RON turned up at our church one Sunday about six years ago. He was living on his own, he explained to me over coffee after the service, and, as a person who thrived on company, suddenly felt isolated. It occurred to him that, after a 70-year absence, he might try church. A couple of months later, after coming regularly, he decided that he would like to be confirmed, and I was asked (as we were about the same age) if I would like to do his preparation for it.
I hope he learnt some good things from the experience. I certainly learnt a great deal from his astonishing life-story. He was born in the docklands of London, and his family were bombed out in the Blitz; so they moved in with an aunt in Windsor. His mother got a job in the laundry of Eton College, and one day mentioned to a colleague that her young lad, Ronnie, had a nice singing voice.
This was obviously passed on, and, eventually, he was invited to join the college choir, and consequently gained a place in the most prestigious public school in Britain. Mind you, this was only until his voice broke: he had to complete his education at the local state secondary.
A way of belonging
RON enjoyed National Service in the RAF, and decided to sign on permanently. The recruiting officer, noting his gilded educational background, listed him as Potential Officer Material. He ended up as a flight-lieutenant pilot. Shot down and badly injured in the Burma campaign, he had, in all, 27 years in the RAF. After that, he did was an AA man for a few years, and, finally, an undertaker’s assistant.
I feared that church might seem a bit tame by comparison, but he loved it, and became a popular and regular member of the congregation until wonky knees curtailed regular attendance. Jim, one of our lay communion ministers, now takes him the reserved sacrament regularly, and I, over a Co-op jam sponge and a glass of wine, regularly get the benefit of his stories.
Ron’s life, like everyone else’s, is unique, but his church experience is not. With loneliness now the number-one disability of old age, the Church has a “unique selling-point”. We really need to make the most of it.
From small beginnings
IT HAS been a bad couple of weeks for British relief agencies; but, for one, this is still a year of celebration. Tearfund is 50 years old in May.
I remember its origin very clearly, and even played a small part in it. The year 1960 had been designated World Refugee Year. At the time, I was editor of a monthly magazine, Crusade (and you would not call it that now), sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance. We gave a whole issue over to the plight of refugees worldwide.
I thought that it was pretty strong material, but I was astonished at our readers’ response. From the morning after publication, the cheques rolled in, although we had not asked for money. They came from Christians and churches who wanted their money to be passed on to the world’s needy by Christian hands.
That is not as easy as it sounds, and, as the funds grew, there were endless discussions about what should be done with it. On 29 May 1968, the first meeting of an Evangelical Alliance “relief committee” decided to form a relief agency on the principles that our donors wanted: money from Christians, for the relief of people of all faiths and none, but mediated directly by local church “partners”.
Peter Meadows came up with the name, I think: Tearfund (the Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund), although, in 1973, it became an independent registered charity. My previously half-time assistant editor, George Hoffman, then a curate in Wimbledon, became its first director, before dying tragically in a road accident.
Cliff Richard became its best-known supporter, not only financially, but by visiting many of the sites around the world where the money was being used. No matter how remote the region, people seemed to know who he was.
Today, Tearfund, with Nigel Harris as its chief executive, is a respected British Christian relief and development agency. It is a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee, and operates in 50 countries worldwide through local churches. Crusade disappeared 30 years ago, but a flourishing oak tree has, indeed, sprung from my long-dead acorn.
SO, FINALLY, Billy Graham has gone to his great reward. I was a very young student when I first heard him at Harringay, in 1954, and was captivated by the experience. He preached, as I think John Betjeman said, “in neon lights”: every word seemed important. At that stage, his was the straightforward message of an eloquent American mass evangelist, but, over the years, he added elements that some of his supporters in the United States found dangerously liberal. He welcomed and worked happily with Roman Catholics, for instance, and, with his ally John Stott, did much to call British Evangelicals to a social application of the gospel.
I treasure a letter in my files from him. He had asked me to tell him if anything he preached seemed to be inappropriate or unhelpful. I did, on one occasion, write to say that I had been uneasy about the way when, at a vast youth rally, he had used its coincidence with a summit meeting between Russian and American presidents to create an atmosphere of dread about the future. “We stand on a night of destiny,” he said. “Now is the time to turn to Christ.”
I don’t know what response I expected, but his letter accepted the correction without reservation, and assured me that, in future, he would “stick to the kerygma”.
He was a man of utter honesty, humility, and credibility, whose ministry in Britain helped to transform the Church of England. I assume that, one day, he will be added to the names commemorated in its formularies.
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.