“Reform That You May Preserve”

Isleworth Congregational Church Phil Andrews

by Phil Andrews

This well-known adage, often erroneously attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, was actually coined in an 1831 speech by Thomas Babington Macaulay, the famed British historian and Whig politician.

When the Whigs (the forerunners of the Liberal Party) took office under the leadership of the Earl Grey, Britain was a fractious and turbulent place. Rural riots, organised under the auspices of the mythical “Captain Swing”, had swept the countryside in the wake of increasing mechanisation of the farms which had brought about unemployment and poverty. Arrests were made, and rough justice administered. In all nineteen people were hanged, nearly 650 imprisoned and some 500 transported to Australia. Amid the unrest, demands were made for the enfranchisement of the people. Fearing revolution, the government introduced the 1832 Reform Act, granting the right of suffrage to some subject to a pecuniary qualification. At a stroke, the middle classes and the labouring classes were turned upon each other and the status quo had preserved its privilege precisely by making concessions.

The Disraeli confusion emerged with the coming of the Second Reform Act in 1867. This time a Tory government found itself looking over its shoulder at a trade union movement which was gaining pace, and a Liberal opposition which was vying with the union leadership for the affections of the working masses. Although traditionally his party was associated with the landed class, Disraeli believed that the working classes were socially conservative by nature, and that by enfranchising them he could keep them from the clutches of his opponents and actually strengthen the hand of his party by so doing.

Both Grey and Disraeli followed Macaulay’s advice, and thereby were able to “own” the change which both would likely have preferred not to have happened but which was probably inevitable.

Tradition over trend

We don’t do politics in Church, of course, and for very good reasons. Nevertheless, there is much we can learn from Thomas Babington Macaulay. We too, after all, see inevitable changes on the horizon – technological, sociological, demographic – which we face the choice either of trying to resist, like King Canute on the shore, or of finding the means to accommodate within our chosen “way” of doing worship.

It is probably fair to say that at our Church we opt for tradition over trend. It is because we like traditional hymns, within a service that follows a traditional format, that we come to Isleworth Congregational rather than seeking out a more “with it” venue at which to satisfy our spiritual needs. In this we are all as one. But that need not mean that we cannot embrace tools more recently available to us in order to assist us in our efforts.

Some changes are forced upon us. Rules and regulations regarding health and safety, equalities legislation and provision for disability all impact upon the way we do things. Sadly we don’t have a children’s group these days, but if we did my guess is that they would be demanding video games as opposed to crayons and scribbling pads.

We should look to the modern world and see what it has to offer a small, friendly, Christ-centred, Bible-based, independent Congregational Church such as ours. Or to put it another way, we should not be afraid to reform if it helps us to preserve.

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