Keynote address for the 49th Session of the General Assembly of Australia
12 September 2016. Chinese Presbyterian Church, Sydney
I offer this personal reflection first
Thank you for trusting me with leadership. I’m not worthy of this role, I don’t measure up to those present tonight who have gone before me, I’m not of the caliber of the eminent John Meiklejohn (our first Moderator-General) or of the redoubtably famous Australian Flynn of the Inland … but under God’s grace I will do my absolute best for you.
There is a Wordsworth saying: ‘child is the father of man’, which at least has the appearance of holding true, most of the time.
In that line ‘child is the father of man’ the poet says that we are the product of our habits and behaviour developed in childhood. It’s a reminder that every father was once a son. That we all start out as children, and that experience remains within us.
I’m the product of English parents, 93-year old mum who’s praying for us tonight, greeting you from her home in Melbourne, and dad who passed away three years ago. Dad would’ve so enjoyed tonight. My earliest days, seeing Christian faith in action, saying prayers in the home, reading Scripture round the dinner table, seeing Christ in my parents, practicing humility, learning self control and obedience … yes, Wordsworth’s maxim holds true.
Let me trace back a generation or two. Dad was a PK. During childhood days in the Longditton rectory he watched my grandfather, the so-called peddling parson, ride this way and that through bombed-out London suburbs attending to the well-being of his parishioners. Further, dad saw the mettle of my grandparents’ Christian faith the day two uniformed service members came to the rectory door to notify them that their eldest son, an RAF pilot, was missing, presumed dead.He watched his Dad slip outside to the back lane, still a man full of faith, but weeping.
What would the Reverend Robert Henry Wilson have thought of his grandson, leaving Anglicanism behind – now deeply entrenched in the Scottish church? Well, boundaries are never so absolute. It’s not that I’ve abandoned my family’s English church – for one of my grandfather’s colleagues sits pride of place on my bookshelf and in my hands – the stunningly relevant and discerning writings of Bishop J C Ryle.
Let’s go back one step further. My grandfather was a child of a most enterprising and thoughtful Christian family, the Wilsons of Wandsworth. My grandfather’s grandfather William Wilson founded, owned and managed the largest candle-making factory in the world. Prices Candles by name, it was the candle-supplier for Queen Victoria’s weddingand for every royal engagement since. William Wilson, was a keen evangelical Christian who in his youth supported the London Missionary Society, and keenly supported the gospel pursuits of David Livingstone in Central Africa.
The Wilson candle-making factories on the Thames at Battersea and on the Mersey in Liverpool, were renowned for compassion and care for their workers. My great uncle James P Wilson was factory chaplain at the Battersea plant, and he loved his 2,000 workers as his own parishioners, and cared for the boys who worked there: providing them with reading lessons after work, and with prayers, warm baths, Bibles and cricket on the common for exercise. Chaplain J P Wilson’s reputation of Christian care for factory workers was such that Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) praised him and Elizabeth Gaskell visited the factory before writing her novel. I havea journal article that suggests that Prices Candle factory management inspired Gaskell to write ‘North and South’.
William Wilson’s prayerful conviction was that all of England should have ready access to light, and so he and his genius son George invented a new and cheaper way to make candles for the relief of the poor and the engagement of a better standard of living for all.William Wilson believed: ‘If we can manufacture and control light, many things become possible. It means we’re no longer bound by the seasons, no longer compelled to rise at dawn or sleep out the winter.’
To achieve this they imported palm oil from plantations in West Africa – but never from anywhere that involved slave-trading – rather, providing a healthy alternative trade to the slave market.
So, ‘child is the father of man’ is true, but only to a point. If I have inherited something of Christian value from my parents’ faith, from the Reverend Robert Henry Wilson, from Great Uncle Chaplain J P Wilson and from head of clan William Wilson then fine – but the maxim doesn’t work automatically. Wordsworth is not quite right.
William Wilson worked his candle-making trade for the relief of the poor; Great Uncle George F Wilson applied his genius chemistry intellect for the glory of God; Great Uncle JP Wilson gave himself for the care of factory workersto bring them to know Christ … inspiring examples to have … but they remain just that: inspiration,examples to follow.
All this is preparation of the soul … all of what I’ve said is,at best,grounding in the way of faith, but it’s NOT faith … until it’s personally appropriated.
The grace of God may be prepared for by childhood, but it comes by repentance of one’s own sin and by reaching out in faith to Christ, laying hold of Christ – and through this the supernatural event of new birth.
That’s the key element on which I rely and by which I’m assured that I can proceed:
And, for God’s new birth in Christ I am supremely grateful. It’s because of God’s new birth, I am assured that I’m a Christian, confident that I’m loved of God, and convinced that I can serve the church.
Secondly, l reflect on the church
Maybe the same maxim applies for the church: child is the father