I was born on Christmas Day 1946; I was small, and was easily bullied, including by other boys on the way to and from school. I attended Sunday School at George Street Mission, Basingstoke, which had become part of the Methodist Circuit, and the other children used to bully me before the teachers arrived on a Sunday afternoon. I did not like going to Sunday School, and I remember nothing of what we were taught.
My father used to preach in local Methodist chapels, sometimes of a Sunday afternoon, but my mother would not attend. She came on one or many occasions to the village in the car, but took me for a walk during the service. It must have been a lasting sadness to my father to be snubbed like this. After the evening service at the head of circuit church in Church Street, Basingstoke, we sometimes took my mother’s mother out for a ride on a Sunday evening, and while he was alive no doubt my grandfather also. The ride would include a visit to a country pub, something which my father disliked after church.
When I was about 13 years old, we had a scripture teacher at Queen Mary’s Grammar School who was an earnest Christian, who told us ardently that he knew by personal experience the truth of the Gospel. I scorned his faith: I knew better! I also disliked my parents’ occasional practice of joining the hymn-singing on the promenade when we were away on summer holiday. Religion was not for me! One piece of religious education I had from my grandmother: “It doesn’t matter what church you go to, so long as you are not a Catholic” – the last word uttered with a sort of spitting through the teeth. (She herself never went to any church, her excuse being that there was no Church of Scotland in Basingstoke.) Thus I had a fairly tenuous link with Methodism in the 1950s
I negotiated with my father that I could stop attending Sunday School, on condition I went to church with him – which didn’t happen all that often at that stage. Church Street Methodist Church was enormous, built to hold 850 people; on a ‘good evening’ the congregation might number about 40, and we always sat in the very back row. The minister in his robe and MA bands was a distant figure swathed in holy mystery – so far away that I began to notice that I could no longer read the hymn numbers on the board at the front of the church beside the pulpit. When the optician prescribed spectacles for me, I wore them only at certain times, and when I first put them on in a lesson at school, I felt the whole room was looking, and I was acutely embarrassed.
Years later, in his eighties, my father became very fond of the song in Sacred Songs and Solos that runs:
Fading away like the stars of the morning, Losing their light in the glorious sun - Thus would we pass from the earth and its toiling, Only remembered by what we have done.
The chorus drives the message home repetitiously:
Only remembered, only remembered, Only remembered by what we have done; Thus would we pass from the earth and its toiling, Only remembered by what we have done.
It was probably in 1963, aged 16, that I came to faith in Christ. In my time of searching, shortly before or shortly after my conversion, I visited the Salvation Army, the Pentecostals, the Baptists and the High Anglicans. When I visited the Pentecostal church, my father disapproved, saying they were fanatics. By the time I went to Neuwied on an ‘exchange’ with a German boy, Jürgen Mende, in the summer of 1963, I was certainly a believer; I do not recall being one at Easter of that year, when I went with the Troublé mother and children to the Mennonite church they attended, on a similar exchange with a French boy: though this may be only a lack of clear memory years later as I write.
My conversion took place when I was alone at home. When I was 11 or 12, I still had a vague belief that God existed, but he played no part in my life or thought. I “prayed” nightly, because this had been ingrained in me from earliest childhood, but my prayers were no more than empty repetition of the same formulas, and I got through them as quickly as I could.
At the age of 13 or 14 I began to think more seriously. Soon, I became convinced that there is no God, and that those who believed in him were quite below my own level of insight!
In time, my father gave me a book about life after death, acquired at the preparations for a jumble sale, and I bought another book about spiritism at the same sale. I became convinced that there is indeed an afterlife; with this persuasion came also a head belief in the existence of God. It went no further than the idea that he existed – he still played no part in my life.
I went to Church Street Methodist Church only when I could not avoid it – that is, when my parents insisted, maybe every six weeks. One evening, in 1962 or 1963, I went for this reason, and after the service I was invited to the youth fellowship. I went for the sake of a good discussion, and in the hope of finding an appealing girl, but when my ideas were discussed, neither side succeeded in persuading the other.
Two young, evangelistic ministers were spending a while in the circuit – Arnold McIndoe and Malcolm White. At one such evening youth meeting the question was put to us: “Do you have a sense of sin?” I was perhaps the last to be asked; the others all said yes. I replied that I supposed I sometimes did something I ought not to, but would not go so far as to say I ever sinned.
I continued going to the meetings, enjoying the warm, friendly atmosphere and the lively discussions. Maybe unawares I was also attracted to their Christianity. At any rate I learned more of what Christianity is – and began attending church regularly so as to qualify for the youth meeting afterwards.
As I had had piano lessons, I was able to play several of the easier tunes from “The Methodist Hymnbook”. One day I was playing #452, and at the same time reading the words:
I long to know and to make known The heights and depths of love divine, The kindness Thou to me hast shown, Whose every sin was counted Thine. My God for me resigned His breath: He died to save my soul from death.
It was as I was reading line four – “Whose every sin was counted Thine” – that I saw that they are true words. It was for me, a sinner, that Jesus had died on the Cross. God had shown me, opening my eyes and heart to believe. And so I became a Christian – humanly, perhaps Charles Wesley’s last convert.
As with so many real conversions, my desire was to tell others of my faith. I typed out my testimony on a gestetner skin, duplicated copies, and handed them out at the school’s main vestibule.
From about the summer of 1964 I was developing an awareness of God’s call to the ministry, and wished to obey it, though I struggled with the opposition I knew would come from my parents – or was already coming if the subject came up. I recall my mother’s horror when a local paper mistakenly reported some months later that I was going up to Cambridge to read Theology. She urged me to consider what my father’s clients might think if they heard he had a son who was going into the ministry: it might adversely affect his business as an insurance agent. Paradoxically, there came a time when my father said to me quietly, out of my mother’s hearing, that I should continue to preach, and had his approval in it.
At some point during this year, if not earlier, I left Church Street Methodist Church, where my parents attended (when they went), and began attending the one at South Ham.
The minister (Bill Murphy) had been a deck hand on the Liverpool ferries, and had gone into the ministry after his conversion, and his ministry seemed to be of a warmer, more evangelistic character than that at the big town church. He was planting a church on the South Ham housing estate. The young people used to meet at the home of Bill and Marion Taylor, and there was a warm spiritual atmosphere among us, good discussions, prayer and fun. There was however no church prayer meeting, but at some point in 1965, I and a few others started one.
I spent time with the elderly local preacher, Leonard Wardell, who lived in Worting Road a few hundred yards from us. I originally met him on the Saturday morning bread round I had, helping a local baker with his deliveries. I would go to Mr Wardell’s home, and he took me to his sitting room, and opened the scriptures to me, exhorted me, prayed with me. In time, I began accompanying him on his preaching engagements, and taking part in the services.
When I was in the 6th form at school (1962-4) there were Saturday evening dances with the girls’ High School. At one of the dances I met Pam, who spotted the small silver Methodist shell badge in my lapel, and was interested by it as she too was a Christian. We began going out together, and I attended youth meetings with her at St. Mary’s Church in Eastrop Lane – a “Low” church with a warm Evangelical ethos in the young people’s meetings. I was deeply challenged once when she sang as a solo the song:
I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold, I'd rather be His than have riches untold; I'd rather have Jesus than houses or lands, I'd rather be led by His nail-pierced hands Than to be the king of a vast domain And be held in sin's dread sway; I'd rather have Jesus than anything This world affords today. I'd rather have Jesus than men's applause, I'd rather be faithful to His dear cause...
As God was already calling me to the ministry, to give my whole life to “His dear cause”, it was an intense inner struggle whether I would say yes to his call or disobey it.
I preached my first sermon on 10th January at Oakley Methodist Church, on Isaiah 53:6: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. Leonard Wardell was engaged to preach there, but invited me to do so in his place, and came with me.
When I preached in February at Bramley Methodist, he took the trouble to gather extra hearers for my encouragement – a claque, one might say.
I spent some of my spare time with J. Terry Hardy, a lad about my own age who was an organist and a keen Methodist. We would visit country chapels, and, if we gained entry, would “try the organ”. He said I should go into the ministry, he should be the organist, and I should choose And can it be every week!
From early 1965 some of the things I wrote (and still have) speak of my desire for full dedication to the Lord, for guidance, to be used in the Lord’s service, for evangelism. They also reveal the struggle that was going on in my heart, and my resistance to yielding to God’s will, for my awareness of God’s call to the ministry was vivid, intense and deep: I felt that I knew what he required of me. Submitting to Christ’s lordship meant saying yes to the ministry. But I was afraid of my parents’ reaction, for they both opposed the idea strenuously. There is also a sense of weariness in the struggle, and of unworthiness, coldness and defeat for not yielding to the Lord’s lordship.
It was about this time that I saw in a Methodist book a picture of a poster depicting a Chinese preacher holding up his Bible in an attitude of proclamation, with the legend The Methodist Church knows no higher office than that of a preacher of the Gospel. It made a profound and lasting impression upon me: the highest task a man could give his life to was the preaching of the Gospel, and it was without doubt the life I desired.
I attended after-church youth meetings at South Ham week by week, still at the home of Bill and Marion Taylor, and continued to enjoy the warm atmosphere which encouraged spiritual growth. God did a work among us; one result was the call to the ministry of one young man, whom I met again years later when he told me that there were many men in the Methodist ministry who had lost their faith but had not the courage to get out. His call and obedience to it vivified my own awareness of the call and of my reluctant disobedience.
My last Sunday at South Ham Methodist Church was 21st February 1965, before I set off by train for Backnang, in southern Germany, to take up work as a postman. My mother stood on the platform crying as the train pulled out: I couldn’t understand why, but years later in adult life I did. Germany was beautiful on the night-time journey, with the snow and the old churches lit up by yellowish lights.
In my search for a church I went first to visit the Pentecostal pastor, but the only welcome I got was a woman, presumably his wife, leaning out of a far-up window in the flats asking me what I wanted, and not even inviting me in. So I went round the corner to Zion Methodist.
Through the church, I found lodgings at Karl-Caelblestraße 37, with the Preißler family who had fled from eastern Germany at the end of the War. In the homes of other families linked with the church, I met elderly relatives who were allowed out on visits: being old, their possible escape was not considered important! They were able to tell us about their life under Communist rule. I attended an interdenominational youth meeting – Entschiedene Christen – , and found a lively interest and concern for the plight of believers in eastern Germany. One evening we saw a film, Frage 7, showing the difficulties of life for a gifted pastor’s son whose education was likely to come to an abrupt halt if he truthfully filled in the questionnaire asking, “What is your father’s occupation?” An especially poignant and powerful moment in the film was when a piece of paper was given to him bearing the verse Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. Those words have never lost their power to move me.
I got on well with one of the ministers, a young pastor called Reinhold Braun. We were sometimes invited to visit people’s homes together, and he invited me to preach on 2nd May at Allmersbach am Weinberg, and was honest enough to tell me afterwards that my preaching was dry. This I put down to my need to get up at 4.30 for my work as a postman, and inability to get to bed early because I was sharing with one of the sons of the house. Private devotions had somewhat gone by the board. It was a lesson I have never forgotten: never plan to preach without prayer.
There was also a very attractive girl of about my age at the EC youth meeting, called Doris Häußer, and I wrote to her, asking whether I might go for a walk with her. She turned me down on the ground that she was a Christian.
A vivid experience took place one evening when I was walking home to Carl-Kaelblestr. along Heiningerweg. The Lord drew near and was as real to me as any other person with whom I have walked. When I reached the point where the path crossed Südstraße, it was as if he told me quite plainly that I must now make my decision concerning the ministry. Some weeks before, I had had a vivid dream, in which I was passing a room in which people were singing the hymn, “Draw me nearer”. Verse 2 says:
Consecrate me now to thy service, Lord,
By the power of grace divine;
Let my soul look up with a steadfast hope,
And my will be lost in Thine
The strange thing was, that as I passed further from the room (I was outdoors), the singing sounded no quieter, but I knew that there would needs come a point at which it would fade. Such was my call: I was passing it by, and it was getting no less insistent; but the moment would come when it would fade and be heard no more. Now on this evening as I walked towards home, I reached the point where it seemed that the Lord stopped, and required my answer, saying that if I went beyond the point where the two ways crossed, I would go without him. As it is written, for forty years you shall bear the burden of your sins, and you shall learn what it means to reject me. I could not bring myself to obey his command, and with a heavy heart continued my way home, having effectively said no to his call to the ministry. Following this experience, a sense of bitter defeat came into my heart.
Back in England, I went with Rev. Bill Murphy, my pastor, to Newnham Methodist Church on 25th July. As he was unwell, I preached. He said to me on the way that I was welcome to talk with him any time there might be something I wanted to talk about. I dare say he had sensed my exercise about the ministry, but what was there to say?
On 1st August I preached at Newfound Methodist Church, then went up to London to meet Jürgen Mende, who was coming to stay for a while. My father urged me to skip the preaching engagement and just go to London, but I wanted to keep it.
On 15th August I preached at the 3:15 service at Rotherwick Methodist. It being a warm summer afternoon, the door was open, and I made some attempt to make myself heard by the man mowing his lawn on the other side of the road!
At some point during the year I gave my testimony at the Independent Evangelical Mission, Green Lane, Thatcham (where Mr. Wardell was preaching), and someone there passed my name on to the Christian Union at Cambridge University, so that when I arrived in Cambridge in October I was visited by Philip Clements-Jewry, who told me he was a Conservative Evangelical (I didn’t know the phrase) and introduced me to the college CU, where I found my friends and spiritual base during the next three years.
One book I read around this time was Joseph Ritson’s The Romance of Primitive Methodism, and it made a very deep and lasting impression on me, not least in a passage about Berkshire, close to and including the very area where I had grown up:
It was in the following February that he and his superintendent had the memorable meeting in the neighbourhood of Ashdown, where the famous battle was fought. Theirs, however, was a spiritual conflict. Russell walked ten miles to this meeting for consultation and prayer. The Conference was drawing to a close, and they were about to part, when it was proposed that they should turn aside into the coppice “for another round of prayer.” Entering the coppice, they threw themselves on their knees amid the snow and pleaded with God to give them Berkshire. The round of prayer lasted for hours, and at last Russell sprang to his feet, exclaiming, as he pointed across the country, the prospect of which was bounded by the Hampshire hills: “Yonder country is ours, yonder country is ours, and we will have it.” …at the end of three years there were nearly thirteen hundred members in that circuit.
Botley Copse in the distance, where Ride and Russell prayed
This was real religion as it should be, and my heart’s desire and ambition was to be part of such a fellowship and work.
My parents took me in their car to Cambridge at my first weekend, and on the Sunday morning we attended Wesley Methodist Church, where students worshipped together with the local congregation. It was packed, and my father said with pleasure that this was the place where I would find my friends. Indeed, I hoped that among the Methodists at Cambridge I would indeed find friends seriously committed to real Methodism as believed and practised in the days of Wesley and the early Primitive Methodists – Christians after my own heart, and maybe even a girl as a soul-mate, with whom I would be able to “go out” and who would be of one heart and soul with me in following our Lord.
That spirit, and those beliefs, seemed lacking from the ministry at Wesley. For a while in my first year, I sought them at Castle Street Methodist, which had been Primitive. I was made welcome, but did not find the real Methodism I was seeking here either.
I joined the Methodist Society in the University, but I was disappointed in my search for a warm evangelical devotion and evangelistic outlook. I did find a girlfriend for a short while, but she did not prove to be the “soul-mate” I was seeking, and we drifted apart. Neither do I recall how long I persisted in attending society meetings. At Sawston Methodist I preached on How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him. On that occasion I was with the university Methodist Society group.
Back in Basingstoke, on 19th December I preached at the Mission Hall in Mattingley; and it may also have been in 1965 that I preached at the Methodist churches in Cliddesden and North Warnborough.
I gave my testimony at the Pentecostal Church in Cambridge, and preached in chapels, mainly Methodist, in the Cambridge area on Sundays. In the afternoon we would take hand-copied maps of the villages, and attempt to visit every house and invite the people to the chapel that evening.
In this way we visited the Methodist chapel Haslingfield three times, being generously provided with tea by a lady of the congregation. The second occasion saw some forty people almost filling the small chapel. We were invited to take a week’s mission, and one woman said she watched the Plan so as not to miss our services. One of my friends went there alone one Sunday evening to visit a contact, a girl called Elaine. The minister preached at the service, after which my friend walked Elaine home, pointing her to Christ as they went. They turned aside into a bus shelter and read the scriptures by the street light. Then he spread his coat on the floor and knelt with her as she responded to the Gospel invitation.
Haslingfield Methodist chapel
In a similar way we ministered two or three times at the Methodist chapel in Willingham, and I myself preached there on other occasions. A man of about 80 or 90 used to pray with us before the services.
At the Methodist chapel in Waterbeach another friend and I took a service, at which he preached to a congregation of three elderly ladies, a female organist and a girl of about 14.
At Foxton we saw the congregation doubled on the evening we visited to about fifty people, including the worst vandals in the village. Before the service, Derek and I had visited a dell where they hung out together. I had to go before we persuaded them to come, but they invited Derek to preach to them by their bonfire.
At Over an old lady of about 80 was in tears, thrilled with the time we had had. I also attended a Methodist Revival Fellowship meeting there, and similar meetings at Earith and Cottenham.
I was told after one service that I ought to “offer myself for the ministry”: little did my adviser know the longing in my heart to do that very thing!
Back in Basingstoke I continued my fellowship with Leonard Wardell and with the saints at South Ham Methodist Church. I gave a testimony at a Methodist Revival Fellowship meeting at Burghclere, and at some point attended an MRF meeting at Charter Alley.
I joined Operation Mobilisation in Vienna in the summer of 1966 and was engaged in evangelism, which consisted largely of selling evangelistic books from door to door. Working with OM was also good for my German, and I have ever since enjoyed hearing the Viennese accent.
The team leader on OM was H. John Payer, an American and a Calvinist. I had warm discussions with him about his beliefs, for as a Methodist, I vehemently rejected his predestinarianism, and he was, I think, the first Calvinist I had met. My own heart was engaged with the sentiments of Charles Wesley:
Thy sovereign grace to all extends,
Immense and unconfined;
From age to age it never ends;
It reaches all mankind.
Throughout the world its breadth is known,
Wide as infinity, S
o wide it never passed by one,
Or it had passed by me.
Thy undistinguishing regard Was cast on Adam's fallen race; For all Thou hast in Christ prepared Sufficient, sovereign, saving grace. The world He suffered to redeem; For all He hath the atonement made; For those that will not come to Him The ransom of His life was paid.
O Horrible Decree Worthy of whence it came! Forgive their hellish Blasphemy Who charge it on the Lamb: Sinners, abhor the Fiend, His other Gospel hear, The God of Truth did not intend The Thing his Words declare, He offers Grace to All, Which most cannot embrace Mock'd with an ineffectual Call And insufficient Grace. To damn for falling short, Of what they could not do, For not believing the Report Of that which was not true. My Life I here present, My Heart's last Drop of Blood, O let it all be freely spent In Proof that Thou art Good, Art Good to all that breathe, Who All may Pardon have: Thou willest not the Sinner's Death, But all the World wouldst save. O take me at my Word, But arm me with thy Power, Then call me forth to suffer, Lord, To meet the fiery Hour: In Death will I proclaim That all may hear thy Call, And clap my Hands amidst the Flame, And Shout - HE DIED FOR ALL.
After leaving Cambridge in May 1968 I found work in Gillingham, Kent, with the purpose of attending St Mark’s Church, for I had met a number of students from that church who had a quality of life which I knew I lacked, but which I earnestly desired. Soon after arriving I listened to a tape of John Collins preaching on deliverance from Luke 1:73-75:
the oath which he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.
There was liberty and joy in his preaching, and it was made a real and lasting blessing to my soul. On Sundays some five hundred people would gather and listen to him.
I had a very long way to go in my spiritual pilgrimage, with much to learn, but my six months in Gillingham marked the beginning of peace, joy and rest in my soul.
It was some while before the sense of call to the ministry stirred again in my consciousness: but by then I had embraced Baptist views and was no longer in membership of the Methodist Church. It was not till June 2014 that the superintendent minister of the Wrexham Circuit, Rev. Richard Sharples, invited me to preach in all the chapels of the Circuit; interestingly, he too retains fond memories of the Methodists at Haslingfield. Since his invitation, as things have developed, most of my preaching once again takes place in Methodist chapels in the Wrexham and two contiguous Circuits.
Richard Sharples (in shorts) at Englesea Brook
As T. S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.”