Last Sunday afternoon Hall Gate URC hosted a concert. The ground floor section of the sanctuary was packed out so I went up into the balcony, out of the way. (This also allowed me chance to put the finishing touches to the evening sermon.)
As I listened to the music and looked around the church I thought back to the days when people would have sat up there on Sunday morning listening to the preaching of the Reverend George R. Bettis at the turn of the last century. I then had one of those moments where you realise your insignificance and your significance at the same time.
I’m the 25th minister of Hall Gate since it was established in 1798. When I stand in the pulpit I’m standing where those 24 other men have preached the Word. I’m standing on their shoulders as I continue their work of leading God’s people. It’s really humbling.
It’s also quite scary. Will people be sat in the gallery in a hundred years time wondering what things were like in the time of Rev. Phil Baiden? I realised the responsibility placed on me to “shepherd the Church of God that he obtained with his own blood.” [Acts 20:28] It was really humbling.
One of the things I’ve struggled with in beginning my ministry is that transition from student to pastor. In a placement church you’re under the authority of the minister and the elders’ meeting of that church. They tolerate you for a year or two and you can be forgiven for being a naive young man full of zeal. On entering ministry I suddenly found people would be interested in what I said and took it with some authority. It’s been tricky at times.
That responsibility would have been felt by Rev. Bettis. He became the minister at Hall Gate in 1870. During his time the church increased in membership, made many improvements to the building and built a spacious hall and school rooms. Rev. Bettis was a man who loved the flock and worked tirelessly for his Lord. The only picture I’ve seen of him was of a kindly man with a white beard, posing with his bicycle by his house. After 37 years as minister he informed the deacons that he would be stepping down. This was rejected but the search was on for an assistant minister. As a result the Rev P.W. Jones was appointed.
Jones was a young, handsome man with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately his enthusiasm was for the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity and the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Bettis was true to the original Trust Deed of the church which insisted on the preaching of the Gospel, as understood by the whole church for millenia and precious to the Dissenters.
And so aging Rev Bettis, rather than retire, had to lead the battle against this “new” theology. It was messy and ugly at times. The church split down the middle. Bettis and those true to the gospel were forced to plant a new church – Trinity Congregational. After legal action the church building was locked and there was no worship for several months. However, the Trustees of the church agreed that Rev. Jones could no longer preach against the Trust Deed of 1802. He and his supporters moved down the road and joined with the Unitarians to create the “Free Christian Church”.
It’s a real privilege to follow Rev. Bettis into the pulpit at Hall Gate. I pray that I would have the same passion for the glories of the Gospel. In his final sermon at the church he said these words. I echo them wholeheartedly today:
This sanctuary is dearer to me and mine than I can express. I pray that God will yet build here a true, living church, and that it will become to many in the days to come, more, even, than in the past, their spiritual birthplace. I commend you to God and the word of His Grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Bettis knew that nothing could be done apart from the grace of God. I pray that I would always remember that as I follow him in the work of Christ in the world.