Saturday, October 29, 2022

God copiers 2)


As I was thinking of this challenge to be God copiers, something came to mind. Like a soundtrack. Actually, it kept playing right through this sermon. When I was in the Boys Brigade there were a couple of hymns we used to belt out.  Really make a noise.  I remember being told to sing quieter and slower.  Imagine that. 

Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the king?   

Who will leave the worlds side? Who will face the foe?

By thy call of mercy, by thy grace divine, We are on the Lord’s side – Saviour we are Thine.  

Some of you may know these and probably sang them in a more gentle way.  But none of this is gentle. It's fighting talk. Fierce may be the conflict, strong may be the foe, but the King’s own army none can overthrow.  

And this hymn gets major things right.  And one major thing wrong, What it get right is there are two sides.  Only two.  And they clash. They are in conflict. Who will face the foe.  Our church young people at the moment are studying the clash between God’s culture and the world’s culture.  And that’s a good way of describing the contrast.  Culture is a way of describing our habits, ideas, customs, social organization, values…  what we think, believe, do… the whole bundle of our thoughts and behaviours.  And the challenge is – which culture are we copying?  That's the challenge for God copiers.

 1.       Are we world culture copiers?  We live in western culture, in UK culture, and we cannot help share its habits, etc.  Histon Baptist Church began in 1858 and a short video made recently shows some of the saints. The first minister in black frockcoat, key personalities in black, wing collars and not a smile in sight.  And the story involving the Chivers family, big local employers, with their mighty influence. We see the formality and way of living   So much has changed as we see ourselves today, our dress, jeans were only invented in 1873, our informality, our smiles.   But these changes are obvious surface things.

Look deeper and the changes are profound.  One of my books is called The Death of Christian Britain. Sounds dramatic it’s a study of secularization in Britain 1800-2000.  We don’t need a book to tell us how things have changed.  In the 19th century, Britain was called a Christian county, People took God seriously, the Bible seriously, Christian code of behaviour seriously.  For the great majority of people the Christian story was known and taken seriously.


Friday, October 28, 2022

Back in the swing (sort of)

On Sunday I am preaching in a series designed by our minister.  We have reached Eph. 5:1-20. Thinking back to 21 years of ministry when I was often preparing two sermons every week I find it so much slower going. 'It's age', says Carol. That's true but it is also being out of the pastoral swing and weekly disciplines.  Anyway. I am thinking of a dialogue at the beginning.  Perhaps something like this.  

If you’ve got a thing against Christians (I’m hoping that’s not true), but if you’re a critic and you think they make claims for themselves that they are superior, holier than thou, and therefore hypocrites because they are just like us, if not worse.  If you’ve got a thing against Christians today’s reading is just a gift.  It justifies everything you think.  Just look at it. Eph. 5:1  Be imitators of God. It's a strong word - imitate, copy. I like JB Phillips translation; As children copy their fathers, you as God’s children are to copy him. Copiers of the Father,  

And the critic says: 'That’s exactly what I am talking about: You have this claim 'imitators of God' and all the stuff in this chapter about not even a hint of immorality, impurity, greed, falsehood, anger as God's holy people living in love and unity.  How can you seriously claim that?'

Defensively, we reply: 'Hold on, you haven’t been to our series on Ephesians where the first three chapters are all about how much difference Jesus makes in his love and power and by the Holy Spirit to our lives. And how much we need him to become imitators of God.  

And the critic says: So you are really calling yourselves imitators of God.  Come on, be serious.

And we say:  We are not saying we are good imitators, copiers.  In fact we know we are not very good, but that's what we long to be, better God copiers with God's help.  



Saturday, October 15, 2022

Memories stirred

I need to spare you any more oral history...a further 6 pages worth. But one of those formation places I mentioned came roaring back recently. Arbury Rd. Baptist Church, where my father went to be minister when I was sixteen, invited me to preach at its Harvest Festival Service two Sundays ago. 

Yesterday, I had lunch with some friends, all of whom grew up in churches. We commented how as young people we were expected to do stuff!  Practically and spiritually. That was true at Arbury. Back in 1961 the church buildings were set back behind a large lawn. I recalled that lawn....and the choir, children's work, manual work, organizing events, taking services. In the service I mentioned mowing that lawn with a manual mower!  Others did help on a rota - but phew! I also looked up at the choir loft where I was one of three basses with mandated (much needed)weekly choir practice.  And yes, Sunday School teaching, helping the summer children's holiday club. Strangely, one summer I was given main responsibility for organizing a church family afternoon on school fields nearby. I liaised with the school, planned games for all ages, with prizes, competitions, an ice cream vendor, and hand made publicity.  The leaders took a risk! Unsurprisingly, I remember great friends within the young group and the wider church. 

And, some of them are still there, 60 years on. Still working practically and spiritually.  I think that lunch conversation got it right.  We were really expected to do stuff.  And it did us a lot of good, laying foundations for lifetime. 


Saturday, October 8, 2022

Oral history 6) An Inescapable conclusion

Third, ecumenical relationships became vital.  Thrust into working with key people in the student world, such as Oliver Barclay (IVF), David Head (SCM), Martin Conway (Church House, Westminster), Douglas Brown (Methodist House) I discovered exceptional kindness and sharing.  Encounters like these deepened my appreciation of other denominations and laid a foundation for positive engagement in the future, attending national ecumenical conferences and seeking to represent a Baptist perspective.  

Four, a growing sense of call to ministry So many elements of my BUGB life contributed to a nagging conviction that I should test this call.  Obviously, being thrust into positions where I was expected to lead, preach, and encourage others helped to pressure me.  Paradoxically, a bitter experience played a part in my call too. Visiting a morning serv ice to enlighten a congregation about what a BSF mission might mean, the minister stood up just before I was due to speak.  With anger he turned on his people, berating them for their lack of care for him and his family on this their anniversary.  The shock, sadness and angst of this outburst headlined all that I feared about ministry.  Yet right within this sadness I sensed that God was saying to me: ‘Yes, ministry can be hard but it’s my calling for you.  And I will be with you.’

Carol’s church, Chatsworth West Norwood became my church. Traditional testing of the call began.  I undertook lay preaching with the LBA beginning with midweek services.  During an evening service in Chatsworth itself a decisive event occurred when, in the middle of my preaching, I heard (so it seemed) God’s voice calling me to be a preacher. I have chronicled this unique event in my book 360 degree preaching.  Many other reality checks occurred as well as interviews. In only our first year of marriage the whole process was hard on Carol for whom the implications were largely foreign to her experience.

All this searching crystallized with recognition by my sending church, London Baptist Association (which gave me a tough interview in the Shakespeare Room), and by Regent’s Park College, Oxford that I was indeed called to Baptist ministry.  This meant leaving BUGB after only two years.  Yet those two years had been pivotal and though other influences were strong, I cannot overstate how this immersion in the BUGB shaped me and prepared me for what was to come.  BUGB was a positive kaleidoscope of influencers.  Far too many to name. Years later, talking with Earnest Payne, I suggested that I write a book containing biographies of leading Baptists. By then I had met many of them and been impressed by their stories. He was enthusiastic, though the project (like others in my life) never took root.  But, it shows just how many people I had grown to respect.  And, as I look back, I see how this all led to an inescapable conclusion.  A Baptist shaped conclusion! 

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Oral history 5) A truly Baptist experience


Many descriptions survive of Baptist Church House in Holborn, London, but my experience of climbing the steps under John Bunyan’s stature, pushing open the large oak doors, passing Spurgeon’s statue in the black and white tiled entrance, opened a new world. I could hardly believe that I was working there! Ascending the stairs, past different departments, the Shakespeare Room (where we held worship) and the stunning Council Chamber, I reached my own office.  Room 32 which, though I shared it with the Stewardship Dept. overseen by Ungoed Davies and Jim Findlay, was rarely used by them.  A desk, old typewriter, paper, carbon paper was waiting for me. Fortunately, I had taught myself touch typing in my early teens, so I could cope with being my own secretary.  Instantly, I was catapulted into a crash induction course about what it meant to belong to the national Baptist family. Beginning the same day as the new General Secretary, David Russell I know he was definitely better prepared than me!  So much was to happen to change the direction of my life. In summary, I note four key aspects.

First, personal changes.  As a newcomer I was treated with extraordinary kindness by all the staff. My role with student work was placed within the Youth Department. Its head, Peter Tongeman, gave me immense freedom. However, in my first month, Peter suffered peritonitis and David Russell sent me in his place to chair an International Baptist Student Conference in the Baptist seminary, Ruschlikon, Switzerland.  Having only traveled abroad once before (briefly to Paris) I suddenly found myself leading a small group of chosen British students to join others for (what proved to be) an intensive conference.  Suddenly I was chairing sessions, discussions and even preaching.  What rash assumptions were made about my competences!  Most significantly, one of the British party was a recently orphaned student called Carol Bentall.  Utterly swept off my feet by her, we were married after 11 months.  Carol was to prove the single best thing that has happened to me and my ministry, next to my relationship with Jesus Christ.  Inevitably, this developing romantic relationship added yet more sheen to my happy BUGB memories.

It needs to be added that Carol’s teenage conversion under Frank Goodwin’s ministry at Chatsworth BC, West Norwood, led to her leadership in the large youth group. She describes how the church became her family when her mother died, giving Carol profound support in every way. Out of her experience, she was so positive about how a local Baptist church could express love in action. Actually, her presence in Switzerland owed everything to the church’s practical support.  Her positive experience of the local Baptist church was to prove vital for the future.

Second, organizational experience. Quickly, I learned the Union’s main accountability structures: specialist committees reporting to Main Committees onto General Purpose and Finance Committee and ultimately to the Council. My first Council Meeting in 1967 remains imprinted on my mind. The Chamber (where the British Council of Churches was formed) had a parliamentary feel, with circular seating around staff at a central table. I was to witness many key Baptist leaders in action.  With high quality debate, I grew to know names of individuals, their favoured seats, points of view, and likely interventions. Several memories still hold of key dramatic moments. I had no idea that British Baptists comprised such a range of gifted people. All the time I was imbibing Baptist life and making connections. Networking it would be termed today.