want the treaty to be signed which is preventing the government from holding a referendum, that somehow does not so much invalidate the reasons for demanding one as reinforce them (as I have noted before, here, here, and in the second half of here).

Open Europe’s series of short briefings (eg ‘Who’s afraid of a referendum?’ and ‘The new treaty: what does it mean and do we need a referendum?’) makes for valuable further reading, if you’re interested.

dna database inequality

In the process of admitting that the current system of keeping innocent people’s DNA permanently on record in police databases is unfair, Lord Justice Sedley has made the astonishing suggestion that, to remedy the inequality, everyone should give a DNA sample to be kept on record. (Hilariously, that even includes visitors to the UK, never mind the existing entire population, but that’s just by the by.)

As Laura Smith points out, “innocent members of ethnic minority communities are almost three times more likely than innocent white people to have details of their DNA on the database.”

And you can read this article by James Randerson only for the purposes of observing all its flaws. The comments are better than the article itself, and it’s not often that I say that about online discussions.

Even if you genuinely did have nothing to hide, there’s more than enough to fear from the alarmingly large number of ways that databases like this can go wrong. You’ll have no doubt read the reports of the 72 year old man who was arrested on suspicion of a crime he didn’t commit, but whose details are being retained by the police even though he is known to be innocent. That could happen to anyone (although obviously it’s more likely to happen to people from ethnic minorities; read more here); it could also happen that someone could give your name instead of their own when the data is collected; and of course there’s the persistent problem that we simply have no guarantee that the government or the police can be trusted with our personal data. As Home Office minister Tony McNulty has conveniently pointed out for us (I’ve no idea why he thought this was a reassuring thing to say), we really have no reason now to trust the agencies which are responsible for law and order, never mind once we’ve given them the information and tools which only need to be wielded by the wrong people to become means of real oppression: the BBC reports that “he said any imbalance in the number of black and white youths whose DNA was stored reflected disproportionality in the Criminal Justice System rather than an inherent problem with the database.” Precisely.

And all of that, without even mentioning the fact that even if you do have the DNA of real criminals, that’s no guarantee that they’ll be convicted or prevented from committing the same crime again, as the following comment on Randerson’s article pointedly explains.

Riiiight. A DNA database would solve rape cases, would it? And how’s that going to work? I go to the police and tell them I’ve been raped; they take swabs and find semen; they run DNA tests and find a match in the database to some respectable fellow who’s never been in trouble with the law, and then… what? They pick him up and interview him; he freely admits that we had sex but says I consented. Where does that leave us?
It would still have to go to trial, the defence team would still drag me over the coals, call me a slut, make me describe all my previous sexual encounters etc, emphasise the defendant’s impeccable character, and ultimately insist that it was mutually consensual sex. Then the jury would have to decide which one of us was lying. So, er, the outcome would be exactly the same as it is in almost all other rape cases. [SOURCE]

flan, anyone?

The pink dot in the chart shows F1 and F2 values for the vowel in flan as spoken by an American (in pink); the blue dots show a variety of vowels spoken by a Scot. US flan is closer to Scottish /ɔ/ and /o/ than /a/, when the values for these vowels are measured from the following handful of words which happened to be in my files:

  • /o/ from coat, rope, story, roadblock, gold-digger
  • /ɔ/ from fawn, lorry, chops, quantity, conscience
  • /a/ from lamb, grandmother, blackbird, glass, magpie, magic


The other vowels are just added in for comparison – I started off with /i/ (as in deed, bean, leaf, bean, beam) and /u/ (as in queue, toothpaste, cartoon, saloon, movement, tuna) to complete the triangle with /a/ (except that it didn’t make a triangle, somewhat predictably, hence the inclusion of /o/). You can fill in /e/ and /ɛ/ for yourself (that’s as in bait, gate, etc for /e/ and bet, deck, etc for /ɛ/) – they’d go down the right hand side somewhere (see here for a rough idea – and even more vowels!).