Category Archives: Organisations


A Methodist minister is ordained at the Church’s Annual Conference in June. It is a big day, a long day, a memorable day – although not quite as lengthy as in my day. First there is a lunch where the ordinands and their guests meet with the President of the Conference who talks to them informally and briefly, congratulating them on reaching Ordination and perhaps offering some practical advice gleaned from his/her experience in ministry. After lunch in a crowded conference auditorium they are received into what is known as ‘Full Connexion’, in my judgement of greater significance even than ordination. The President addresses them more formally about ministry. Come evening, at different venues, is the ordination by laying on of hands, the service itself always a wonderfully inspiring and humbling occasion. A Charge is given to those about to begin the work to which God has called them by an appropriate person on behalf of the whole church, a pertinent word of wise counsel and encouragement.

Three times that day an ordinand is challenged, as indeed is the entire gathering. But two things stick in my mind, neither of mind-boggling significance. At the informal session the President said, “Keep your desk tidy. It turns my stomach to see the mess in some ministers studies.” Good advice but not tremendously exciting or inspiring! At the ordination service all I remember is an extract from someone’s homily, a tit-bit of practical advice it being said, “In your ministry Saturday is the day you prepare yourself for Sunday. So, do not anything on Saturday that you ought not to be doing on Sunday.” I saw myself denied the pleasure of shouting encouragement and, now and then, (polite!) abuse at my favourite football team on a Saturday afternoon. I thought of some of the activities in which we participated at the youth club on a Saturday evening. I thought to myself – is this the code of practice to encourage and sustain in the years ahead? Am I doing the right thing? Subject to those restrictions I would certainly not be ‘a happy bunny.’

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Turn to Matthew chapter five or Luke chapter six to what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, and which may be like an ordination charge, in this instance addressed to the twelve disciples. As I was given my charge on ordination day, likewise Jesus spoke to the disciples in similar vein, as they prepared to undertake their life’s work. My charge came in three sessions and it is virtually certain the Sermon on the Mount as it is presented in the gospel is not a single actual sermon but a summary of a number of talks given by Jesus on different occasions. The Sermon on the Mount begins with The Beatitudes – eight of them; each one begins with the words Blessed or in modern translations,’You are blessed or Happy are those’ (who) . . . .

When I first appeared in my royal blue cassock, gifted to me by family at a special time in my career, a lady in the congregation enquired if it was a new uniform for ministers! I was later to learn that a group of my colleagues actually participated in a discussion as to my motive in becoming so clad for worship. Was I trying to be different, a lookalike bishop? A sensitive subject for us! The Methodist church still refuses to countenance the appointment of some form of episcopacy into our system. Well, what was I getting up to? My friends need not have feared, I had no thoughts of grandeur, I was acting on the understanding that the Sermon on the Mount/Beatitudes consist of a promise of happiness, a call to happiness, an invitation to the happy life. Why did I choose to go blue? Ministers in the Church of Scotland dressed in the royal blue and I thought it looked well and bright – colourful. I wore it as a form of protest, an attempt to get away from the more familiar funereal black; a modest attempt to change the image of the church – to demonstrate that the party we attend on a Sunday is not a wake but a ball. So, be happy and be glad, is our Lord’s invitation and call.

To be continued . . . . . .

Role models

When I was about to leave home for college I received a letter from a former minister of my home church in Greenock wishing me well, and offering a little helpful advice which I was to put to the test more than once over the years. There was no one quite like Rev Ivor P. Sealey so far as the lively members of the youth fellowship were concerned. I was one of them. He was equally popular with the older folk, although not all. There was the criticism that he spent too much of his time with the young people to the neglect of the older generation in the church. Well, as the saying goes, that one has hairs on it! It was not quite true, but I suspect many ministers of my generation have had to contend with this accusation. I had no thought of ministry when Mr Sealey was my pastor. Anyhow, I was too young – but what about Samuel the lad in the Temple (I hear you calling in the night). Nor had I any idea that I might be being groomed, quietly and carefully, to contemplate the irresistible challenge of becoming one of Mr Wesley’s preachers. Ivor did spend a considerable time with us ‘youngsters’. He took us on walks and outings in the summer and in the winter/spring a group of the lads gathered around him as we cheered and offered terrace advice to our favourite team. The referee also benefitted from our football wisdom. In time, I realised Mr Sealey had become a role model to me in the development and maintenance of my ministry.

Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland. By Sandra [CC-BY-2.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

Sunderland.By Sandra [CC-BY-2.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons]

Allan Roberts was very different and, in my book, equally a role model. When I moved to Sunderland, three members of staff – I was one of them – resided on the same road and we saw a lot of each other. Allan, a senior minister about to retire, was more than a colleague of vast experience from which we benefitted. It was a privilege to have him as a friend. Allan would never have claimed to be more than a moderate performer in the pulpit, and he was probably right. That is not a criticism of the content of his sermons or his prayers. He followed faithfully the principles and practise of homiletics. In short, I think it can be said he would recognise his preaching as lacking in flair. In the time of our colleagueship, the fact is that Allan was able to hold together a fairly large and faithful congregation. No pretending it was his preaching that gathered them in. No – their minister simply radiated sincerity and humility, and how they loved him – as he loved them. And most importantly, he knew them and cared for them through thick and thin – a pastor with a big heart.

Lewis Allison and Wilf Simpson were as different as chalk from cheese. They exercised their ministry to many of the same people in the same churches. They were both to be my Superintendent in Sunderland. When Mr Allison moved Wilf Simpson succeeded him. What is more, we lived next door to them. I am now about to change my treatment of their stories. Different it may be, but it will tell us (I hope) something about them as ministers and colleagues, just a hint at what I may have learned from them. I certainly admired them and respected them and thank God for the privilege of working and sharing with them. Wilf Simpson was the man who said his prayers on his knees – not a position of devotion; he said prayers on his knees cleaning out and setting the fire in the grate before he served his wife with her ‘cuppa’. Lewis Allison was involved in a healing and counselling ministry. I think the work of Dr Wetherhead had an impact on what Lewis did, whereas Wilf’s service in China and internment by the Japanese contributed to the shape of his response to his calling. Different men; different styles – both with a lesson for me. On arrival in his new circuit, Wilf decided the manse needed rewiring and he was the one to do it. We had an arrangement! If he required assistance he would bang on the wall and I would dance attendance. ‘Knock, knock’, I was on my way to be met by my super appearing from under the floor-boards, cap askew, face needing a bath, etc., Wilf saying ‘guide the cable along when I shout from underneath!’

First lesson? Both our properties had awkward chimneys, two right-angled bends and a flat flue ledge. No sweep would tackle it. I was informed by my esteemed neighbour that we did the job ourselves. He had the appropriate brushes. I needed some old clothes and a pair of sandshoes. All one needed to do was to get on to the tiled roof of the rear premises, use the brushes and collect and dispose of the soot from the chimney’s three apertures. Good job Lewis taught me all about it. I must have fallen asleep when we were given this lecture in College. Second lesson? I have concluded that those two worthies were thereby quietly preparing me to be a good and useful superintendent minister.

Kenneth Waights and Mark Wesley Earl mean more to me as role models than they could ever imagine. When we became colleagues, and eventually friends, both were in their second appointments as Chairman of District. Each in turn was to be my Chairman, but two very different personalities. Of the ministerial encouragers and inspirers featured on this blog, those two may have made the greatest impact. I did not know it, they probably didn’t either, but their influence prepared me for a job that occupied the last fourteen years of my ministry. I needed all the help and encouragement there was to succeed Ken and Mark when they retired in a job I never expected to come my way. Kenneth Waights had flair, he was the loud and jolly one. This may be explained to some extent: he wanted to go on the stage before his call to become a minister like his father before him. Mark was quieter; contemplative; unassuming – a good sound preacher. For much of his ministry Ken was one of a group of ministers appointed to serve in Methodism’s great Central Halls with a reputation for popular preaching. On the other hand Mark, at great personal cost, saw his ministry in China and was interned for the duration by the Japanese. I was Assistant Secretary of the Synod in Ken’s time and Secretary in Mark’s day. So I was close to both and I watched, absorbed and learned.

One thing I learned as I reflected on the encouragement and inspiration of so many of the saints was that they were concerned and active not only with things spiritual but – a word to clergy and other clerical gentlefolk – were also ready and willing to roll up their sleeves and physically graft side by side with the saints who do not wear the clerical collar.

Words of encouragement that became a personal mantra for me from a senior minister who reminded me, “John, you are not Ken Waights, you are not Mark Earl – be yourself.”


In my recent posting (For All) I paid my personal tribute to the countless men and women to whom I shall be eternally grateful. By their encouragement, support and love, aware of it or not, they contributed in no small measure to the development and maturing of my 41 years of active ministry. As I concluded the piece, nostalgia refused to take a rest and pointed me in the direction of another group within the church of inspirers and encouragers – ministers appointed to an area of work with and alongside colleagues. My young daughter came home from school one day somewhat perturbed. She had been quizzed by the girls, “what does your Dad work at Monday to Saturday?” Or something similar! I can assure anyone who thinks of a minster of religion to be on to a good thing, as I was greeted once – “the one day in the week man”, it is not so. Believe me if that is the regard in which the ministry is held, God, forgive us! And In our situation active and honest colleagueship is absolutely vital.

Anne Burgess [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Findochty. Anne Burgess [CC-BY-SA-2.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

Again I must confess my heart-felt gratitude for the encouragement and support of our brothers and sisters in ministry. Within the bounds of confidentiality I am about to share with you snippets of my story in this regard. These will be in the main senior ministers in positions of responsibility, such as superintendent ministers (supers) and chairs of district. They are appointed and given a pastoral role, not least for those in the early stages of ministry. It is with some reluctance that this little story is told because it is partially one of minor criticism but criticism nonetheless. Given my situation in 1953 at the end of college days I was sent, a single man, to serve my three years’ probation prior to ordination, at Findochty and Cullen. A tough assignment for a student probationer – the kind of appointment where you may understandably expect the superintendent to feature in his role as mentor and pastor. Not so within the Methodist set-up on the Moray Firth. I scarcely saw my super save on his four or five annual visits to comply with ‘Standing Orders.’ Here I come to my criticism – it was a bad system despite it being the practise for around 25 years before I arrived on the scene. My landlady ‘collected’ probationer ministerial lodgers! I might criticise the system, but not the supers who preside over it. I served with two of them as one moved on another took his place. There was no suggestion of negligence on their part but they resided 63 miles from my patch and not many ministers had a car. What could you expect? I was not alone on the coast. I had two colleagues, one in Buckie, the other, the more senior at Portessie. There was little opportunity to establish a close relationship with the latter, a nice man but his wife was an invalid, he was in his final years of active ministry and was not a strong man himself. So it was to Buckie and George Howarth I turned for counsel and support. His faith was robust as was his ministry. He loved people, he challenged them, got on well with them, church members and non-members alike. He got a great response from within the community to his appeal to the able-bodied to join him late in an evening to build a schoolroom/hall at the back of the church. Not everyone in church shared his vision. Some folk did not believe in halls and schoolrooms – the devil got into the Kirk through those so-called amenities! George came to my rescue within days of my arrival – my first funeral and a tragic one. A young skipper of a fishing vessel, a husband and father, drowned in the harbour as he was going aboard. George was quickly at my side and saw me through those early, sad days and I remain grateful. He was a real character, much more could be told. George was the minister who called you ‘Pal.’

Stephen McKay [CC-BY-SA-2.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

Haltwhistle Market Square. Stephen McKay [CC-BY-SA-2.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

I went south for my first post-ordination appointment, from one beautiful part of the country to another – from the invigorating Moray Firth to historic Northumberland. (Got past Hadrian’s wall without passport!) This was a rural appointment and the super, Walter Thyne, and I cared for 14 chapels between us. I was indeed fortunate to be a colleague under the supervision of Mr Thyne (one did not address supers by first name in those days). Alas the partnership was only to last for 12 months, brief but beneficial. Walter was the kind of minister who was the salt of the Methodist’s ground! From the first day, Walter, a father figure, cared about me and quietly and humbly set an example to me to last a lifetime. In my first week two bicycles were produced and Walter conducted for me an interesting and informative tour of the terrain I was to travel many times over the six years. We saw a lot of each other, colleagueship made easier by the fact that we lived round the corner from one another, separated by the Newcastle-Carlisle railway line. Walter was a somewhat shy man, a gentleman, an excellent minister and personally a kind and generous mentor and friend. His daughter, Irene, known on occasion to read my blog, may be surprised to find her Dad featuring here, but he is remembered with affection and respect.

To be continued . . . . . .


Methodist! A nickname? A reputation? A methodical people? There are two volumes of Standing Orders and Agendas to prove it – The Constitution and Discipline of the Methodist Church. (All good Methodists know all about it!) I can write about it but, happily, I have no longer to contend with it professionally. In fact I have forgotten most of it. To tell the truth, I never was an avid reader! (How did I survive?) Some people live happily with chaos. I have visited more than one minister’s study with the floor, desk and window ledge littered with books – all sorts of books, manifold sorts of papers, magazines – and they knew, amid the apparent disorder, where to find what they wanted. Somewhere there must be a Bible! It worked for them – genius?? Most of us like some order: we prefer the predictable, especially in church affairs. The cynics among us may be of the opinion that the purpose of our fixed agendas is to ensure that we do things in the way we have always done them. They may succeed in that but, you know, I think their true purpose is to ensure the items essential to our missionary task are there to guide us and keep us on the straight and narrow.

George Whitefield preach

George Whitefield. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We call ourselves Methodist because John Wesley, George Whitefield, and other friends in their time at Oxford University were known to be most methodical in life and practice and, most of all, in their prescribed religious exercises. It WAS a nickname. That is it in a nutshell – a big subject well and truly documented, so that one wonders how many more books and PhD theses can be written about it. A fascinating study. The danger of being methodical and orderly is that we can stifle the Spirit of God at work among us. A great pity, because the story of the Book of Faith is about the unpredictable. The most surprising – that God should come to share our life in a child born to a lowly, embarrassed ordinary couple; not to a palace but to a dirty, unhygienic stable. Come to us in the form of a servant – Son of the God of surprises. In all our endeavours to be neat and tidy we have to remember that we are not an institution, we are the children of the Living God.

Where is the space in the agenda of our life, the agenda of the church, the agendas of the dull routine business meetings, to give God the chance to surprise us?

The fatted calf

Boys' Brigade marching in Edinburgh

Boys’ Brigade, Edinburgh. Image:

The church down the road, during August and September, has a fair-sized and colourful banner strategically hung across the front of the building announcing that its Boys’ Brigade Company is recruiting new members for the coming session. Boys of an appropriate age are invited to enrol. I do not know whether the response to this novel method of recruitment will be large or small. In my time with the BB we did not have to go public to extend the ranks of the company: boys joined and remained loyal right through the ranks – in spite of the small pillbox hats that were part of the uniform, in which we looked like page-boys at The Astoria. Passing the BB banner the other week, I was reminded of a significant event in my journey of faith.

When I left school to work on the farm, I left church as well. At the time I was a Lance Corporal in my BB Company. Two and a half years later, farming days over, I was persuaded to go back to church. I went somewhat reluctantly and with not a little apprehension. I did not expect to take up exactly where I left off and worried lest I should not find a welcome or feel too big a stranger. (Loyal and long-serving church people don’t always appreciate how hard it can be for a stranger or newcomer to cross the threshold of a church.)

What possessed me, I do not know, but one Friday evening, at the invitation of friends, I made my way to the Boys’ Brigade drill night. I thought I would show good manners and not ignore the kindness of friends and pop in for an hour, strictly as a visitor – no more. The Captain greeted me warmly, made me feel at ease and invited me to watch from the side-lines – where I wanted to be: to move any closer would have been daft. Going on seventeen and a private in the ranks! It wasn’t on!

Before the evening was out, I was thinking very much of the story Jesus told about the prodigal son – actually a story about three persons: a father and two brothers, toiling together on the farm. The younger brother got fed-up and decided to get away from it; he wanted to flap his wings, live it up, and asked his father to advance him his share of the family inheritance. He got his way, turned his back on home, squandered his inheritance, discovered what a fool he had been, picked up courage and went home prepared to be a servant. Instead, his father – ignoring all the rules of correct behaviour for a man his age – sighting his son in the distance, ran to meet him. Much to the displeasure of the elder son, father welcomed his errant boy with open arms, killed the fatted calf and threw a party.

The BB Captain said to me, “Welcome back; you are promoted to Sergeant!”

BB EmblemThe Boys’ Brigade is currently celebrating its 130th Anniversary.
BB Motto – Sure and steadfast.
BB Object – The advancement of Christ’s Kingdom among boys and the promotion of habits of obedience, reverence, discipline, self-respect and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness.

A near miss

Salvation Army

Salvation Army

It was young people’s day during my brief time in the Salvation Army when members of the young people’s section were invited to give their heart and dedicate their life to Jesus. Toward the end of the meeting the Young People’s Sergeant Major – the Leader in charge – made her appeal presenting us with the opportunity to start out on the road of discipleship. The journey would begin, she explained, by our being saved or, if we were already committed, to rededicate ourselves to the service of Jesus. She wanted us all to be saved by accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

Salvationists were well accustomed to this kind of appeal. The worshipper who was challenged by the message and felt compelled to respond to this altar call would make their way to the front and as invited, kneel at the penitent form. They would arise, counselled, prayed over, their request confirmed – the process of salvation begun.

Back to young people’s day – the process a wee bit different. There was no altar or penitent form in the smaller hall in which we met. So, she was going to ask us to come to the front and kneel before the big drum, to declare publicly our intent. “Hands up those who haven’t been to the penitent form,” she asked. Slowly I raised my hand. “Put your hand down, John” I was instructed, “You have been saved!” That was it – am I saved or am I not? That is the question. What do I say to the enthusiast who might want to know, who asks, “Are you born again?”

That was it until . . . . . . . . .

Stripped image of John Wesley

John Wesley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One Sunday evening some years later, the minister was trying to educate the inattentive members of the youth fellowship in the traditions of Methodism. He was telling the story of the Kingswood colliers coming up from a shift underground hewing coal, to be confronted by the Reverend John Wesley preaching the good news – the gospel of grace. The picture is still vivid in my memory of those men, white channels marking their coal-dust faces where the tears flowed as they listened and opened their hearts to the Spirit of Jesus. How their lives were transformed, some of them converted into preachers, others to positions of influence at work and in the community at large, partners in the religious revival led by the Wesleys, a revival that helped give birth to Methodism. This late 18th Century revival helped to turn the minds of the English people from thoughts of revolution, although not all historians agree.

The story told that Sunday evening of those responsive Kingswood colliers has had a lasting impact on one youth. From that moment, my conscience ceased to trouble me about missing out on that young people’s day when I was told . . .” put your hand down.”

Prayer: Lord, we thank you for our spiritual awakening, for those who pointed us to Christ, those in whose lives we caught a glimpse of Jesus. Thank you for Jesus, all he means to us; our hope for days to come. Amen.

What matters most

 The birthplace at 71 Chesterton Road TL4459 : Aaron House of Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury. LinkExternal link  © Copyright James Yardley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The birthplace of Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury at 71 Chesterton Road, Cambridge
© Copyright James Yardley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Michael Ramsay was greatly loved within and beyond the boundaries of the Church of England. He was a gifted scholar. He would require special skills of leadership to become an Archbishop. The high office to which he was appointed gave him a privileged position in the pecking order of high society in Britain. In the eyes of many there was an element of eccentricity about him. Cartoonists certainly appreciated the large eyebrows over which he never seemed to be in control. In retirement he was to be seen on the streets of Durham with a perpetual smile on his face. You thought he was about to speak to you. One young couple met him and returned the smile. They weren’t disappointed. Isn’t it nice to be in Durham” he said as he continued on his way.

Robert Runcie in a Foreword to a book about prayer written by Archbishop Ramsay says, ‘ It is a consolation and encouragement to a present Archbishop that one of his predecessors, after decades spent at the heart of ecclesiastical administration, is able to produce a work like Be Still and Know. The style is as serene as the title. It has an authentic, apostolic simplicity.’ A tremendous compliment, but to those who heard Bishop Ramsay speak about prayer, particularly during his freelance days of retirement, Dr Runcie’s tribute is to the man Michael Ramsay was in himself. He was not the exposition of a theory. He spoke a personal testimony. His life radiated a humility and a serenity ranking him with the saints of whom he delighted to speak. No doubt above all else he recognised that the Christian prayer and the Christian life are properly inseparable.

“‘To intercede is to bear others on the heart of God’s presence…..There are times when prayer vibrates with joy and eagerness, there are times when the brain seems stupider than ever, the imagination wanders far away and the feelings are cold and the will very weak.”

Michael Ramsay Be still and Know. (A Fount Original, 1981)

Cheers from the grandstand

Wembley Park Grandstand

Wembley Park Grandstand
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For one reason or other, I am not sure which, I do not find myself dashing to the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews for inspiration or guidance. I’ve heard numerous co-travellers on our Faith Journey declare Hebrews to be a favourite, cherished biblical reading, especially for the space the writer gives to faith in his teaching. Records reveal that in 65 years as a preacher, few sermons have emerged from the Epistle to the Hebrews. I suspect I am in a minority, but do not despair of me, all is not lost. There are two passages in the Letter to the Hebrews that I have turned to from time to time, the inspiration of a number of sermons delivered mainly at a Church Anniversary or All Saints. more often than not concentrated on Hebrews chapter 11.32 to 12.2 or 13.8. In spite of my stance on this Epistle, paradoxically the first is actually one of my favourite passages of Scripture; a beautiful piece and one I need to read or hear again and again: Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us (RSV) or the alternative Since we have such a huge crowd of men and women of faith watching us from the grandstands, let us run…… (Living Bible)

The Letter to the Hebrews – like many others – was written at a time when it was dangerous to be a Christian. Some of these early disciples must have been suffering terribly from the ill-consequences of making public their faith in Jesus in a hostile environment. The unknown author of this Letter writes to put heart into those Christians who, threatened with persecution, might easily give up. How did he do it? He reminds them of their heritage. Relates to them the testimony of the great pioneers and stalwarts of faith who, down the centuries, held to their belief in God through thick and thin. So many of them, he has neither time nor space to do more than mention some by name. It is an impressive Roll of Honour. Hopefully, it was what was needed to inspire those to whom the Letter is addressed to run with perseverance the race that was given to them. A Charge with our name on it. We do not need to be reminded that the Church in our country today appears to be losing the argument and there are those in our secular society who seem determined to engineer her demise. But that is nothing: there is a much more severe persecution of Christians in other countries – North Korea, iran and Central Nigeria to name three. But cheer up, press on, the writer to the Hebrews urges, there are all those pioneers who blazed the Way; all those veterans cheering us on (The Message.) Not an idle promise.Message

Looking back at the end of a long preaching ministry, I am reminded of countless times when I was keenly aware of a presence in the grandstand urging me to keep going with determination the race I was given to run – one of “Mr Wesley’s Preachers.” A couple of examples from early days. Dr Norman Snaith taught me Old Testament in College. Speaking to him at the Methodist Conference in Newcastle on the day he became President of the Conference, he asked where I was currently stationed. When I told him I was a minister in Haltwhistle he said “That’s interesting, my old dad was minister there once.” On my way home, I thought of the stories Dr Snaith told us about his dear old dad. I went back to Haltwhistle humbled by the thought of those in whose footsteps I walked. When I went to Thompson Memorial Hall in Sunderland I was told that Dr W E Sangster preached his last sermon from the platform I was to occupy each Sunday, before he was compelled to retire by the illness from which he was not to recover. Whenever I went on to that platform I felt humbled at the thought of the giants who had climbed those steps before me.

We have this large crowd of witnesses cheering us on in our Journey of Faith, but none would claim the sole, the major credit for taking us past the winning line. Run with eyes fixed upon Jesus who began and finished the race we are on. And it is the same, unknown writer who, in chapter 13:8 turns the command into a promise. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.