THE ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEW
ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEWS JOHN PEARCE
THE ANCIENT CHURCH of St. Michael and All Angels, Edenham had the flag of St. George proudly flying from the tower. Behind the wisteria shrouded vicarage and the stable chapel, the acres of lawn and hedges and trees arched around the winding lane beyond the summerhouse and up the long sheep scattered ascent of Pasture Hill. To the North and West the echoing hill cradles Grimsthorpe Castle, seat of the Ancasters whose busts adorn St. Michael’s Chancel like some extraordinary family album in white marble and Latin.
It was here, at the Spiritual House in South Lincolnshire, miles from his native heath. of London’s bustling East End, that I caught up with John Pearce, Rector of Limehouse, Prebendary of St. Paul's and Southern Province Adviser to Reform. The occasion was a residential day for the group of conservative evangelicals and orthodox Catholics who make up the Latimer Group.
I remember my first meeting with Pearce some 17 years ago. Seven new curates had endured a year of Post Ordination Training with a somewhat fay elderly clergyman who wore white silk socks, interpreted John’s Gospel as a universalist tract and exalted subjective experience over revelation as the true guide to doctrine. And then suddenly, in response to our long and loud complaints, we were given a day with John Pearce - then a parish priest in Hackney.
We were an extraordinarily diverse bunch - from the man who struggled with the oath of allegiance and wouldn’t have a cross in his church right through to the chap whose liturgical haute couture made Pius X seem positively protestant.
Pearce took us for a day on penitence and confession. His work on the gospel, the pastoral ministry and the stuff of our lives bound this disparate group together in a common understanding, across the tribal loyalties, which none of us have ever forgotten.
When we talked about it afterwards we were all aware of having been in the presence of a remarkable and Godly man whose pastoralia, theological depth, discipline and encouragement would surely mark him out for high office. We were, of course, very naive then but it remains a pity that such scriptural innocence should have been the chief victim of life in the modern Church of England. We got together, late afternoon, post Evensong, in the refectory over a cup of tea and I asked Pearce:
“Where did you begin?”
“I was born in Wolverhampton”
This explained an earlier conversation when, in response to my Arsenal sweatshirt, Pearce claimed the dubious privilege of being a Wolves supporter and recalled them winning the League in 1938. Of course the truth is they lost it by one point to the Arsenal but it seemed unkind to rob an honoured elder of his childhood memories.
“My father was a teacher and went on to become Headmaster of a church school in Lincolnshire, the Isle of Axholme - a dour flat place by the Trent.
My mother was a teacher too, first in Wolverhampton and then in the village at the local Methodist Secondary School.”
Was it a Christian family?
“Yes. My father was a Lay Reader at the local parish church - one of the great Anglo-Catholic churches and I was an altar boy on weekdays”.
Were you converted?
“Yes I was - through a Methodist Mission in the village. Mind you I never went to the Methodist church because I didn’t think an Anglican should!”
Under the great dome of Pearce’s head the twinkling eyes light up with a humour that is never far below the surface.
“I made my first confession and was confirmed at 15 and then felt my first call to ordination. My vocation was fostered by the evangelical priest in the next parish, the Revd. Turton-Dixon, who allowed me to preach my first sermon in one of his country churches”.
Can you remember it?
“Yes it was on Harvest Festival”.
This must have been an extraordinary “baptism”. Being asked to preach at Harvest in the country is like being asked to do Christmas in town - it’s big box office!
What were you good at in school?
“Acting - I can remember playing Lady Macbeth at one end of the school and Dr. Faustus at the other. My favourite subjects were Latin, History and English. And no, I wasn’t a sports player before we get back on your favourite subject”.
There was a Christian Headmaster, Mr. Hopkins, and seven of Pearce’s sixth form were later ordained!
And then university?
“No, it was National Service. I was put in the Army Pay Corps which, as I can neither count nor multiply, was not very sensible. But I then became a training officer and spent a lot of time on the ranges. It was one of the happiest times of my life”
Pearce dates the ear damage, which provoked his later deafness, to this period of regular and continuous gunfire. His most recent technological help is very powerful and effective and, I suspect, on a good day can pick up Radio Luxembourg as well as the conversation in the room.
Did you consider military chaplaincy?
“Yes I did. I though very seriously about staying in the Army. While I was at Devizes Camp, the local vicar told me I should train at Westcott House”.
Why was that?
“He’d been there. But he was very good and let me help in mini missions in country churches. First of all came college. I’d been to a 6th form conference sponsored by the Selection Board and met Eric Kemp, Chaplain of Exeter, Oxford. He suggested I apply there to do Theology so I did”.
What was Oxford like?
“I got heavily involved with O.U. Church Union and the Christian Union. I heard and was heavily influenced by great preachers like John Stott. I went to every Oxford church but settled mainly at Pusey House and St. Aldate's. The other great influences were the Franciscans, Fr. Algy and Co. I very nearly became one of them”.
It was this link with the Society of Saint Francis that inspired Pearce to set up the Community of the Word of God in Hackney which specialises in retreats, parish work and spiritual direction. Quite remarkably that work has been going for 27 years now.
So to Westcott - “the bishop factory”?
“Well it may have been but I haven’t got there yet”.
There is a chuckle. Pearce retires this July, though his work as Reform Adviser, Spiritual Director and Retreat giver will go on unabated.
“It was certainly the right place for me i.e. not committed on churchmanship - space to be yourself. Ken Carey was Principal and had a deep effect on me. His training was based on the formation of the person and you learnt how to pastor a parish by how he pastored you. The sense of community, all single men bar two, was profound”.
“By then I had decided on the final authority of scripture and went to an evangelical curacy in Dalston under Donald Pateman in 1956”.
Pateman is still there! I have copies of his parish magazine which is one of the most eccentric and entertaining productions in the Church of England. His style and glorious contempt for Catholics is positively 19th century and a great tonic even for us victims of his humorous barbs.
“In three years Pateman took the church from 30 to 200. My job was to visit and welcome the new Caribbean arrivals and many of them joined our congregation. I fell in love with East London and it has been a romantic attachment ever since”.
So much easier place to work isn’t it?
“A very profound remark though it has its problems”.
Work there and people are straight to the point, no hidden agendas and no long words for sin.
What about marriage?
“There was a young teacher in a local secondary school hoping to go to the far east with the Overseas Mission Fellowship. It wasn’t a romantic courtship -we had to be sure it was right if Angela was going to stay in England. We got engaged in 1960.
“I did my second curacy in Christchurch Chelsea, Francois Piachaud, the Director of Ordinands, was vicar and Anthony Harvey was senior curate. It was there I decided that effective pastoral ministry had to be absolutely under the authority of the Word”.
What about children?
“We have four. Mark is 36 and an archaeologist at Nottingham, Elizabeth is 34 and a job-sharing curate with her husband, Stephen is 32 and a psychiatrist and Paul is the youngest and not sorted yet”.
Your first incumbency?
“St. Paul’s, Homerton. Congregation of 6 - no heating in church. Over nine years it grew to c. 90 regulars and a church plant in the community centre. A great many young people came to faith and Sunday night teenage service often had 2 - 300. Then the great Anglo-Catholic All Souls', Clapton Park fell vacant and was due to be shut. We persuaded Bp. Huddleston to let us try and rebuild it. He agreed and we moved in next door, built a new church and built up another congregation of 90, mainly on the English Missal though gradually the PCC,. changed it to evangelical. Then finally we took on St. Barnabas to complete the plan for Homerton and have three churches up and running where they were needed”.
This was the great middle period of Pearce’s ministry, 23 years of hard labour to revive an inner city community plus, concurrently, five years as Area Dean of Hackney and appointment as Prebendary of St. Paul's at the age of 38 (“Trevor Huddleston thought I was older”).
Were the many setbacks?
“Oh yes. But one that I still ask God about. At St. Paul’s Homerton we followed Roland Allan’s principles from China and India (you know “Missionary Methods - St. Paul's or ours”) and the five year lay leadership experiment saw a decline of nearly ľ of the congregation and we had to go and build it up again”.
What made you move?
“Ill health. Once they’d diagnosed the diabetes I was fine because I started getting treatment. They sent me back to Chelsea for four years - St. Simon Zelotes Pop. 1283, Elec. Roll 170, PCC 48 members! Good music and Prayer Book rite. But I wasn’t really the man for the job. The East End called”.
You’re a firm prayer book man?
“Yes, I’ve always said BCP offices but....... I don’t think it’s appropriate for inner city urban priority churches and I used modern services at Homerton”.
And women’s ordination - your family is in a curious position?
“Angela became a deaconess in 1979, deaconed in ‘87, and chaplain of Raine’s School, Bethnal Green throughout that time ‘till now. My daughter is about to be ordained priest. I have never had trouble remaining friends with those with whom I disagree - I think she’ll make a good pastor and a very fine woman bishop even though I don’t believe in them”.
There is that mischievous look in his eyes again.
And so back to the east end?
“I knew that’s where we should be and Chris Idle wanted me to follow him at St. Annes’s, Limehouse”.
I was a curate in Poplar when Idle was at Limehouse. A good and godly man, an evangelical rock in a largely catholic area which was being deliberately and persistently subverted by a liberal hierarchy. He was also another fanatical Arsenal supporter.
“The Hawksmoor church had a solid foundation of some 60 in the congregation - keen Christians - and on that foundation we have grown on to some 120. It’s been the easiest job of my life because it wasn’t starting from scratch - so much solid work already done”.
Like so much of Pearce’s life much of the success of his ministry has been paradox. A great Prayer Book devotee who has insisted on accessible worship in a language and culture appropriate for the area. A good leader of men who has sought to give opportunities for real lay leadership not just delegation and a man who could easily have been a considerable national. figure dedicating his life to making the church natural to some of the most neglected local communities in the capital.
Apart from all this he has been on General Synod for 13 years trying to reform the Church of England, a passionate retreat conductor, variously chairman of Church Society and Latimer House and latterly Trustee of Reform and a major campaigner against the establishment’s love affair with unscriptural teaching. He and Angela have inspired 26 confirmed vocations in 40 years ministry and many more the church has denied.
What can you tell us from your travels as adviser to reform?
“I have listened very long and carefully. There is a clear coherent and deep concern about the Church of England - women priests, bishops, gay ordinations, liberal teaching, money going to a burgeoning central power etc. but there is no immediate clarity as to what to do. I am more and more convinced that there is no future for the orthodox constituency in the Church of England unless conservative evangelicals and orthodox Catholics work together. There have been major shifts. Catholics have moved to accept afresh the importance of the scriptures and, with the departure of the Affirmers and the Papists, they are now a very different body.
Reformers who are staying are having to move away from Congregational or Presbyterian models and come to terms with historic Anglicanism. And it is vital that we stay. Scripture has lost its grip on liberal evangelicals - they will say it contains the Word of God but not that it is the Word of God”.
More evangelical bishops than you could have dreamed of and yet crisis and division and rampant liberalism?
“It is a great disappointment. I cannot understand why they don’t seem to be able to step out of the collegial relationship and stand for the Word of God. It is extraordinary that they didn’t disassociate themselves from “Issues in Sexuality” for example”.
Reform has talked about its own bishops hasn’t it?
“Yes. If our ordinands are not accepted or if there is a concerted effort to undermine evangelical parishes by the Bishops we shall have to act via orthodox bishops, probably from overseas. But that time is not yet”
Has anything since 1992 given you confidence that the bishops will act honourably?
There is a question I have to ask. Pearce is one of a number of outstanding men of his generation that no-one who knows their ministry can really understand why they were never made bishops.
Were you ever offered “preferment”?
“Yes I was asked to be an Archdeacon. But.... when the Bishop concerned discovered I took a biblical line on sexual morality he said, “I can’t work with anybody who thinks that God cares about what two people do in bed together”. That was the end of it”.
This is the big issue now.
“The tragedy is that we are dealing with it in a way that hurts a lot of celibate gay people. I don’t believe it’s “curable” and it means living with a lot of pain that heterosexuals really don’t understand. We need to be far more supportive of people and offer much richer friendship to the single life. The expression of gay sexuality is not allowed by the Bible, so it is all the more important to be loving and pastoral. Care is of the essence. We need also to remember that sexual sin can be forgiven”.
No-one could be firmer on the gay issue than Pearce yet it is a glimpse of why so many sinners value him as a Confessor and Spiritual Director.
What would make you leave the Church of England?
“I can’t think of anything that would make me leave. It belongs to me - I believe the articles, the creeds, the formularies. Others may have left it and pretend to be Church of England but that’s their problem”
Finally, what would you say to any man considering offering himself for ordination?
“Do it my brother. Although there are battles to be fought there is nothing that gives greater satisfaction than to be the minister of a parish. It’s life at the sharp end”.
Pearce’s eyes are alight with that fire of enthusiasm and fun that has encouraged so many down the years. He is, transparently, a man in love with Jesus - and that is enough and more.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban's.
Return to Home Page of This Issue
Return to Trushare Opening Page