In the early days of my ministry it was my privilege to live and work in Northumberland, a beautiful and interesting part of the North East of England. Our manse and my principle charge were situated in the small, friendly town of Haltwhistle nestling in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, a good place for a young rookie minister, providing the learning experience so essential in shaping a long-term future pastoral ministry. There could not be a more friendly, helpful, encouraging and loving folk and their contribution to that learning experience is something for which I continue to be grateful. There was a lot to learn, in spite of three years in College and three years as a probationer minister. There was one thing I knew nothing about until I went to Haltwhistle, and it was a lesson I found difficult to execute throughout my forty-one years’ service.
Haltwhistle lies on one of the main routes between the City of Durham and the Scottish border – why highlight Durham? There is a prison in Durham and there are always guests of Her Majesty who are Scots. On release from their internment, some will head for Haltwhistle and some were chronic con men anxious to prove that their skills were not in need of repair. I never realised how many of the boys’ grannies were dying and the poor lad did not have enough money left to get to her quickly. Like some other discharges they had come out of jail the day before and spent the evening in a pub and, becoming a bit tipsy, they were robbed. They were begging for their fare, a story oft-repeated. Many a time I felt guilty when I thought of some of the Teachings of Jesus. There was another reason for stopping at Haltwhistle: two blocks up the street from our church there was a doss-house, used by some of the Durham men, but more so by men who had made a wreck of their lives, mainly from the abuse of alcohol. They lost their allowance chitty or their pension books. They had to go to Carlisle to sort things out but did not have their fare. As I think of this pastor’s dilemma I can only recall one occasion when, unwittingly, I turned down a genuine case of need. I did not sleep well for a bit!He came into the church, bearded, dirty and dishevelled – a gentleman of the road. He bowed facing the communion table, genuflected and selected a pew. Brother, you have come to the wrong place, I thought to myself as I continued with my sermon. In all probability he had already visited the Roman Catholic chapel before he decided to present himself as a Methodist. Success at last, the missionary minded member of the congregation fondly imagined! Alas, before I had finished saying the benediction he was out of the door (he forgot to genuflect) and, as I imagined, I had misjudged his motive for the visit. However my imagining was short-lived. There he was standing outside by the door with cap in hand. Within minutes, the caretaker appeared on the scene holding a bucket of hot water with a liberal dash of disinfectant, and proceeded to wash the pew on which our visitor had sat. We do not want to have to mix with his kind again, the gesture seemed unmistakably to imply. He was like the disciples of Jesus who decided there were people who belonged to the wrong set and who were to be prevented from meeting Jesus, or from whom they must protect him – undesirable people. They had still to understand the purpose of Jesus’ mission; still to learn, as Charles Wesley did, that it is For all; for all, the Saviour died. People pointed at Jesus because of the company he kept – this man welcomes outcasts and even eats with sinners, they protested. To which Jesus replied, I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Search the Scriptures, and we will search in vain – we will not find any mention of hot water or disinfectant.