At the Edmonton Folk Music Festival this year, Bruce Cockburn participated in a session stage called ‘Heroes’ (I can’t remember who all the other participants were, but one of them was Tim O’Brien). Bruce said that most of the heroes he knew were ordinary people, and he talked about travelling in Central America and watching people going out to work in the fields on sweltering hot days, thinking of the poverty that many of them lived in and their hope that the future would be better. Then he sang this song, and I realized that gradually, over the years, without me noticing it happen, this has become one of my favourite Bruce Cockburn songs.
Marci and I are going back to England on Sunday evening for a three week visit. This was originally planned as a visit with my Mum and Dad to help my Mum celebrate a birthday of some significance, but it was not to be; as most of my friends will know, my Dad died on August 12th, and his brother John died three days later. So our first week of holiday will include my Dad’s funeral (at which I am to preach) on September 3rd and Uncle John’s funeral on September 5th. After that we hope to have some holiday time, help Mum celebrate her birthday, and visit with some other friends and family.
We will be spending most of our time in beautiful Oakham, where my Mum lives, but will have a couple of other short trips as well.
Here’s a picture of Oakham that i took in May 2009.
August 28th is the Feast of St. Augustine. If you’re curious and want to study a bit about Augustine, I strongly suggest doing it under the guidance of one who knew and loved his work.
Listen to Nic Jones singing one of his most recognizable songs – and listen to Joe Jones just nailing the guitar part, with a few little twists of his own to boot!
I didn’t actually think I’d ever get to hear Nic sing this song live, so this is a real treat!
There was a time in my online life when I got involved in theological arguments on blogs fairly frequently. Some of those arguments took place on this blog, but most of them were on the blogs of others.
I’ve noticed over the last few months that my energy for that sort of thing is getting less and less. The main problem is that the same conversation happens over and over again. It’s like being trapped in an endless daytime soap opera. Most people aren’t really open to having their minds changed, and, to be honest, I’m not always open to it either! And when I am, it’s much more likely to happen in the context of a one on one conversation with a trusted friend than it is with someone who I only know as a blog persona.
I’ve noticed that one of the effects Dad’s death is having on me is that I’m really not interested in wasting time and energy on stuff that isn’t that important or productive, or that I don’t enjoy doing. I remember a letter of C.S. Lewis to a godchild in which he told her that there are really only three kinds of things we need to do:
- Things it’s necessary to do (brush your teeth, pay your taxes, earn a living)
- Things you ought to do (obey God’s commandments)
- Things you enjoy doing.
Right. No more blog arguments. I’m done.
I want to go into a little more detail about my Dad.
As I said in a previous post, my Dad, Robert Eric Chesterton (‘Bob’), was born in Leicester, UK on December 5th 1931. He was the third of five children of George Edgar Chesterton and Dorothy Mary née Hodkinson. My grandfather’s occupation is listed on Dad’s birth certificate as ‘Electrical Engineer’s Draughtsman’, but he worked for over fifty years for a watch and clockmaking company. He had previously served as an infantryman in the First World War, during which he was captured and spent nearly two years as a P.O.W.
My grandparents were both musical and artistic; they both painted watercolours (I have some of their paintings in my possession), my grandfather played the violin, and they both enjoyed listening to classical music. These interests were successfully passed on to my father, who always loved drawing and made his living for twelve years as a commercial artist. He could hammer out a tune on a piano, but his main instrument was the voice; from a very young age he always sang in the church choir, and I remember in the 1970s that he could sing and teach any of the four parts – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. I remember him saying that his voice never broke, it just added extra range!
Dad’s parents were regular churchgoers and when they moved to Abingdon Road when Dad was quite young they started attending St. Barnabas’, Leicester, the church where my parents were eventually married and I was baptized. My grandfather served as a churchwarden there and during his term of office he would cycle down to the church every morning to pray Morning Prayer at 7.30 with the vicar.
Dad left Gateway School at the age of 16, worked for a while and then did his National Service in the Royal Air Force from age 18-20. He worked as a radio operator and my Mum recalls him saying that he sat out in a radio hut in the middle of an airfield, where he was often visited by local girls who liked chatting with one of the boys in blue. In those days, of course, two years’ national service in the armed forces was compulsory for every young man in the UK, but my Dad’s family had a particularly strong military tradition as my oldest uncle John and my youngest uncle Roger both served in the Royal Navy for extended periods of time, well beyond the requirements of national service.
After finishing his national service my Dad went to work as a commercial artist in the advertising business. He worked first for J.E. Slater of Kibworth, and later at H.T.H. Peck Sox and Stockings. Those were of course the days before the use of photographs in advertising, so I suspect that Dad spent a lot of time painting legs! He had a very steady hand and I remember that he took pride in being able to paint letters in a straight line without the use of a ruler of any kind.
Dad was always involved in the Boy Scout movement, first as a scout and a rover, then as a leader and eventually as Assistant Scout Master with the 91st Leicester Scouts. I have his copy of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys – an older edition, with delightful pen and ink drawings that I know my Dad would have appreciated.
Church youth groups also loomed large in his life. There was a lively Anglican Young People’s Association at St. Barnabas, with weekly meetings with a varied program, including spiritual, social and service events. It was at that group that Dad first met Shirley Ann Taylor in 1954, and before long they started courting. There was a nearly seven year age difference between them, and this may have been one reason for the hesitation both families felt about their relationship. Dad’s father was a skilled worker, a draughtsman, while my Mum’s father was a bus driver, and Abingdon Road was certainly a little more classy than Woodland Road, where the Taylors lived; this may account for some of the hesitation Dad’s family felt. As for my Taylor grandfather, who was a very practical man, Dad told me later in life that initially he had not been happy about his daughter marrying an artist.
However, Bob and Shirley persevered. Dad cycled once a week down to Scout meetings, and Mum arranged that she would always be walking her Grandpa Reynolds’ dog at the time; the result was a lot of conversation and a very dejected dog! Eventually they got engaged, and they were married on May 19th 1957; Dad was 25 and Mum 18. They had two children; me (Timothy Arthur) on November 1st 1958, and my brother, Michael Charles, on August 20th 1960.
Our family lived in Woodland Road, first at number 1 and later at number 3; my Taylor grandparents lived across the road at number 8, and my great-grandfather Reynolds (Mum’s mother’s father) lived at number 20. When Mike and I were little boys my Mum’s younger sister Carole often babysat for us; she was courting Alan Hewitt and we were quite involved in their courtship! I remember that Dad’s place of work was quite close to a railway yard, and during his lunch break he would often go down and draw pencil sketches of the trains, which he then gave to Mike and I to adorn our bedroom wall. The houses on Woodland Road were quite small; it was late nineteenth century industrial revolution row housing (quite like Coronation Street, actually!), and my Taylor grandparents were quite unusual in owning theirs as most people were tenants (indeed, at no point in their married life did my parents ever own a home of their own).
Now I need to backtrack a bit. As I said earlier, Dad had been brought up as a regular churchgoer, singing in the choir and attending the youth group. However, he experienced a personal spiritual awakening in Holy Week 1954; he attended daily morning services with his father at St. Barnabas, and he told me that the readings spoke powerfully to him during that week, as well as the communion services. Later in life, he always looked back on this week as his conversion experience.
As a result of this spiritual awakening Dad looked around for an avenue of service and before long, after conversation with the vicar of St. Barnabas’, he was put forward for lay reader training. Unusually, the vicar of St. Barnabas’ began to use Dad as a lay reader from very early on in his four-year training period, and he also served in other churches in the city and in the villages outside Leicester; Mum tells me that in his ten years of lay reader ministry he led services and preached in seventy different churches in Leicester Diocese. Soon he began to think about ordination; he went for his first ACCM (‘Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry’) selection conference for ordained ministry shortly after his marriage, but was turned down on the grounds that he was newly married and needed to get used to that new situation first. I think it needs to be said that in those days ordination was definitely a middle-class, university-educated preserve, and it was quite unusual for a working class boy like my Dad, who had left school at 16 and made his way in the working world for some years, to think of becoming an ordained minister.
Early in 1960 the Lee Abbey evangelism team came to St. Barnabas’ Church to lead an evangelistic mission; Mum thinks it may have lasted as long as two weeks. Mum and Dad offered their home for use in evening meetings, team meals and so on. In those days Lee Abbey was associated with the Keswick ‘Deeper Life’ movement, and it was through the Lee Abbey team that Dad first heard the term ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’, a term that would come to fruition in his life twelve years later in Southminster. Mum says that the mission had a huge impact on Dad’s spiritual life and led to a far greater emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, indwelling believers and giving them power to serve and to be holy. One of the leaders that week was Leslie Sutton, of whom Dad spoke with great fondness for the rest of his life.
In 1962 Dad again went to an ACCM selection conference, and this time he was accepted. By now of course Dad was 31, and I want to point out again how unusual this was in those days, when most ordination candidates were single men straight out of university. Very few theological colleges in those days made any allowance for married men, but one that did was St. Aidan’s, Birkenhead (near Liverpool). Mum and Dad had very little money, so Mum stayed in Leicester; she went out to work in a toy shop while my grandmother across the road looked after Mike and me, while Dad went to St. Aidan’s for two years (in those days in the Church of England ordination candidates over the age of 30 could be ordained after two years of training). I remember that my artist Dad used to design elaborate calendars that Mum could use to help us boys know how long it would be until our Dad came home for a vacation. I also remember him bringing home a large Bible story book for us, a book I poured over after I learned to read (although the water colour illustrations were also impressive).
Dad was ordained as a deacon in September 1965, and we left Woodland Road for Kirby Muxloe where he served his first curacy. The village of Kirby Muxloe was close to the new housing estate of Leicester Forest East and during Dad’s time as curate the new church of St. Andrew was built there. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the pews at St. Andrew’s with my Dad standing in the pulpit giving a children’s sermon, which he illustrated by drawing a picture of Thunderbird 2 from the Gerry Anderson ‘Thunderbirds’ TV show (we had no TV at home in those days, but I remember watching it at my grandparents’ home!). In those days clergy customarily dressed in sober dark colours, but Dad asked Mum to knit him brightly coloured sweaters that he wore over his clerical shirt. He always wore his clerical shirts with the sleeves rolled up (was this the scoutmaster in him coming out?), giving the impression of a man of action. It was also at Leicester Forest East that he learned to drive and bought his first car; he celebrated getting his driver’s licence by driving home and backing the car into the brick gatepost of our house. Cars were strongly built in those days, but the gatepost was demolished!
Mum and Dad had know the Rev. Jack Sperry, a well-known Arctic missionary from Leicester, for some years, and it was through Jack’s influence that they offered themselves for missionary service in the Canadian Arctic, travelling by sea to Canada in 1967 and then up to Cambridge Bay in the Kitekmeot region of the central Arctic. However, this was not a happy experience for Dad and Mum and for us two boys. Mum said later that they had been misled about the schooling situation and were not aware that after one year I would have had to go out to the residential school in Inuvik (aged 10), and she was not prepared for this to happen. Also, in those days Inuktitut was the spoken language in the community and Dad quickly discovered that he was not a linguist. They therefore left Cambridge Bay after just over a year and returned to the UK, where Dad served his second curacy at St. Thomas’ Church, St. Anne’s on Sea in the Diocese of Blackburn.
In December 1969 Dad was appointed as vicar of St. Leonard’s Church, Southminster, Essex, where he served for six years, his longest parish appointment. The time in Southminster was especially fruitful for Dad, as it was here that the Lee Abbey influence came to full fruition; he encountered some Pentecostal Christians, began attending a weekly prayer meeting with them, and in Holy Week 1971 experienced a personal infilling or ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. This began his involvement in what was later referred to as the ‘charismatic renewal’.
Dad had a powerful ministry at St. Leonard’s, and during his six years there the church grew and many people committed their lives to Christ. Small groups were started (then known as ‘home meetings’) for prayer and study; contemporary services were introduced, and – oh how revolutionary! – eventually a guitar group was formed to accompany singing (I was a member of it!). The Fisherfolk were then writing and introducing their folk-influenced worship songs and many of them found their way into the worship at St. Leonard’s. It was during these years, on March 5th 1972, that I committed my life to Christ at my Dad’s prompting, and I was one of the many who took my first steps in prayer, Bible reading, witnessing and ministry under my Dad’s guidance.
During our time in Southminster an older single lady, Flo Almeroth, came to join our family; she was a gifted organist and eventually became the organist at St. Leonard’s. She continued to live with Mum and Dad until her death in 1990.
Our family was on the move again in December 1975; it was back to Canada for us, to Ashcroft in British Columbia, where my Dad became the rector of Ashcroft and Savona. He served there for two years, during which time I left home and went to Toronto to train as an evangelist with the Church Army in Canada. The rest of the family left Ashcroft in early 1978, spent some months working in a Church Army project in Manitoba, and then returned to England in the Fall of 1978.
For the rest of his ministry my Dad would serve short, three to four year periods in various parishes; he was described by an older minister as a ‘nutcracker’ who would bring new life into moribund congregations and then hand them over to someone else to do follow-up, while he moved on to the next one. I often describe my Dad as a gifted pastoral evangelist who left a long line of newly committed Christians behind him, some of whom are in ordained ministry today. He was an evangelical and a charismatic and had little interest in liturgics or in the institution of the church. Ethel Chapman, a deaconess in the Diocese of Chelmsford, once said of him that ‘the trouble is that Bob is a missionary at heart, and that’s a dirty word to most people around here!’ But this never bothered Dad; he was a maverick his whole life long and had little interest in fitting into the system!
I should say that in his ministry Dad continued to use his artistic and musical gifts. Choirs and music (both traditional and contemporary) were always a strong interest, and later in his ministry he wrote many songs and hymns, chiefly personal in nature, some of which were used in worship in his parishes. As I mentioned before, he also used drawing and art as tools in children’s ministry. In this way he enjoyed using his artistic imagination to serve God and communicate the gospel to people of all ages.
After his return from Canada in 1978 Dad served parishes in the dioceses of Manchester, York, Lincoln, and Birmingham, some with as many as four points. In 1993, after twenty-eight years of full time ministry, his health began to break down and arthritis took its toll. He took early retirement in 1994 and he and Mum moved to Oakham, not far from Leicester where they had both been born. Thus began one of the most rewarding periods of Dad’s life; he held licences and had ‘permission to officiate’ in three dioceses, Leicester, Lincoln, and Peterborough, and was able to serve in parishes that were between clergy as well as helping out colleagues who needed extra assistance. One of those parishes was St. Mary’s, Ketton, a few miles east of Oakham, where Dad had a particularly fruitful two-year period of ministry. mainly on Sundays but also midweek from time to time.
Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2005, followed by scoliosis of the spine and several other health problems. It therefore became necessary for him to retire completely from ministry. As long as he was able to drive, he and Mum continued to attend St. Mary’s, Ketton regularly; however, after he gave up his driver’s licence in 2009 this became more difficult for him.
People often said to my Mum how lucky she was to have two fine Christian sons, and her reply was always ‘Luck had nothing to do with it!’ After some years in sales my brother Mike began to work for TEARfund (‘The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund’) and has worked with them in donor relations ever since. He is married to Jeanette and they make their home in Manchester; they have two children. I of course joined the Church Army in Canada and served with them as a parish evangelist for twelve years before being ordained; like my Dad, I did not go through a standard seminary-style education program! I married Marci and we have four children and one grandchild, Noah. Dad took great delight in Noah, though he was only able to travel to meet him once; it was one of his great sadnesses that declining health made it impossible for him to visit ‘Mister Noah’ more often.
As the years went by Dad’s condition deteriorated and he became more and more debilitated. He had a horror of being institutionalized and my Mum cared for him at home. Eventually, like many Parkinson’s sufferers, he became almost immobilized and had difficulty with basic bodily functions, including talking and swallowing. My Mum became his full-time caregiver, and she was the only person who was with him on the evening of August 12th 2013 when he died – truly a blessed release for him. I was on my way to see him, but I don’t begrudge him those twenty-four hours; his suffering had been intense, and I’m glad he is now at peace.
This is a tribute, but my Dad would be mortified if I gave the impression that he was some sort of stained-glass window figure; one of his favourite sayings in the Southminster years was ‘This church is for sinners only!’ He was a living and breathing human being with strengths and weaknesses and besetting sins like everyone else. He freely admitted (and those who knew him well also knew it) that two of his besetting sins were impatience and bad temper. He once told me “I’m not a patient person, so God has made me wait for most of the important things in my life”. He first heard of the baptism in the Holy Spirit in 1960 during the Lee Abbey mission at St. Barnabas’, but it was not until 1971 that he himself experienced this blessing. He sometimes tried to move too fast in parishes, rather than taking time to build as much consensus as he could, and if he thought he was right about an issue he could be stubborn and scathing toward people who opposed him. My family’s standard way of having a disagreement was short, sharp and intense; we yelled at each other and got it all out, and then half an hour later it was forgotten. Most of the time. Sometimes, of course, it was not.
Dad once said to me, “We were always afraid that you would turn away from Christ” – to which I replied, “After my conversion I never once considered not being a Christian, but I was not always going to be your kind of Christian”. When I was a teenager in Southminster all my friends had long hair and dressed according to the prevailing hippy culture, but I was not allowed to do this, which I resented. ‘Pop music’ was also looked down on, which was hard for me as I was kind of fond of it!
My Dad was never what would be described as a theological liberal, but in his younger days he was certainly ahead of his time in his style – he was friendly and informal, he promoted modern liturgies, modern translations of the Bible, and folk-style worship music. Later on, I observed that he became more conservative, particularly with regard to the issue of the ordination of women, which earlier on he had supported. This became a point of tension between us, especially after I moved to the Diocese of Edmonton in 2000 and worked under the leadership of Bishop Victoria Matthews. Dad was also quite conservative on the subject of homosexuality, which led to considerable heartache for him when our daughter Sarah ‘came out’ in 2005, and later married Lynn in 2010.
My ministry was not a carbon copy of my Dad’s, and we had differences of theological emphasis, of style, and of politics. He happily served in an ‘established church’, where I became more counter-cultural and was later strongly influenced by Anabaptism. He tended toward the political right, whereas I was more to the left. In one of his parishes he also served as an R.A.F. chaplain, but I eventually became a Christian Pacifist. He always wore a clerical collar, while I have always hated any sort of a uniform and enjoy dispensing with clerical collars and robes and ecclesiastical titles. Most importantly, he had mainly short term appointments in parishes (although I note that one of his happiest and most fruitful appointments, in Southminster, was also his longest), whereas I moved more and more in the direction of long-term ministries (my last two parishes have been eight and a half years and thirteen and a half years respectively, and the latter is still ongoing).
Nonetheless, I have no doubt that, despite these differences, my most important convictions about Christian life and parish ministry have come from my Dad. Like him, I don’t think that sacramental initiation – baptism and confirmation – is enough; I think people need to experience personal conversion and commitment to Christ. Like him, I value extemporary prayer and personal Bible reading. Like him, I have little interest in the institutional church and don’t think a synod office can save a single soul; I think that parish renewal is more likely to be accomplished through prayer and fasting and personal evangelism than by mission action planning and institutional rejigging. Like him, I am low-church and informal in my approach to worship; I find elaborate ceremonies and choreography a distraction from the presence of God, and I find a simple liturgy much more effective in helping me to focus on Christ and experience the work of the Holy Spirit.
Like my Dad, I enjoy visiting and personal contacts with individuals, and find that one-on-one conversations, rather than programs, are by far the most effective way of touching people’s lives. Like him I emphasize preaching, and like to promote small groups for discussion and Bible study. Like him, I enjoy building bridges between Christians of different denominations and don’t get too hung up about differences in our traditions. Most of all, like Dad, I believe that my calling is to advance the work of the Kingdom of God one heart at a time, by calling people to personal conversion and discipleship and helping them grow as followers of Jesus.
So this is my tribute. I of course owe my life to my Dad and Mum, and they were partners in creating the Christian home in which I grew up. But in God’s providence it was my Dad who prompted me to give my life to Christ as a young teenager; it was he who taught me to pray and read the Bible; it was he who introduced me to small group prayer and study, who encouraged me to play my guitar in worship and who taught me my earliest worship songs; it was he who encouraged me to offer myself for service in the Church Army. It was Dad who modelled for me what the life of pastoral evangelism could look like. And if, like my Dad, I can leave a trail of changed lives behind me, I will feel that my ministry has fulfilled the intention for which God called me to it in the first place.
I’ve been preoccupied with the death of my father on Monday August 12th, and now with his oldest brother John last night (August 15th), and it slipped my mind until last night that Saturday 10th was the second anniversary of the death of my dear friend Joe Walker. Joe was a gifted priest of the Diocese of Edmonton who died of cancer at the age of 47 on August 10th 2011. He was a well-known and talented Anglican blogger and you can continue to read his work at his blog Felix Hominum.
I will always give thanks for you, Joe. Rest in peace, dear friend, and rise in glory.
This song first appeared in John Lomax’s Cowboy Songs, and Other Frontier Ballads in 1918; I think Woody Guthrie may have been the first to record it. Tim O’Brien’s version, though, is my favourite; you can find a recording of it on his 2005 CD ‘Fiddler’s Green’.