Over the last few days, I have been reflecting on the life and ministry of Michael Green, as have many since his death was announced last Thursday, and I have been taken by surprise by realising how many times our paths crossed. The first was around the time that I came to personal faith myself, at ‘Mission 77’ in my home town in Orpington. I do not remember much of what was said, but I do remember very clearly the lively sung worship (I can even still recall one of the songs) which was quite a surprising to me as I was still a practising Catholic.
I realised how important some of his books were to me in my early years of thinking about faith—To Corinth with Love was one of the first things I read about Paul’s letters; Freed to Serve helped me to think about ordination; I read I Believe in Satan’s Downfall along with the other books in the series; I used The Empty Cross of Jesus in teaching, appreciating Michael’s insistence that the cross and resurrection cannot be separated; and I am the only person I know who has read any of his early academic work The Meaning of Salvation, which you can still buy! (Michael claimed that it was then the only comprehensive overview of the subject…)
As a student at Oxford, I attended St Aldate’s where Michael was Rector and it was there that I became a committed Anglican—ironically, because of realising the importance of liturgical worship! I kept notes from all the sermons (and still have them in a blue file in the loft), and can still remember several of Michael’s sermons and his powerful rhetoric. I can remember the beginning of his Fresher’s Sermon, and his preaching on the Holy Spirit, talking about the theory of what the Spirit is supposed to do, and the reality for many today, connected with ‘Now I now many of you are sitting there thinking to yourself—Michael Green you are a fool!’ He summed up the contrast between theory and practice with the memorable: ‘Got it all, have you? Well, where it is then?!’ And I can still remember his exposition of the story of the Prodigal Son during the University mission in my second year.
Michael was keen on working in partnership with others, wherever possible, and he jointly hosted sessions with Keith Weston, then Rector of the more conservative St Ebbe’s (the distinction between the two neighbouring churches remains much the same today) for those exploring ordination. Ten years later I found myself joining the first Springboard team on a mission week to Northwood. Sharing my own testimony at an evening event in someone’s home made me rethink why and how I had come to faith; I had the slightly surreal experience of being volunteered by Michael to lead some street drama; and I remember dinner with Michael at a host family where he insisted on doing the washing up and not being waited on. The experience didn’t turn me into an evangelist (though see Anthony Delaney’s experience below). But I learnt from Michael’s commitment, energy (which I think might have made him difficult to live with at times), humility, and his willingness both to trust others and to see them grow into fruitful ministry for themselves—as well as his unwavering commitment to seeing people come to faith.
I ended up not only studying at the College of which he had been Principal, appointed to oversee its move from the London College of Divinity to being St John’s College, Nottingham, but also later joining the staff there, and living in the house which Michael had lived in and from whose windows he shot rabbits. (By the time we were there, the field at the back of the house had become an executive housing estate, so no more shooting allowed.) Michael’s legacy to the Church and the gospel was enormous, and I suspect there are very few evangelical Anglicans of my generation who were not touched and influenced by his ministry.
Seventeen years ago, in his autobiography Adventure of Faith, he anticipated his own death with realism and joy:
One of the best insights about life after death came my way quite recently. For many years I was friends with Terry Winter, the Canadian evangelist who had a remarkable television ministry. I did three programmes with him shortly before he died suddenly and unexpectedly. His last programme was on resurrection and in it he said, ‘You will hear one day that Terry Winter is dead. Don’t you believe it. He will be more alive than ever’. That programme was aired, in its regular scheduling, two days after he died. I could not have expressed it as well as he did, but I share his confidence as I look to the ‘tomorrow’ of my own life.
I include below three further reflections, the first from Rod Symmons who was curate with Michael at St Aldate’s and later taught at Trinity College, Bristol and was Vicar of Redlands Parish Church. Then two shorter pieces, one from Stephen Travis who joined Michael on the staff at St John’s in 1970, and the other from Anthony Delaney, a student at St John’s in the 1990s who now leads Ivy Church in Manchester.
Rod Symmons writes: My first encounter with Michael was a handwritten letter addressed to me at my theological college inviting me to explore the possibility of becoming curate at St Aldate’s Church in Oxford.
A few weeks later I arrived at the Rectory on a Friday afternoon for a weekend interview. Michael’s secretary greeted me at the door and showed me into the kitchen, where Michael was skinning a rabbit. I pretty quickly worked out that this was not going to be a traditional interview—or a traditional curacy! I worked with Michael for his final three and a half years at St Aldate’s. At times it was exhausting, but it was also richly rewarding and I will for ever be grateful for the opportunity of sharing those years with him.
A Passionate Evangelist
Within a few days of my ordination Michael took me with him to a funeral he was taking at one of the colleges. He didn’t know the family—he was filling in for the chaplain who was on holiday—but he had formed a relationship with them preparing for the funeral and his address at the funeral included a perfectly crafted evangelistic appeal. He offered copies of The Day Death Died at the end and a good number of the congregation took them.
This was typical of Michael—every conversation was an opportunity, whether planned or spontaneous. At the start of each autumn term he would preach the “Freshers’ Sermon” to a packed St Aldate’s with hundreds responding to the invitation to join a Beginners’ Group. In personal interviews he used a picture of the Light of the World that hung above the fireplace in his study to help a succession of visitors to find a living relationship with Christ.
An Unconventional Pastor
Michael’s mind worked too fast to find it easy to just sit and chat with old ladies over a cup of tea, but he built a church that was deeply pastoral by identifying, releasing and affirming the gifts of others. He cared about people and he wanted them to be cared for. Michael was most at ease with university students, but he wanted the church to be representative of the whole city.
He built structures that enabled the church to achieve that. Thirty years later, I look back on the Pastoral Team at St Aldate’s with immense affection—it was a group made up of pastoral staff and lay members of the congregation that was extraordinarily attentive to God and to the needs of the congregation. I discovered that Michael had a habit of setting off half an hour early to a meeting and visiting a family on the way. Sometimes this would lead to a pastoral conversation, sometimes he would pitch in and help with the washing up and sometimes he would read a child a bedtime story. He might have been a global figure on the Christian stage, but within the church he was a pastor to everyone.
A Humble Leader
Michael built a staff team of people with backgrounds and views that differed from his own. On average he probably had about 20 ideas a day, roughly 18 of which would be completely bonkers and the other two would be brilliant. The problem for Michael was that he had little idea which was which, but he trusted his team to tell him and he submitted his ideas for the church, the invitations to speak and write and (ultimately) his decision to move on from St Aldate’s to the wisdom of the team that he had assembled.
On occasions he would unwittingly say things that caused offence to others. When he discovered that he had done this he was always mortified and would immediately unconditionally and sincerely apologise. It is a quality that was deeply endearing and meant that nobody I am aware of worked with Michael without loving him and having a strong loyalty to him.
A Committed Disciple
Michael came to St Aldate’s from St John’s Nottingham with an immense reputation through his writing and speaking, but in his first sermon at St Aldate’s he wore ‘L Plates’ over his surplice to indicate that he was a learner. He had never led a church and he and the congregation were going to be on a journey. That spirit of learning reflected the fact that above everything else, Michael was a follower of Christ. He and Rosemary led a very simple life—he drove an old car until it died, they were incredibly hospitable (Rosemary produced industrial quantities of flapjack) but their kitchen furniture consisted of metal and canvas chairs that must have come from a church hall sometime in the 1960’s and I don’t think he troubled the many clothing stores within a stone’s throw of the Rectory a great deal with his custom. His income from writing was fed back into the church to employ staff colleagues.
He preached a whole-hearted gospel and he lived it out. He moved from conversation into prayer and back again and his life was built on an unquestioning and uncompromising obedience to the Scriptures. In amongst the business of ministry Michael and Rosemary raised a remarkable family of children. Although they had all left school before I arrived, Beth and I got to know each of them at different times and hugely admired them.
This was a rich season in the life of the church with a blend of evangelical preaching (enriched by scholarship) paired with an openness to the Holy Spirit in a broad charismatic renewal. In the 30 years since we left St Aldate’s our lives have continually crossed with people whose own lives were shaped by Michael’s ministry there. Throughout the 13 years I was on the faculty at Trinity College in Bristol, there was always someone who had been part of St Aldate’s at that time—including colleagues on faculty. (I also first met the editor of this blog when he was an undergraduate worshipping at St Aldate’s!)
I count it one the greatest privileges of my life to have worked with Michael and Rosemary and we are praying for Rosemary, Tim, Sarah, Jenny and Jonathan and their families as they travel through this season. I am praying too that those of us whose lives were shaped by his may have the courage to take up the baton and live lives that are as wholly committed to Christ as his was.
Stephen Travis writes: I first met Michael Green at university, when he delivered three lectures which were to become his book Runaway World. They were a brilliant combination of apologetics and evangelism. which made a deep impression on many listeners. A year or two later I was completing my PhD in theology, and looking for a job. I ventured a letter to Michael asking if he had any advice for me. To my surprise he suggested I should go to meet him and colleagues at the London College of Divinity where he taught, and was about to become Principal. On my arrival he immediately suggested a game of squash. He found me a shirt and shorts to wear, and then proceeded to beat me comprehensively. In due course they appointed me—a relatively inexperienced Methodist laymen—to teach the New Testament.
Michael was Principal for six years, overseeing the college’s move to Nottingham, now renamed St John’s College. Those first years in Nottingham were exciting days. Some old traditions died somewhere between Northwood and Nottingham, and new ones developed. Women were encouraged to study at the college, and afterwards worked in various forms of ministry. From time to time Michael would be away for a couple of weeks, leading missions in various distant countries. A consequence was that a year or two later men and women from the US, South Africa and Australia, attracted by the kind of ministry he embodied, would arrive as students.
Michael was a risk-taker, and most of the risks he took came off. Any that didn’t he would attribute to the Welsh blood in him. Under his leadership, St John’s was a liberating, risk-taking place. Rarely are the gifts of scholarship, writing and evangelism combined in such abundance in one person. I personally, and the church as a whole, have much to be grateful for as we remember him.
Anthony Delaney writes: During my training Michael came to do a mission at St John’s and took me under his wing somewhat. As an impoverished student I had no money to come to a course he put on later to train evangelists so he let me come and tape (old school) the talks instead. I fluffed taping his, but he let me off! I was so ashamed of how badly I had messed up but he insisted on thanking me effusively, saying something in Latin and then, ‘We couldn’t have done this without you’ – not true of course, but a measure of his grace.
I went on to be invited to be part of his team on more missions and saw how he could operate missionally across a variety of church tradition, by focusing on presenting Christ to all. At one mission in Northampton we were sent out to various pubs to befriend people and invite them to hear Michael preach. We’d talked to a man who said he’d be working that night but asked more questions about Jesus and eventually asked, ‘Can’t I just do it here?’ He gave his life to Christ.
When we shared this at the team meeting next morning, I’ll never forget that Michael gasped out loud. I saw projectile tears burst from his eyes. It was as if this was the first time he had ever heard it happen. Despite seeing thousands come to faith through his ministry, he never lost the thrill of the greatest miracle – the lost sheep found.
Nor can I forget one stirring, stinging sermon on the church at Laodicea. Nobody ever described Michael as lukewarm, now he receives his reward for sharing the passionate love of Jesus as described in the letter to that church, “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne”.
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