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Following a divine order

16 November 2018

Andrew Watson celebrates the centenary of a calling to missionary service

“Dr Alec”

“Dr Alec”

AT 9.30 a.m. last Saturday, 10 November, my wife and I took a walk on Tynemouth’s Long Sands beach, followed by a short time of prayer at Holy Saviour’s at 11. It was our first visit to Tynemouth, but a significant one, because, at 9.30 on 10 November 1918 — exactly 100 years earlier — my grandfather, Alec Watson, took a walk on Long Sands Beach that was to change his life.

Alec’s story provides an unusual perspective on the Armistice centenary events of last weekend. He was brought up in Front Street, Tynemouth, the son of a retired sea captain. Physically frail as a young man, he was declared medically unfit to serve in the 1914-18 war: a humiliating blow that led to feelings of isolation, shame, and guilt.

He had trained as a pharmacist, and he continued his work in Newcastle until he took that walk on the beach on the day before the Armistice was signed. It was there that he received what he later described as a “divine order” to train as a doctor, and offer himself for service with the Church Missionary Society.

OBEYING that order proved fraught with difficulty. For one thing, it required Alec to leave a secure job and income, on which both he and his widowed mother were reliant. For another, it was contingent on the CMS’s accepting him as medically fit, effectively reversing the decision of the Army medical board, four years earlier.

The first problem was solved when one of Alec’s brothers offered, out of the blue, to support their mother; the second, however, was further complicated when Alec started his medical training at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, only to find himself falling in love.

Mary Griffiths had herself received a clear call to missionary service in China at the age of eight, when her father — a vicar — had invited a missionary to preach at his church in Norfolk. Mary was training as a doctor at the Newcastle Infirmary (one of only two medical courses open to women at that time); and a positive first encounter with Alec blossomed into love on her side, too.

Her application to the CMS was straightforward, but Alec’s much less so: the missionary society proved just as sceptical as the Army about his fitness to serve. Neither of them, apparently, doubted that Mary’s missionary calling should override all thoughts of marriage; so she duly set off for China without him, and any hope of a life together was, at best, put on hold.

One day, however, a senior orthopaedic surgeon who was talking to Alec enquired: “Watson, why don’t you have your knee straightened?”, offering to perform the complex operation himself. All went well, and Alec duly set off for China, where he and Mary were married in the private chapel of the Bishop of Hong Kong.

THERE followed 15 years of remarkable ministry in Kunming, in the south-western province of Yunnan, heading up the Hui Tien Mission Hospital, that had a particular emphasis on work among leprosy patients — a passion of Alec’s, possibly stoked by his own feelings of shame and isolation during the war.

Together, he and Mary healed the sick. Together, they led church services and Bible study groups for staff and patients alike. Together, they persuaded the governor to grant them land, where those who had contracted leprosy could farm and earn a living. Together, they spoke out against injustice, especially the horrendous practices of foot-binding and female infanticide.

Then, in 1938, they were recalled to England, and to the East End of London, where Alec steered the Mildmay Mission Hospital through the 1939-45 war, and the subsequent creation of the National Health Service, before serving — in retirement — as a lay Reader in their church in Chinnor, near Oxford, where he and his wife now lie buried.

Andrew and Beverly Watson on Long Sands beach, Tynemouth, on 10 November 2018

MY PERSONAL memory of “Dr Alec” is of a sweet old man, then suffering from Parkinson’s, who used to sit me on his lap, and who died when I was seven. But his story — and that of “Dr Mary”, who outlived him by decades — has always been an inspiration in my own sometimes patchy pilgrim’s progress.

Alec’s call has regularly reminded me of the continuing activity of the living God, challenging the dreary deism that emains the default mode of so much of Western church life (my own, at times, included). Alec’s response to the First World War (and to his own inability to serve on the front line) has helped to shape my conviction that the only possible justification for war is a passionate commitment to making a better peace at the end of it.

The shared nature of Alec and Mary’s sense of calling has healthily influenced my own understanding of Christian marriage as a joint missionary enterprise. And their holistic approach to both proclaiming and being the good news of Christ has sensitised me to the Western tendency to treat the so-called “Five Marks of Mission” as a multiple-choice question (“choose any two”) rather than recognise that they stand or fall together.

Left: Dr Esther Li

THE story of Alec and Mary has its more uncomfortable aspects, too, most especially the trauma faced by their two elder children, who were separated from their parents at what now seems an unconscionably early age, to be educated back in England; and — as someone who steadfastly resisted various episcopal attempts to ordain him — Alec would no doubt be amused to find one of his grandsons serving as the episcopal chair of the Ordained Vocations Working Group. But I remain deeply indebted to them both.

In 2002, that sense of indebtedness led me to travel in their footsteps, in the company of a world authority on the Chinese Church, Tony Lambert. We visited Christians in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou, but spent most of our time in Yunnan province, in and around Kunming, where a new hospital had been built on the site of the old, and the churches — both official and underground — were thriving.

On the last day of the visit, we were back in Beijing, walking through a historic part of the city, when I asked Tony whether he knew anyone locally. Yes, he responded, he knew a lady who ran a house church in her home. Calling on his acquaintance, I fell into conversation with her elderly mother, Dr Esther Li, who knew a little English; little by little, it emerged that Dr Li had worked as my grandfather’s deputy in Hui Tien Hospital between 1935 and 1938.

Was it an extraordinary coincidence, given that we were meeting 2000 miles from Kunming, and 64 years after my grandparents returned to England, in a country with a population of 1.4 billion? Or was it the normal activity of the living God, whose divine order on a Tynemouth beach we have been privileged to celebrate, 100 years on.

The Rt Revd Andrew Watson is the Bishop of Guildford.

Forthcoming Events

18 May 2021
Lift Up Your Voices, Lift Up Your Hearts
Speakers include John Bell, Noel Tredinnick and Helen Bent.

27 May 2021
Book launch: God is not a White Man
Chine McDonald in conversation with Sanjee Perera.

More events

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