On Tuesday 16 January 1973, 25 years ago, I was instituted at Jesmond Parish Church. All I can remember now of the Institution Service is the opening hymn. It was Wesley's great hymn that begins:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace.
The hymn then defines those "glories" and "triumphs" in an amazing way -giving a wonderful statement of basic Christian truth - "Jesus! The name that charms our fears." "He breaks the power of cancelled sin." "He speaks, and, listening to His voice, New life the dead receive." And the conclusion is the prayer: "My gracious Master and my God, Assist me to proclaim, To spread through all the earth abroad, The honours of Thy name."
The church at that point was relatively small in congregational size. In fact when I was being interviewed by the then archdeacon, he said that we would probably have to close within the next six years as there would be no people left to form a congregation. Such, he said, would be the effect of the new motorway. I saw things differently and agreed to come to Jesmond because I believed the church should grow, in spite of the problems. That opening line of the hymn was something of a challenge: "O for a thousand tongues to sing". We can now thank God that after 25 five years he has answered the prayer - the first prayer I ever prayed in Jesmond Parish Church. Jonathan [Pryke] tells me that there were 1,360 at the evening services yesterday [I am writing this the day after the first Carols by Candlelight service].
I now believe that during the next period of our church's life here at Jesmond, we should all pray, and then work, for answers to the prayer in the final verse of the hymn: "Assist me to proclaim, to spread through all the earth abroad, the honours of thy name." Surely we must pray and work for greater growth not just in Jesmond but on Tyneside and further afield.
It has been a huge privilege to be able to work here on Tyneside for 25 years. First, it is a wonderful place. For fifteen years I was on the General Synod of the Church of England. In the last five years (under Robert Runcie) I was on its Standing Committee and had to be in London, on average, once or more every week. But the joy of crossing the Tyne in the returning train, in the evening, if not "unspeakable", was very considerable.
I always feel I can breathe (psychologically) up here. I genuinely believe we have a saner and more healthy perspective on life than in many parts of the country. That may be due to Tyneside being a Metropolitan area (and therefore not narrowly parochial) while at the same time not being too big. It is easier for us to understand the "whole picture". Certainly that is true in professional work. My wife, for example, as a doctor working in the community seems to have a knowledge and understanding of such a wide range of people, and problems - and right across the social spectrum. I know that is true for many others in the congregation. For myself, over the years I have developed a wide range of contacts in many areas of life that I don't think I could have done so easily in London or Manchester.
And then there is the countryside. One of the national tourist agencies was recently describing Northumberland as the best kept secret in Britain. The coast (including Tynemouth) but, of course, north of Alnmouth is superb. My favourite walk - a walk as good as anywhere - is by the sea from Craster to Dunstanburgh. Then there are the Cheviots; the Hadrian's Wall country; and the various reaches of the Tyne. What could be better?
And the people are wonderful. It is not "saving grace" but certainly it is some of God's "common grace" that has come our region's way. In the North East there is an "easygoingness" that is not "sloppy"; but it means people are not pompous or pretentious. And there is a general friendliness. The result of all this is that my wife and I love the region.
When I came to the church in 1973, outside the church [where the motorway now is] was Jesmond Road. This was a tree-lined road that went straight past the church and up to the Great North Road where there were almighty traffic jams. Through-traffic came over the Tyne Bridge and up Northumberland Street and on to Scotland. But in the summer of 1973 the bulldozers came in and for a long time the church was in an island of mud, with a sixty-foot-deep great excavation six feet from the church tower. That is when I learnt to say "No!" to irresponsible authorities. This massive hole was for the Metro tunnel that was being put in place for the future Metro before the motorway was built over it. But the church could have been undermined and the tower even fallen into the hole had we not insisted on certain precautions.
Also when I came to the church in 1973, some parts of our area of Jesmond were, in environmental terms, "degenerating". Drugs were coming in, so was crime and some prostitution. This was the time of T.Dan Smith, Poulson and Co. One of their "colleagues" had bought up a number of properties in Jesmond. that were put into multiple accommodation and became pretty seedy. Someone in the planning department, told me, they were waiting to see how the area developed. They were prepared for it to go down further. It was noted that the area by the church was now being made into a cul-de-sac; and with the schools inactive at week-ends it could mean undesirable elements being "sucked in" off the Metro.
However, Jesmond Parish Church prevented that happening, I was told. With a full programme at week-ends at the church, there was no "dead" area. It helped, that early in my time at Jesmond, church families started to buy houses to be near the church; and one family "de-flatted" a property. The Jesmond Trust also did that to a property in Otterburn Villas North (in Otterburn Terrace) for a married staff member. That is when the Trust was originally set up to help us keep control of our property (and money), otherwise it would have come under diocesan control. (Otterburn Villas North was subsequently sold and replaced by 56 Holly Avenue - now the home of the Redfearns).
All this had a knock-on effect. It was locally being rumoured that families were coming back. As houses were cheap, it made sense for other families to buy and settle in the area. The result, many years later, is that the value of those same properties is high; and they are now "desirable residences".
More important than roads and houses is the spiritual condition of the church. Our founders' requirement for the church is a good test. They said we are to be:
a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound Scriptural and evangelical truth a large and populous town.
My prayer, and my commitment, is for the fellowship here, as we look to the future, to continue to try to be such a central point. Today more than ever before we need "sound scriptural and evangelical truth".
1970's saw the rise of the charismatic movement. People focused on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. This was the period when David Watson, a charismatic leader, was effective in evangelism (as we experienced at Jesmond and on Tyneside with Celebrate the Faith). But the bible sometimes became marginalized as people wanted prophecies, visions and miracles instead. The 1980's saw the rise of the Church Growth movement. It was now seen that if people were converted they needed to be assimilated into church fellowships. So there must be planned structures for growth. We at Jesmond, and I personally, learnt a great deal from the Church Growth movement. But the bible was sometimes marginalized as people thought you could organize for growth without the Spirit of God converting people and without the truth of God being taught.
The 1990's seem to be a time when many are getting back to the bible. If that is the wave of the future, let's go with it! There will be opposition. But as Wesley wrote: "He speaks, and, listening to his voice, new life the dead receive."
My personal goals for ministry are summed up in Paul's words in Colossians:
We proclaim him [Jesus Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me (Col 1.28-29).
This is what, imperfectly, I have been aiming at over the past 25 years. I would value your prayers for the future as I shall try to keep to those same goals.