The focus of this year’s ReformationUK Conference was the Holy Trinity. It was organised by Gateshead Presbyterian Church but took place in All Saints Church in Newcastle during October.
The venue has had quite a history. It has been a site of Christian worship since the 12th century. The current edifice was built between 1786 and 1796 by architect David Stephenson during the period of the French Revolution. The late John Betjeman, former poet laureate, loved the place, describing it as ‘One of the finest Georgian churches in the country’.
In appearance, the church is akin to a much smaller version of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Its slender spire can be spotted from all over the city. It is less than 20 minutes’ walk from university halls of residence where some of Newcastle’s 40,000 students live.
Gateshead Presbyterian Church purchased the current building and it remains one of the most magnificent churches in Newcastle. It has an imposing elliptical auditorium with a huge dome and a semi-circular gallery. The capacity stretches to over one thousand people.
In the 1950s, the Anglican congregation which used the building went elsewhere and All Saints Church closed. For a time, a Roman Catholic service was held there. Later, the local authority tried to utilise the site as a concert hall, but in time that too fizzled out.
It stood empty for years – neglected and a source of embarrassment to the city authorities. What could be done with it? There were many ideas, but all came to nothing.
Meanwhile, the congregation of Gateshead Presbyterian Church was in need of its own building as it had been convening in a school. Making inquiries concerning All Saints, they were invited to begin negotiations which led to a purchase.
Over the last year, the church has transformed the building. Its visual magnificence is undeniable, although – when I last saw it – it was still in the process of refurbishment: scaffolding was everywhere, while hard-hatted workmen ascend and descend ladders. We caught glimpses of them during the conference and they were a motley crew, hailing from the UK, Holland, Switzerland, America, Pakistan and further afield.
How hard the congregation have worked to prepare the venue for the October conference. The task involved decorating the entire building, rewiring it with a huge wheel of lights over the auditorium, installing an excellent acoustics system, tiling the floor, fitting underfloor heating, a kitchen, toilets, etc.
The new pulpit is splendid, perfectly proportioned (ten feet long) and designed in keeping with the rest of the building. 200 new chairs are comfy and match the wall pillars and the pulpit.
The windows need to be reframed and this was not yet completed by the time of the conference. There were windows without glass during the talks, but the weather was fair and the absence of glass was unnoticed and unfelt. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been invested in refurbishment, but All Saints is still a work in progress.
The refurbishment work has caught the attention of the media. A crew from ITV came to the first Sunday service on October 13 to report on the story of the ‘resurrection of All Saints’.
Last year, the International Presbyterians opened a new building in Ealing, London. Now the Evangelical Presbyterians have a new site in the north. It was a good year for Presbyterians, for which we praise and thank the Lord.
What of the conference itself? With sixteen sessions, it was a packed programme with splendidly competent, learned and godly speakers. These included Kevin Bidwell, Peter Naylor, Guy Waters, Derek Thomas, Ryan McGraw and David Strain, among others.
As well as evidence of the Trinity from John’s gospel and Paul’s epistles, the development of the doctrine was surveyed in early ecumenical councils and the writings of Augustine.
I preached on Zechariah 13, expounding how God smote the man who is God’s fellow. Peter Naylor also explored the Servant’s songs found in Isaiah.
As well as preaching on the transfiguration, Derek Thomas lectured on John Calvin and autotheos – the doctrine that Christ himself is the self-existent God.
Bill Schweitzer spoke on divine taxis (‘orders’ within the Trinity) and the Filioque (the controversial addition to the Nicene Creed stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds not just from the Father but also from the Son).
Other subjects addressed included the social doctrine of the Trinity, eternal subordinationism, Trinitarian worship, and communion with the Triune God.
I preached the closing message from Philippians 2, showing why Christians need the doctrine of the Trinity.
There were 16 messages in total, all at the highest level of experiential Calvinism, historical accuracy and truthfulness. In addition to the messages, there was much fellowship to enjoy over the three days. On the Saturday afternoon we also witnessed Rev. Benjamin Wontrop be formally set aside to assist the ministry at All Saints.
Overall, it was an excellent weekend and an encouraging reminder that although we live in days of small things, we are not in days of nothing at all.
Geoff Thomas is author, conference speaker and was pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth for over 50 years.