Tag Archives: Sunderland

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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Sunderland.By Sandra [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.”

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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.