A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
Look to the rock from which you were cut
Look to the rock from which you were cut (Isaiah 51:1) ...
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Methodist Revival Fellowship - the 'rock' from which Headway was cut. From 1952 until 1955 when Conference gave permission to include the word 'Methodist' in the title it was known simply as the Revival Fellowship.
Prior to 1952 a group had arranged a number of gatherings following contacts made after the Second World War, especially in the universities where my father (the Rev John H J Barker) was working for IVF (now the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship). He brought together those who like him were concerned at the spiritual state of the country and the Methodist Church in particular. As a result of their prayer and fellowship they were 'led to define revival and put revival, prayer and preparation for revival as priorities, and also the Four Alls of Methodism'.
The most striking fact is that in those early newsletters and magazines these priorities were zealously maintained. One editorial stated: 'I feel that we have been divinely led to emphasise, stimulate and organise prayerfully for the outpouring of God's Spirit'. So from those early days the underlying burden was clearly set out and proclaimed wherever and whenever it could be.
Following my conversion in 1958 I clearly recall the profoundly challenging ministry of MRF to all of us who were touched by the Fellowship. The necessity of revival to meet the parlous state of both church and nation echoed through the ministry of MRF, coupled with the call for individual prayer to be strengthened, deepened and extended; to give priority to prayer in the local church; and to support wider gatherings for prayer. In those days there was a regular night of prayer in London on the first Friday night of the month. Similar meetings occurred elsewhere, and members were encouraged to take every opportunity to join these groups. The appeal was to those 'who are prepared to lay hold upon God in daily, sacrificial, believing and persevering prayer for revival in their own hearts, in their churches and throughout Methodism'. Today there are still some who use that particular day in prayer for revival.
Conferences were arranged in a variety of places and notably the national Prayer Conference which, apart from 1955, met at The Hayes, Swanwick from 1954 until 2000. It has been instructive to read the comment made in 1955:
'The prayer sessions are FUNDAMENTAL and are a source of tremendous inspiration to all. The simple reliance on the HOLY SPIRIT results in men and women being blessed in the depths of their soul, without any organised scheme of attack or probing by the leaders. In fact it has been a matter of great amazement that the Holy Spirit has worked so deeply and the organisers have done so little organising'.
Following the first conference a letter was received stating 'The thing that impressed me was the spirit of hopeful expectancy such as we've never experienced before'. After the 1956 gathering a lady wrote: 'I was somewhat apprehensive, I must confess, about what seemed to me such protracted public prayer sessions, but in the event they were really wonderful. I learnt a very great deal and I was certainly very deeply convicted of negligence in prayer'. Another wrote: 'During the Sunday sessions we seemed to reach a new depth and reality in prayer, and the heart-searching presence of the Holy Spirit was most evident'. In a letter received following the 1957 conference a minister wrote: 'I think there should be more time for prayer sessions (they last an hour and three-quarters!). Incredible as it may seem, I never had the chance to pray aloud in any of the sessions. I was like the man at the Pool of Bethesda - while I was coming another stepped in before me!' Finally I must refer to the conference at The Hayes in 1959 when I was amazed at the potent sense of expectancy that covered the place. I have never known such an awareness of God's presence before a meeting. As the Chairman wrote afterwards: 'Who that experienced God's presence and power at 'Swanwick 1959' will ever forget it or give the glory to anyone but Him?'
Turning the pages, the dominant sense is of a hunger, a longing for revival and an expectancy that the Lord was on the move. In the late 1950s and early '60s that is how I recall it. Looking back at MRF's ministry in those early years I thank God for all that he did to stimulate and inspire men and women to follow through so faithfully what he had placed on their hearts. As well as my father, names like Roland Lamb, Sidney Lawrence, Leon Dale, Harry Stringer, Howard Belben, John Wynne, Ronald Taylor, Wesley Peacock, Robin Catlin and others all come to mind. As I have read and pondered following the request to write this article, I am deeply convicted to see where I am in relation to all this. In the Epilogue to The Kindled Flame: the Witness of the MRF (1987) Arthur Skevington Wood wrote: 'After thirty-five years since the MRF was inaugurated, why is it that we do not yet see revival? Why not here? Of course there are encouraging signs, but the fact remains'. The fact still remains! Whilst there is much for which to be deeply thankful, revival still tarries.
The moral and social state of our nation continues to decline and is far removed from the 1950s when our forebears were so deeply concerned. It is reported that a leading article in the Observer insisted 'We can be moral without religion; the end of Christianity is no bad thing'. Charles Clarke, one of the speakers at that searching 1959 conference, often quoted P T Forsyth: 'We tend to a Christianity without force, passion or effect; a suburban piety, homely and kindly, but unfit to cope with the actual moral case of the world. We cannot deal to any purpose with the exceeding sinfulness and deep damnation of the human race'. Serious words indeed; and despite many highly commendable means of ministry in these days they need careful consideration in the light of what really is happening within our society.
We should not despise the day of small things, but does that mean we should be satisfied with them or imagine that God has nothing more that he can do? The final paragraph of Rob Warner's book Prepare for Revival commences: 'Nothing is needed more than this: a mighty outpouring of the Spirit of God in revival power. Nothing less should burn at the heart of our prayers. As individuals, in local churches and across the land this needs to be our cry - "More Lord!"'. This echoes the cry of those early MRF pioneers and others like W E Sangster who spoke of 'costly, concentrated, widespread and believing prayer'. Samuel Chadwick in his day identified the key issue:
'The supreme need of the church is the spirit of prayer. There are many other needs, but the need of prayer transcends them all. With prayer all things are possible. This is the truism of the Christian faith. Nobody denies it. All history confirms it. Why do we not set ourselves to prayer? The remedy is sure and simple. The need is urgent and acknowledged. Why is it so slow in getting to work?'
Why indeed? All these points are well made and still relevant to us today.
Fifty years ago membership of the Methodist Revival Fellowship was open to anyone who was prepared to agree to certain pledges, one of which was: 'I engage to continue steadfastly in definite, believing prayer for revival in my heart, in my own church, throughout Methodism and throughout the whole world'. Reflecting on the history of the last fifty years, and also the fact that there has been no revival in mainland Britain for nearly a hundred years and we are now at the start of a new millennium, it may be that such a pledge would not be inappropriate for us all today. All of this has brought me full circle and I for one wish to confess my failure and stand my ground again in terms of that pledge. Will you stand with me?
Peter Barker is a retired banker and a Local Preacher in Wareham, Dorset. He is the son of the founder chairman of MRF, the Rev John Barker.