ROBBIE LOW

THE INTERVIEW

The Rev. Daniel Cozens

Daniel Cozens, has been a one man missionary movement since his conversion thirty years ago. He is best known for the Walk of 1000 Men in which Christians of every denomination work together, preaching and teaching, walking and witnessing in the places outside the church where men gather - the pubs, the club, the streets, the societies, their homes, their workplace. These teams sleep on church hall floors, go where they are sent, carry no money and rely utterly on the Lord in prayer.

So far this great enterprise has marched the backbone of England, the Pennines, God's own country of Cornwall and this year the old nine counties of Ulster. Anyone who knows Ulster will begin to understand what measure of God's work is involved in getting the churches to work together in the midst of their age long divisions and sorrows. Next year it is Wales, Offa's Dyke. Aside from this Cozens's ministry covers, apart from parish work, nearly 160 missions to date.

It was on a warm late October day that I trudged up the gravel path to the old vicarage in Coton, Cambridgeshire, where the Rees Missioner lives with his wife Gillie, and their family. The man himself is tall and muscular-framed, casually dressed, with a warm handshake, bright eyes and a relaxed manner. His voice has retained its full Dorset burr. He pauses briefly to introduce me to his dog - it is one of those varieties which, which while not banned under the new Act, could well have played full back for Leeds United in the 1960s. We move through the hall which is piled with crockery - the builders are doing the kitchen - into the study. The walls are covered with bright, lively and romantic landscapes and still life oil paintings which turn out to be his work. The bookshelves turn out to be equally occupied by art and theology.

Daniel has just returned from a meeting of the Six Preachers - appointees of the Archbishop of Canterbury and a great honour. (Present members include Bishop Chartres and Michael Green). While one wag has described it as "the Church's O.B.E. with tickets to the big matches", Daniel is, typically, taking it absolutely seriously as an appointment from the Lord. 1997 will be a big year for Canterbury (1400 years since Augustine brought the Roman mission) and much is planned for it. But this is all a long way from where he started out, so I asked him:

Where did you begin?

"I'm a Dorset lad from Charnmouth near Lyme Regis. My dad was in the Army so we got moved around, but he came back there to run the family business - retail bread and cakes. My mum was a Belfast girl - Willowfield. In fact I was baptised there on one of her returns home. You know it took place in the very church of the man who chaired Walk Ulster, Norman Jardine, and he showed me my entry in the book."

What about school? Were you any good at it?

"Went to school in Poole. Liked art and English but I wasn't much of a scholar. Enjoyed boxing - my dad boxed in the army and my brother was South of England Schools Champion."

This is a difficult subject to get Daniel off. He is an enthusiast and great names of the past, Sugar Ray, Don Cockell, Randolph Turpin, Freddie Mills, still bring back memories of boyhood trips to Bournemouth News Theatre. Even now he will stay up to the small hours to watch a fight.

How do you respond to the present row about boxing?

" If blokes want to have a bash, let them. The only real objectors are these anti-fox hunting types."

This is the voice of the authentic country boy and, I suspect, this is not a household where the Guardian is required reading.

What did you do when you left school?

" I left at 15 and worked in the family bread business until I was 20." (Daniel is the baby of the family and, at a mere 6' 2", the smallest of the 3 brothers.) "My mother was a tiny mushroom in the forest".

Ask him about his childhood and a wonderful world opens up. Apart from parents, whom he deeply loved and who were "really converted", it is a story of great happiness - an outdoor country childhood, "tents in the blackthorn, acorn pipes - a straw and a handmade shag of monk's rhubarb; camps, dens and gangs" (when that was an innocent term). A great interest in animals - "everyone brought me wounded or sick animals". Swimming in the great wooded valley of Branksome Chine - one of his sons enjoys Branksome as one of his clutch of Christian names in memory of those happy times.

What did you want to be?

"Invisible. I always believed God had something for me to do even though I wasn't religious. I supposed I wanted to be a great painter. I always took a canvas with me on my bread van and I longed to go to Paris, see the Sacre Coeur, drink absinthe and paint like Toulouse Lautrec." At 18 the young entrepreneur founded "Cozens Art" and put on an exhibition. He was fined 8/6d for putting up his silk screen adverts on trees but his painting of a nude woman in a hat was accepted for an international exhibition. His painting of Jesus was rejected. There followed two wonderful summers of girls and sailing and fishing and being immersed in Hardy country, without ever having heard of the great chronicler of Dorset.

What next?

"Well my dad said I'd better get Paris out of my soul so I took my inheritance and went. I sold a picture of Jesus outside Notre Dame and got a room. Then I grew a droopy moustache, moved to Holland and spent a freezing winter on a boat before getting a factory job and renting an attic for 1 per week. I came back for my brother Ron's wedding and was planning to go off to Japan to study oriental art. So I got a job on the ferry to earn the fare."

So What stopped you?

" Well, church influence and school R.E. had given me a respect for Jesus, whoever he was. But a series of small things began to work in me. A Mahalia Jackson record, given me in Holland, woke my soul. Then a little sticker on a van on the ferry stuck in my mind because it annoyed me. It said; "No tiger in my tank, but Christ in my heart. Read your bible!" And then one of the ladies I'd delivered to asked me "Do you love Jesus?." I said "No". Then later I knelt in my room and asked God, whoever He is, to reveal Himself to me. (The lady was an Anglo-catholic - the crucifix she gave Daniel hangs centrally above the fireplace in his study.)

How did your conversion come about?

"The two artists I worked with were busy that night so I went out for some fags. I heard the sound of singing from a church and I knew that I couldn't pretend any more. I went in, feeling like a fish out of water. A young man, who is now a vicar, spoke about Jesus as the hero of his life and I didn't half listen and then an old lady requested the hymn "Dare to be a Daniel" ! It was a personal challenge to be the man God meant me to be. The minister asked if I was a Christian and I said "Yes". Then he asked if I had Christ in my heart and I said "No". He prayed for me as Daniel. There was a tremendous sense of God's presence and 'the armour' descended. I was never Dan or Danny from that day.

" 'Tonight', he said 'the Lord has called you'. I knew that; but I also knew I had a date and had to leave. But instead of rushing out to court this girl I talked to her about Jesus! I went back to help sing carols round the wards of the hospital - the following day I took Florrie (the crucifix lady) out for a run in her bath chair. 'I love God', I told her. 'I can certainly see a change', she laughed, holding tightly onto her chair."

By Easter Daniel had dived in deeply and "hearing Stainer's Crucifixion helped me to get the picture". He started organising meetings, reading or giving testimony but felt unfit to preach. The preacher himself had a stammer and Daniel found himself interpreting "What Paul is trying to say is you've got to receive Jesus Christ into your life" - praying and calling for commitment. An entire old folk's home responded.

Anyone who has heard Daniel preach will know the beauty and gentleness of his words which makes God's mercy irresistible.

What were your influences?

" Moody, Hudson Taylor, C.T. Studd - they taught me to trust God for everything."

What about the bible?

" Well I tried to do it all. Read something in Leviticus about homelessness and took in two young men sleeping rough under the pier and got my church ( Christ Church, Westbourne) to help clothe them properly."

Perhaps the least known aspect of the man is that practical ministry still continues. The Jesus Orphanage and School for 50 boys and girls in Tnali, S.E. India, run by Revd. Samuel Paul is funded by his ministry.

When did you know you were being called?

" Driving the van. The Lord said, 'Work for me'. So I put the Gideon test and asked for three people to confirm that within a week. The Vicar was the third and he asked me on the final day!"

How did the selection process cope with you?

"The Director of Ordinands didn't pray with me or even mention Jesus. The message was - no education, no hope. He was as encouraging as a nail through the head. I wanted to rip off his ears and shove him down a foxhole. That's when God talked to me about the church and working men! The Vicar, Frank Trunley, encouraged me and one of the lads I'd rescued off the beach said he would help and it would be no problem. So in one year I got 5 "O" levels and 1 "A" level and went to Pondsbourne for pre-theological training. The Bishop of Winchester, Faulkner Alison was a great help. I discovered, years afterwards that all the panel had wept after my interview. You see Frank Trumley was the first non-graduate from Ridley and Alison had been the principal who had seen him through."

When did Gillie come on the scene?

" A woman I was delivering to asked me to give my testimony and then invited her young neighbour to hear it. That was Gillie. She came to a meeting but refused to go forward or sign up for the Sabbath! Spiritually I was not impressed but she was a lovely girl so I didn't give up."

There is a broad grin. Daniel speaks of his wife with the excitement and passion of new love but with the deep grace and affection of a man truly partnered and blessed in the great sacramental adventure of Christian marriage. They courted for two and a half years and married at Oak Hill where they knew George Carey, Maurice Wood, John Taylor, John Simpson and most of the future evangelical luminaries.

Where was your first curacy?

" St Barnabas, St Paul's Cray, Orpington. I thought it was the best job in the world. I wagged my tail and did youth groups and visiting and evangelising. It was the time of "Love-ins" so Justin Rees and I did a "Jesus in" - a large tent in the park. It was my first entrepreneurial step outside the system. We filled it and got 100 responses."

Twenty odd years later, in a much larger tent in Cornwall, I watched this gracious man's words of God's love bring my own parents to Christ. He has a wonderful ability to speak heart to heart and teach others to do the same.

And then?

" Deptford with Graham Corneck - a lovely man - still there. I learnt so much from him and Fr. Diamond who understood all about the church in the community. It's where I started pub visiting 'Why are you here?', they'd ask. 'Because you won't be there tomorrow morning'."

With one child born, Daniel and Gillie then experienced that great parental nightmare. Their second daughter was a cot death. It was the dark side. He found it hard to cry and the grief took a long time to come out. Talk to him about his children and you will see that they light up his sky. Perhaps the greatest cost of mission has been the long absences from home.

When did you become a missioner?

" 1976. I'd told Gavin Reid that I was called to be an itinerant and Michael Rees asked me to succeed his father as Rees Missioner based in Ely. I was introduced to the "Fellowship of Parish Evangelists" and the work grew from there."

Work progressed for five years, almost three of them on the road when Daniel's second darkness descended. He became chronically depressed and though he did not stop working this lasted for four years. "God sifted my soul", he says. The concluding words of the Te Deum were often on his lips. "Let me never be confounded". Describing himself as "ill and frightened" - the more he yielded to God the more his ministry took off. "He made me more merciful, less arrogant". Daniel pointed to an old wooden chair in his room. "I knelt, shaking, beside that chair and prayed, "Lord God I promise that if I ever rise from this spot I will give you all the glory." There are tears even now and he got down the Bible where, like his faithful diary, he records the days and prayers. "Lord", it says, "Lord my life is an open book - write your story"

When did the Walk of 1000 Men come about?

" I was struck - more women in church - hotter for God - knew their Bible more - better connected in their community. Men are the great unrealised resource of the church and (Hebrews 13) we need to go outside the camp, the buildings, the structures to get to them. Most of the life of the New Testament is not in church buildings. Too often we have become shelters instead of lifeboats!"

The partnership with Peter Adams struck in 1985 and the formation of Through Faith Missions began the possibility. Living with a visionary and an enthusiast is not easy and Peter and Trevor Hames (the first administrator) formed an essential counterbalance in the team and its practical preparations. The outreach began with 6 weeks of lunchtimes at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, the marketplace and the pubs. One early convert is now an ordinand.

"Then came the vision for the Walk so I thought 500 men. But the Lord told me to call 1000. We started with one plasterer and one builder, both keen as mustard."

The rest is history. The Pennines, Cornwall, Ulster - next Wales. Each year has broken new ground in mission and reconciliation. Anyone who has been on a team will have learnt utter dependence on God, come to know the vital importance of personal holiness, long preparation and fervent prayer - the demands are exacting. But also the amazing love, unity and comradeship in the gospel beyond all denominational bonds and personality and the wonderful experience that if ordinary Christians will just go out in faith and share the love of God - people listen and respond. Only when you are at street level do you understand the force of Daniel's insistence:

"All the land wants to hear the Church say that it believes what it says it believes...

...they really do."

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