Does history repeat itself?
Updated: May 28
A review of Transformed Heart, Transforming Church. The Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion by Revd Dr Richard Turnbull
One gospel, one woman and a compelling vision form the heart of this small volume based on the 2015 lecture.
The place of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon is placed clearly in the context of the Evangelical Revival of the middle of the eighteenth century, with its associated devotional practices and return to the central doctrines of the reformation. A new intensity of devotion and the necessity of conversion are seen as foundational. Turnbull explores the roles of the famous preachers of the time, including Wesley and Whitfield amongst others.
Turnbull describes how the Countess built on her contacts with these men, but also the way she brought the gospel into the homes of the aristocracy, albeit with a mixed response, perhaps predictably given the times. Equally considered are the issues of church polity in terms of respect for parish boundaries and the use of private chapels in private homes. Difficulties arose over the role of itinerant Anglican ministers, who in theory were not allowed to preach in another’s parish without that incumbent’s permission. In the second matter, Selina was ambitious establishing private chapels with her own chaplains officiating in a number of towns, in doing so employing a practice common amongst the aristocracy. She was creative, modifying one building to provide accommodation for herself, with seating for thousands in the ‘private’ chapel. This raised the ire of the church authorities and the consistory court found against the Countess, forcing her to register her chapels as dissenting meeting houses and into secession.
Turnbull tells the story with a clear intention of informing the present. He records that we are not the first to face ‘the dilemmas over doctrine, order and practice’ in the Church of England. The doctrinal differences over Calvinism are highlighted, whilst noting that Selina tried to work across them. He analyses the issues of organisation, funding, and succession planning questioning whether Whitfield spent too much time overseas to leave a lasting legacy. Then there is the role of the laity to consider. Selina was a lay leader and very influential: is our evangelicalism today too dominated by clergy? When the time came to secede, some of her chaplains went with her; others remained within the established church.
Turnbull concludes by referencing the current state of the Church of England. The primary issue, he suggests, is regarding the authority of scripture and what that means: it is not the debates over sexuality or women bishops. People, even within evangelicalism, will make different decisions on whether to stay or leave over particular issues depending on their biblical understanding.
His discussion will lead the reader to reflect on the nature and appropriateness of ministry targeted at specific groups within society; on the nature and role of church planting within or outside the current parochial system; and on the role of preaching. Finally, he reminds us that just as in Selina’s time, God is sovereign, the preaching of the gospel is the priority, and that transformed hearts and minds are critical for a renewed church.