Lesslie Newbigin

The Greater Blessing

Reflection by Iwan Russell-Jones…

Nid oes ffin rhwng deufyd yn yr Eglwys;
Yr un ydyw'r Eglwys filwriaethus ar y llawr
A'r Eglwys fuddugoliaethus yn y Nef.
A bydd y saint yn y ddwy-un Eglwys.

D. Gwenallt Jones, 'Dewi Sant'.

There is no division between two worlds in the Church;
The Church militant on earth is one with
The Church triumphant in heaven.
And the saints belong to this one extraordinary Church.

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin didn't speak Welsh and wouldn't have been able to understand Gwenallt's marvellous poem on Wales's patron saint – Dewi or David. But he would have loved the statement of faith being made here, and by now, I am sure, he knows in an even deeper measure the reality of which it speaks. Lesslie was someone who believed profoundly in the communion of the saints. He spent much of his life working to bring about ever greater fellowship and cooperation between the churches of the world, convinced that division and factionalism only serve to make a mockery of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

There are many people like me who can testify from personal experience that Lesslie was inclusive in the best sense of the word, a Christian who took real delight in his friendships and involvement with people from many nations and cultural backgrounds. He was proud of his associations with the Church in India and always eager to learn from the insights of Christian brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia and Latin America. That's not to say that he didn't have opinions of his own. Sometimes he could be very forthright in his criticism of others. But he was always anxious to keep the lines of communication open.

I met him first in 1986 when I interviewed him for a BBC Wales programme called All Things Considered. He had just published his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda, and it provided me with a marvellous excuse to meet one of my heroes. I'd read a few of his other books, and was excited both by his theological vision, and his analysis of contemporary culture. To me, his deep faith in Jesus Christ as the focal point of history, the starting point for a genuine understanding of and engagement with human culture, was, and remains, an inspiration. Through his books, Lesslie had already encouraged me as a Christian, and meeting him was not a disappointment. We struck up a friendship which resulted a few years later in a series for BBC Radio 4 in which Lesslie talked about his life and the meaning of Christian mission.

I have a wonderful memory of Lesslie in the studio, headphones on, and coming to a crucial part of the script over which we had previously had a difference of opinion. It was the climax of the series in which he put forward his own view of the future of Christian missions. We had left the matter unresolved, but now, in the middle of a recording session, there was nowhere to hide. We had to agree on what he was going to say.

It wasn't a dispute about theology, or ethics, or philosophy, or anything remotely ideological. It was a simple matter of grammar – and this is where I felt the difference in age and background between us to be at its greatest. I wanted Lesslie to say, 'There is still an unfinished agenda'. He refused. 'Agenda is plural,' he said. He was prepared to say either 'There are still unfinished agenda', or 'There is still an unfinished agendum'. They may be technically correct, I said, but they sound bizarre.

There was a complete impasse. My version was completely unacceptable to Lesslie, and he was not prepared to budge. Finally, seeing the clock ticking away, I backed down. By the time the programme appeared on air, however, the sentence had strangely metamorphosed into 'There is still an unfinished agenda'. It's amazing what can be achieved with a bit of tape and a razor blade. Lesslie never mentioned it again, but I'm sure he noticed. He was a stickler for detail.

Our friendship outlasted that series, and I will forever remember the day I spent with Lesslie and Helen Newbigin last summer in their home in London. I hadn't seen them for a few years, although we'd kept in touch by letter and phone. In his characteristically humble fashion, Lesslie thanked me repeatedly for sparing the time to visit them. But it was me, of course, who received the greater blessing. It was lovely to see their care for one another in old age, their joy in all that remained. Despite his blindness, Lesslie was still active even then – writing, speaking, broadcasting and, with the help of local friends who read to him, engaging with hefty works of theology and philosophy.

The one church, in heaven and on earth. Lesslie never forgot the saints who have gone before, their witness to Christ, the legacy that they hand down to us, the praise that they offer to God. He was a Christian with a memory and an imagination. Now he is one of those saints. I think that his challenge to all of us – friends and critics alike – is not to agree with everything he ever said and wrote, or to slavishly follow his ideas. It's to outdo him in love for, and faithfulness to, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church of which both he and we are members.

Dr Iwan Russell-Jones is a Radio and Television Producer for BBC Wales.

Funeral Address ¦ Andrew Walker ¦ Iwan Russell-Jones ¦ Interview with Lesslie Newbigin ¦ Resources and Links

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