Twinterview: the London Welsh
Well, this twinterview thing is building a head of steam, and I am pleased to announce that I have a lovely set of twinterviews that I hope to be developing over the coming months, but I won’t spill all the beans because (a) it’s more fun not too and (b) I don’t want to promise what I may not be able to deliver. Hopefully the others will come about once a month.
However, after the international extravaganza that was Messrs Thomas and Trueman, we turn to something marginally more parochial with a couple of gentlemen who have made their way from Wales to England – specifically, to London. Please would you welcome Gary Brady, maintainer of countless blogs, but perhaps most generically Heavenly Worldliness, where you will find all manner of links to more specific sites, and Paul Levy, blogger at Reformation21, where he plays Curly to Derek’s Moe and Carl’s Larry, blogging with a bracing lack of forethought and disregard for consequence, giving us the added bonus of watching a man twirl a nonchalant moustache and pirouette away with cavalier insouciance whenever accosted by the forces of grammar, spelling and punctuation. Indeed, Paul reveals that it was Derek Thomas who unleashed him as a blogging force, no doubt about to bring an unprecedented wave of hate mail down upon that good man.
Again, I should point out that neither responder had an opportunity to see the answers of the other until both sets of responses were in, and there was no collaboration or collusion. The answers are as given, and I have not commented on them, either in terms of interest, agreement or disagreement, except where at one point I have made a subtle nudge to protect the guilty. Otherwise, the answers are edited only lightly for form, and the content is the responder’s own. Please feel free to engage politely in the comments section.
I am very grateful to Gary and Paul for their willingness to participate, and I hope that they will not regret it. Please check back regularly for the next couple of twinterviews, which are brewing nicely.
1. Would you briefly trace your route from the Principality to the English capital?
GB: I grew up just inside the Welsh border. We spoke English after our own fashion and pronounced Welsh as best we could. One of my early ambitions was to be able to pronounce the name of the place I came from. It took me the first 20 years of my life to get to know and love Wales and when I finally had it seemed to me that two years theological education in London would be an ideal preparation for a life-time’s ministry back home. It was while at LTS that, rather to my surprise, I was called to my present church. I got to love London as much as Wales, but it took a while.
PL: I came to London in 1999 to do the Cornhill Training Course, was placed at Grove Chapel and stayed on to work there for three years and do some training. In 2003 I moved to Ealing IPC where I’ve been ever since.
2. Are you simply/gratefully/proudly/defiantly Welsh? Is there anything in your inheritance as a Welshman that you think influences or particularly enhances or damages your approach to preaching and pastoring?
GB: I am proud to be Welsh. It was a decision I took when I was around 9 or 10 chiefly under the influence of a school friend called Gwilym. I love England, the English language and the English people but for various reasons, many of them hopelessly romantic, a Welshman I am by birth, by choice, by marriage, by temperament and by here and by there. In the early days that may have made my approach to preaching a little emotionalised but I learned not to suppose that emotion in preaching is necessarily a matter of race or temperament.
PL: I’m gratefully Welsh. During the Six Nations [a European international rugby tournament] my Welshness comes to the fore. I’m not really sure how it influences my preaching and pastoring. I’d like to think it makes me warmer and friendlier but I’m not sure that’s really the case. I suppose the models I look to are Welsh ministers who have faithfully kept on going; the Geoff Thomases of this world who put in 45 years in one congregation are heroes.
My father is English and I don’t speak Welsh, my wife is Northern Irish so I think I have a Welsh inferiority complex.
3. What are some of the particular blessings and challenges of being a pastor in London (or, at least, your part of it)?
GB: The first great thing about London is that it has people – lots of them. The second great thing is the diversity – all races, all classes, all types. The third great thing is that they all live near each other. The downside is that sometimes it is hard to understand what they say, why they say it and how to help them. Further, they are often not around long and if they do stay they seem to develop a second skin that insulates them to some extent not only against the constant hubbub all around but also against the gospel. London I have learned is always changing but always staying pretty much the same.
PL: I love it. I love the transience of it; the fact that on any given Sunday visitors come. It’s a great thing to try and be a solid presence as a church in a community when everything is changing so often. The multinational nature of ministry is a challenge but also a great encouragement. I have a theory that people are less materialistic in London (a ridiculous generalisation I know). My reason would be that basically folk have to pay so much to survive with rent and mortgages that actually their homes and flats are not palaces. Lots of my congregation haven’t got cars because they can’t afford them or don’t need them. Because it’s transient people don’t seek to make heaven on earth here. You just can’t afford to.
The strengths of London church life are also its weaknesses. You’re always saying goodbye to people. Deep friendships that last decades are hard to keep going because people move away.
4. How do you go about trying to develop the theological ‘nous’ and convictions of the congregations you serve?
GB: I have long been convinced of the usefulness of expository preaching. We also read through Scripture in public and I often use catechisms or confessions. In the early days I used to “preach against” certain things with lots of ad hominem stuff. There’s too much bad stuff out there to do that really so I do a lot less of that.
PL: We have an adult Sunday school where we study the Westminster Confession and we’ve got a large group of men learning the Shorter Catechism. I’m a fan of a written confession of sin and faith and light liturgy, this teaches people good theology without them knowing it. We recommend lots of books.
5. What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of Reformed and evangelical Christianity in London?
GB: There is lots of it. With the LTS/John Owen, Evangelical Library and Westminster Fellowship nearby and big churches like the Met Tab and St Helen’s going strong elsewhere there is plenty of strength. Meanwhile, surrounded by large churches pumping out the health and wealth gospel, having locals swan off to All Souls or some other big church and finding it difficult to genuinely link up with other Reformed ministers and churches there are weaknesses.
PL: It’s a difficult question really to answer. In 12 years living in London I’ve only ever been to the East End once so I couldn’t tell you what is going on there. There is lots of church planting which is encouraging. There are lots of good preachers that I’d like to hear if I got the chance but there aren’t any preaching ‘lions.’ When you think back to the sixties you had Lloyd Jones, John Stott, and Dick Lucas beginning his ministry. We have no one of their stature today. We don’t trust in princes but I think we have to give some thought as to how great preachers arise. The obsession with training, although good in lots of ways, means that even our best preachers don’t preach often enough. In some of the big London churches the senior minister preaches six or seven times a term.
I could rant about music and how important that becomes to people living in London churches which is infuriating. There are lots of good things happening but we are barely scratching the surface.
6. As you consider your development as a pastor and preacher, can you mention three of the books that been most helpful to you personally?
GB: Apart from the Bible itself, which is easily number one, I’m not sure. I am such a slow and forgetful reader I rarely read any book more than once (sometimes not that). Have you read the biographies of John Murray or Gresham Machen? My, they were men of God.
PL: Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years by Iain Murray. I’m on my second copy, it’s so inspiring. Admittedly it’s a bit romantic but it shows what preaching can do in a church. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms – I have found them and continue to find them indispensable. Wise Counsel (the letters from John Newton to John Ryland): I remember them being an enormous encouragement to me.
7. Can you identify a couple of people who have had a particular influence on you as a Christian, and tell us what their impact on you was?
GB: Obviously my father-in-law Geoff Thomas is a huge influence – his theology, his preaching. His perseverance, his undaunted enthusiasm and his ability to relax and to enjoy life are such an example. I also have a good lifelong friend who is a deacon in North Wales and an older man in the congregation who are both great examples to me.
PL: David Davies was a Welsh missionary in the Congo during the revival and the uprising of the fifties. My eldest brother David would take me to a WEC prayer battery on a Monday night and David Davies would lead the prayer meeting. I’ve never been in a meeting like it; it was electric. The prayers were short, praying for people all over the world. It was a remarkable meeting. He was so kind to me as a little boy, he was the most human man I ever met. He and his wife Ann would go to speak at meetings around the country and unknown to him Ann would bring his books along from his library and sell them giving the proceeds to WEC missionaries. Very simply he was a man who knew God. My brother Steve preached at his funeral. Someone should write his biography.
My parents have been an enormous influence on me, they are the most hospitable people I know. I grew up in a home which loved the local church. There was a horrific split in the congregation where we were. My dad was an elder and the whole thing had been boiling up for over two years. I was around 10 years old but I knew nothing about it until the Sunday before when one of my mates from church told me what was going to happen. My parents never criticised anyone from the church in front of me. I look back and think it incredible that our home was so happy during that time and I had not the faintest inkling the church was ripping itself apart.
8. Why do you blog? What do you consider the strengths and weaknesses of the medium? How does it help you and serve others?
GB: I blog because I am a keen writer and like to “show off” a little. The strength of the medium is that it gives people immediate access to information. The weakness is that when blogging you can forget exactly who is reading and it is easy to say something stupid or unhelpful. It serves others by alerting them to things that they should know about or at least would like to know about and helps me as it is somewhere to put things and get some order in my life. People think it is a time waster, which it can be. I would think that the time is more likely to be wasted on reading them than writing them.
PL: I blog because I was asked by Derek Thomas and it’s fun. I’m not sure there are many strengths to it. It allows me to follow what’s going on in the world a bit, keep up with friends and link to good articles. I hoped naively it might bring some money into the church building project but that hasn’t happened.
The weakness is that people take it so seriously. It helps me to read people who write well and are thought provoking. I’m not sure the stuff I write serves others really. I trust some find it vaguely amusing.
9. What are some of the particular dangers that you seek to watch against as a pastor? What are the particular measures that you take to guard your heart in these things?
GB: It seems to me that pastors face various dangers that can be grouped under two headings – being out of the ministry and being in it but ineffective. One can be out of it by means of ill health, moral failure or doctrinal failure. I’m not sure of any particular measures I can recommend against these except constant vigilance, lots of prayer and heaps of repentance. One can be in it and ineffective (my nightmare) and again vigilance, prayer and repentance seem to me to be the only antidotes. You also need to know yourself – strengths and weaknesses, moods, ways. Keep coming back to the Bible and never forget God’s grace. Perhaps the other thing is keeping streamlined. There are a billion calls on one’s time and it is important to do not only the right thing but the best.
PL: I am absolutely full of myself. I have found this the biggest battle of being in the ministry. Did I preach well? What do people think of me? How am I feeling? The ‘me’ monster is always there; I just cannot get rid of him. One of the things that has helped me is the doctrine of union with Christ; I am in him, my identity is bound up with him. What people think of me doesn’t really matter. I went to see an old Welsh minister about a year in to being at Ealing and asked him, “How do you cope on a Sunday night and Monday morning when you feel you’ve preached badly?” His reply was, “Who cares how you feel?” I’ve found that wonderfully liberating. I’ve got to remember how incredible it is that God would choose someone like me and call me to be a preacher. It’s laughable. Ministers take themselves far too seriously.
10. Please offer two or three nuggets of advice you wish someone had given you before you entered into pastoral ministry.
GB: Some nuggets of advice I wish someone had given me before I entered into pastoral ministry? Thing is I wouldn’t have listened if I’d been given them. I suppose it would be something practical like “people often don’t mean what they say” or “some members need a lot of visits, some members don’t” or “nobody understands what it is like to be a minister” coupled with “don’t get cynical”. How about “Be patient but don’t fall asleep”?
PL: (1) Don’t believe the kind of fortune cookie wisdom people give in answer to questions like these. (2) I’m not really sure I’ve much to share but I remember finding the step from being an Assistant to Minister much more difficult than I expected. I’m sure people told me that would be the case but I was too arrogant to listen. (3) Never make a big decision on Sunday night or Monday morning.
11. Most preachers learn to preach, at least in degree, by reading sermons or hearing preaching. Can you give a couple of names from the past, and a couple from the present, of men whom you would commend as models for a young minister developing his preaching gift?
GB: As for models for preachers, I think Stuart Olyott is the best model (best model not necessarily best preacher). He does it well, you can see how he does it (more or less) and he’s written about the subject. I always hear Ted Donnelly with profit. From the past? Probably Calvin. It is important to have more than one model. Otherwise you’ll suffer assistant pastor syndrome (you know, where the assistant sounds just like the minister). The trouble is you have to be yourself in the pulpit. Without being facetious I wonder if a study of comedians might be more worthwhile. Their remit is to be funny but they all do it in a different way usually by exaggerating some feature in their own make up. I think it’s something like that we need to do. Having said that all self-consciousness is a menace. I began preaching when I was 15 even though I had no experience of speaking in public. People couldn’t understand everything I was saying and even what they could understand didn’t always make sense. I learned to preach by trying to be understood.
PL: I don’t know who I’d go for from the past really . I’m a big fan of Thomas Watson. The Doctor on the Sermon on the Mount is quite simply magnificent. I can’t preach like either though.
In the land of the living I love listening to Dick Lucas. He’s always fresh, still preparing new material at 87. I like preachers with an edge as in, they are different but good and tight on the text. In my opinion Gerard Hemmings and Jonathan Fletcher are the best preachers in London and I enjoy listening to them. Both are local pastors grounded in a local congregation.
I cannot stand itinerant preachers who have about five staple sermons and they tour the US and the UK telling us all what to do. I can think of one [man] who I’ve heard only five times, on three occasions it was the same sermon. It’s difficult to imagine being more lazy. I find if someone isn’t actively involved in local church leadership and preaching they are probably not worth listening to.
12. Is the capital (or, indeed, the country or the Christian community) conferenced and fraternaled out? How do you decide how and where to invest your time, as a pastor-preacher, in fellowship, teaching, and mutual encouragement and instruction?
GB: There is a good conference in the UK nearly every month (Carey, Eccentrics, Affinity, Word Alive, Banner, Grace, Bala, EMA, Met Tab, Aber, LTS, R&R, Westminster, etc). Efforts to combine them have never worked. They are all different and have their own genius (though Sinclair Ferguson will inevitably speak at most of them, no doubt). Obviously no-one can or should go to them all. Most men aim to go to one a year. If you are a Londoner with Welsh connections, an understanding wife and deep pockets or generous deacons you can do more than one. Fraternals (possibly more useful) are in short supply in my experience and in an almost constant state of flux. I would recommend going to more conferences and fraternals rather than less (within reason). I hate the whole meeting up with people thing as much as the next man but you always learn something new, meet someone new or old and get challenged one way or another. You can also be a blessing to others.
PL: I think it probably is. I am in a denomination and I strongly feel if you belong to a body of churches you have to do your time on the committees and courts of the church. It seems to me to be wrong to criticise your denomination whilst playing no part in trying to reform it.
After that I go to what I want and try not to feel any guilt whatsoever at not being at things. I have a number of good friends who I try and keep up with and I speak to David Gibson up in Aberdeen most days. To be honest it’s mainly banter and moaning but it invariably does me good. My brother Steve is always good value and cheers me up no end.
It’s incredible what lunch with a good minister friend can do for your spirit. I am fortunate that I have an Assistant Minister and a Church Worker who I get on with and enjoy spending time with.
I wish I was able to go to more conferences than I do but it’s time and money!