Definitions are often misleading, but somehow it’s difficult to live without them. I tend to get round it by not sticking to one definition. I used to call myself a ‘radical’, in the sense of wanting to cut away all the surplus growth and get back to the roots. Unfortunately ‘radical’ has changed its meaning now and tends to mean an extreme fundamentalist with a tendency to violence, and I’m certainly not that! I suppose I am a ‘liberal’, but there’s something a bit wishy-washy about that. It seems to lack passion.
Other ways I could define my faith are: ‘progressive’, ‘free thinking’, ‘questioning’ or ‘post-modern’. I hesitate to call myself a follower of Jesus – if I am, I follow him at a distance. I see myself more as a Jesus fan. Perhaps ‘disciple’ is a better word, because ‘disciple means ‘learner’, and I’ve still got a lot to learn.
Labels can be such an embarrassment. I suggest you just read what I write and judge for yourself.
My Faith Story
I was brought up in the Welsh Nonconformist tradition. Christian faith was a steady background to life, a moral code and a source of comfort in trouble. It was not intense or militant. The chapel was a place of prayer and preaching, but it was also a centre of social life, a place for concerts, plays, teas and suppers.
Our church was a Baptist one, in which people are not baptised as babies but when they are old enough to make their own decision. I was a ‘good’ boy and quite religious, and when I was twelve my parents and other members of the church felt that I was ready to be baptised. I only had a vague idea of its meaning at the time, but it was a memorable experience, including slipping on the steps on the way out of the pool and nearly getting dipped twice!
My peaceful life as a ‘good’ young member of the church was shattered when I was about fourteen. Some students came to do an evangelistic mission in the town, and suddenly some of my friends in the youth group were talking about this marvellous experience of being ‘saved’. They were talking about a message I had not heard before. It was probably there in the background all the time, but had never been spelt out so clearly. It seemed that to be a Christian you had to go through ‘conviction of sin’ and ‘give your heart to the Lord’, then you would have a glorious experience of being ‘born again’. I had never had this kind of experience, and couldn’t conjure it up for myself, so I began to feel like an outsider.
All this was reinforced by Billy Graham’s first visits to London. Everybody was raving about him. Coach trips to Harringay and Wembley were organised, and the rallies were streamed (sound only in those days) to local churches all over the country. There was always the call to come forward, receive counselling, and ‘give your heart to the Lord’. The message being constantly drummed into me was that I was not saved, and if I died I would go to hell. Living a good life would get me nowhere unless I had this ‘experience’ others seemed to be having.
Many good things have been said about Billy Graham, but I have never been one of his fans. His campaigns have no doubt changed many lives for the better, but who can tell how many sensitive young people have been traumatised by him – and even more by his inferior imitators – and how many have been put off Christianity for life?
At this time, I started to have doubts about Christianity anyway. My favourite subjects in school were English, French and Latin, especially the literature. I was inspired by Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and so many others. I found myself thinking that none of these great, sensitive people had this ‘born again’ experience. Does this mean they are now burning in hell? And what about those who were not Christian believers at all? I was reading Lucretius and finding myself drawn to his philosophy of Epicureanism: life is meant to be enjoyed. This seemed much truer and more attractive than the intensity of evangelical Christianity. Under its influence I became calmer and happier, and started to see at the age of sixteen all the pleasures that life could bring me. I never stopped going to chapel – our family discipline was too strong for that. I didn’t dare to air my doubts in the chapel or at home, though I did have some discussions in a little circle of school friends. But I was hardly a believer any more.
It was literature that brought me back to faith. One of the poets we were studying for A Level was Browning, and I was advised to read G K Chesterton’s biography of him. This book was an eye-opener. It made me realise that Browning was a religious poet, steeped in Christianity but seeing it from quite a different angle. I began to see the relevance of the Incarnation – God becoming one of his own creatures in order to make his experience complete. It also opened my eyes to the truth behind justification by faith: ‘a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’
Such ideas were a little different from orthodox Christianity, but close enough to shed a fresh and exciting light on the familiar traditional doctrines. I realised that there was more than one way of seeing Christianity. And so, at the age of seventeen, I became a believer. Our chapel at that time was without a minister, and the young people were leading the Christmas morning service. I had been asked to give a short sermon, and for the first time I found myself talking about the meaning of Christmas with passion and enthusiasm rather than just repeating the old familiar phrases. From then on I moved confidently among my evangelical friends, realising that although I thought differently from them I was one of them rather than an alien.
Soon afterwards I came across a little book called The Man Nobody Knows, by Bruce Barton. This too was an eye opener. It pointed out how mistaken was the typical Sunday School image of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. Jesus was a real man, a carpenter with rough hands, a physically strong man, a party-goer, a man capable of ridiculing the hypocritical religious leaders with his stinging satire at one moment and being gently playful with children at the next. Bruce Barton was an American advertising agent and portrayed Jesus as the business genius who founded a great world-wide organisation. Re-reading the book in later life I realised how superficial some parts of it are, but at the age of seventeen I was blown over by it.
This was my final year in school. At Bangor University I found two Christian societies, the Evangelical Union and the Student Christian Movement (SCM). They were of about equal strength. The first was what is generally today called a Christian Union – firm in its doctrines and full of ‘born again’ Christians. The other was open and exploratory. I joined both of them. Although SCM was much nearer to my kind of faith, I still felt close to the evangelicals with their solid Bible study and joyful personal faith. In the Evangelical Union I felt embraced by a circle of friends. The SCM was cooler, with a more ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. Its reluctance to put pressure on people meant it took longer for a newcomer to get to the stage of feeling like an insider. But I persevered, and halfway through my second year I was elected to the committee.
It is symptomatic of the difference between the two societies that while still in my first year I had been nominated for the committee of the Evangelical Union. I declined. A day or so later a member of the committee asked me why, and I told him I could not assent to the Doctrinal Basis of IVF (the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship as it is now). This included such things as the infallibility of Scripture and a literal Second Coming. He turned to me and in a tone of deep concern said, ‘What exactly is your problem?’, to which I instantly answered, ‘No problem – I just don’t believe it’. A few weeks later the IVF Secretary for Wales came round in the course of his travels, and invited me to lunch. Someone had evidently mentioned me to him as a pastoral concern. We had a good friendly discussion and he persuaded me to at least remain a member. It was only after leaving Bangor and going on to theological college in Oxford that I broke my ties with that brand of Christianity.
SCM introduced me to the ecumenical movement. At home, it was normal for Nonconformists to visit each other’s chapels and feel they were part of the same family. We didn’t have much to do with Anglicans – those rather posh people who went to ‘church’, wore fancy robes and read their services out of a book. And as for Roman Catholics, they were practically on another planet. In those pre-Vatican II days Catholics still had very little to do with Protestants, but in the SCM I got to know more about other kinds of Christians and feel a kinship with them.
It was while at Bangor that I did what most young Christians did in those days – I read C S Lewis’s Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. The latter converted me from being a free thinker enthused by a few aspects of Christianity to being a believer in the whole traditional Christian creed. I had become ‘orthodox’ – though it turned out to be a phase that lasted only a few years.
‘Orthodox’ certainly did not mean being a biblical fundamentalist. I came to realise more and more that this was not only scientifically unbelievable but a heresy too, a distortion of authentic Christian faith. As I got more deeply into biblical studies I came to love the Bible more than ever and to be angrier than ever about the way fundamentalism restricts and abuses it.
At Oxford the evangelicals were in OICCU, the Oxford Inter-collegiate Christian Union. For me the two options were SCM and the Baptist society, which was named after John Bunyan. Its existence was a surprise to me. It had never occurred to me that there was need for a Baptist society. At home and in Bangor I had attended a Baptist church on Sundays, but I had always assumed that student societies were for open discussion about Christianity generally. I soon learned that in most universities in England not only Catholics and Anglicans but Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists had their own societies, carefully watched over by the local ministers to keep students in the fold. In Oxford too, the SCM was rather aloof and cold, so in spite of initial misgivings I soon found that my main ‘spiritual home’ after the theological college itself was the John Bunyan Society.
Regent’s Park College was very small in those days. It had just become a Permanent Private Hall of the University, but was still almost entirely devoted to training men for the Baptist ministry. The first woman came in during my time there. This all-male community was almost like a monastery. It was a spiritual hothouse. In addition to attending morning and evening prayers in the chapel, I had a discipline of personal prayer before breakfast and just before going to bed. In fact, I was a bit self-righteous about it. If other students came into breakfast late and said they had just got up, I wondered when they had said their prayers if at all. We were a very pastorally caring community. In fact, if you were going through a rather difficult time it was a bit irritating to find other students making you a target for practising their pastoral technique! However, it was generally a very comfortable and supportive environment.
After completing my degree I started on post-graduate study – a project that failed academically, but opened me to some very significant experiences. I spent a year in Germany at the University of Göttingen. I was fortunate to get a place in a student hostel, but soon found the atmosphere there very different from that of Regent’s Park College. It was a secular community. People weren’t so ‘nice’ to each other, and quarrels were more direct and blunt. More than that, there were people there who actually were mean and devious.
It was an international hostel, and had a policy of providing twin rooms, each occupied by one German and one foreign student. This meant that I no longer had the privacy I had been used to in Oxford. My regular discipline of prayer went to pieces. I thought of trying to go out each day to pray in a church, but found that unlike the Anglican churches in Oxford the Lutheran churches in Göttingen were not open during the week. I tried a Catholic church but found it too noisy and distracting. I began to feel very guilty about missing my daily prayer times.
One day during my second semester there, my room mate had to go out very early to do library duty. I decided this was a great opportunity to snatch some time for prayer. I had just settled down to it when I heard footsteps. There had been a mistake and he was back already. I had a strange feeling at that moment that maybe God was saying something to me. Was I somehow meant not to be saying my prayers?
There was another issue that puzzled me too. In my first semester I had not seen much of my room mate. We never really became friends. But in the second semester my room mate was Rüdiger and we became friends for life. We fitted in very well with each other. We went out together, we ate and drank together, we lent each other money when funds were tight, and each of us always knew where the other was going. I found my sense of belonging and security revolved around him. I wasn’t in love with him, but somehow I was emotionally dependent on him as a kind of other half. It was the exceptionally cold winter of 1963, and that cosy little room, with Rüdiger always ready with a cup of coffee, was the centre of my life. I began to ask myself: was I putting him in place of God?
The other thing that worried me was that Rüdiger was a nominal Lutheran who hardly ever went to church, but he was one of the nicest, kindest people I had ever met. He was as good as any of the committed Christians I knew, and better than many. It got me asking: is there any real point in being a Christian?
Towards the end of this time Jochen, another friend in the hostel who was a theological student, lent me Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I had heard of Bonhoeffer as a martyr to Nazism, but knew nothing else about him. I didn’t altogether relish reading the book, but because Jochen recommended it to me I thought I should give it a go. The result was what I came to think of as my second conversion. I became acquainted with Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about ‘man come of age’ and ‘religionless Christianity’. Suddenly my carefully cherished ‘spiritual life’ and confident ‘theological position’ seemed false. I realised that true faith was something much less ‘religious’ – a way of living in the world ‘as if God did not exist’. I resolved to be much more humble in my religion.
With this in mind I returned for a final few months at Regent’s Park College. Amazingly I found that while I had been away some of the other students were being inspired by Bonhoeffer too. A few weeks later Bishop John Robinson’s book Honest to God was published, and the whole country was talking about the same issues.
Shortly after this I was appointed to an assistant ministry at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London to work with Howard Williams, a controversial, outspoken radical preacher. Being an assistant I was not preaching most Sundays but listening to Howard Williams. It was this that restored and rebuilt my faith, but a very different kind of faith from what I had had before.
It was about the end of 1979, at the age of forty-three, that I had what could be described as my third conversion. I was having a year-long break in Glasgow University, working for a Master of Theology degree on the question of the New Testament canon. I soon came to a logical conclusion about the Bible that I had somehow not fully grasped before. Not being a fundamentalist, I had played with ideas about the authority of the Bible. Is it authoritative on essentials while fallible on the things that don’t matter so much? But what are the essentials? Is it authoritative only when speaking of God? One only has to look at some of the contradictory things it says about God to realise that this doesn’t hold water either. Then I came to realise that if the Bible is not absolutely infallible in every detail (which is impossible to believe) then it has no certain authority at all. There is no reason to believe anything just because it is in the Bible.
A little later, I was cycling home from church on a fine sunny winter morning. It was during Advent, and I was singing to myself the closing hymn of the service:
‘Thou art the everlasting Word, the Father’s only Son,
God manifestly seen and heard, and heaven’s beloved one.’
It suddenly struck me that the fact that I wasn’t sure I believed these words did not in any way diminish my pleasure in singing them, and that this said something about the whole Christian faith. You don’t have to ‘believe’ it in the sense of believing its doctrines are ‘facts’. You only need to enjoy it and live as if it is true.
Up to that time I had been a ‘liberal’ Christian, believing some parts of Christian doctrine while questioning or abandoning others. Since then I have become a kind of ‘post-modern’ Christian, accepting all of it but in a different way. My attitude to the Christian faith is that it is a story. I am quite relaxed about which parts of it are factually true, but it is the best story in the world, the story that more than any other satisfies the needs and aspirations of humanity, and so, in the most meaningful sense, it is true.
I have an ambiguous relationship with belief in God. I find it hard to believe that God is a person out there or up there somewhere. I see God as a universal, dynamic reality in which ‘we live and move and have our being’. And yet sometimes in moments of prayer or meditation I feel a strong conviction that God is a person who loves me, and at moments like that I am happy not to question it. I ‘believe’ as strongly as ever, but in a different way.