A Study in Word and Deed.
A Eulogy at Rev. Sir Alan Walker’s Thanksgiving Service, Wesley Centre, Sydney, February 11, 2003.
By Harold Henderson
Pastor First United Methodist Church Reddick, Florida, USA.
Friends; we are here today to thank God as we celebrate the life of Alan Edgar Walker – a life which has touched challenged and blessed us in many different ways. This morning, we have shared many wonderful things about that life and ministry, but the finest tribute we can pay to Alan is to open our lives to the endless possibilities of Divine grace. As John Newton’s great hymn which we have just sung reminds us, it is Divine grace which called and enabled this man of shy, retiring personal disposition to become such a towering public figure among us, and it is Divine Grace which has now called him home.
For my part, I am honoured and humbled to have been invited by the family to come from Florida to share in this tribute. I am honoured because, after my parents, I owe more to Alan than to anyone else for my own tenuous but exhilarating spiritual journey. I am humbled because I feel like John the Baptiser, (except that the one greater than I comes before me rather than after me) in this case an entirely appropriate chronology.
Bruce has reminded us that we stand today in the presence of an Australian family saga, which borders on make-believe. The saga began in the early years of the 19th Century when two convicts, John Joseph Walker, and Ann Gill had completed their penal servitude in Sydney, decided to live together on property in the McDonald Valley near Windsor, produced three sons out of wedlock and in 1830, when the eldest son, John Joseph Jr. was 20, decided to marry – perhaps because by then Ann, who had been married when she was sentenced to transportation to Australia, was free to marry again
185 years ago yesterday week on February 3, 1838, John Joseph Jr, a wild and irreligious young man with a serious alcohol problem, resolved a long, weary search for meaning and purpose in his life. A Methodist circuit rider, Rev. William Schoffield, showed him the way to a deep and abiding faith in Christ.
Alan was a fifth generation Australian, and the 13th member of that Walker family tree to become a Christian minister. It would be a gratifying occasion for him that two of his sons, Bruce and Chris, the 14th and 15th, could share in this service today. It would be just as important that his daughter, Lynette, and his son David, who are not ordained ministers, are with us today and that four of his grandchildren are here to pay their tributes by reading the Scriptures.
Someone has posed the question: If you were brought before a court of law and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? We can all reflect on that for ourselves, but Alan would have been the prosecutor’s dream. His finger-prints (or perhaps, in modern terms, his spiritual DNA) are all over many of the significant religious, political and social issues in Australia in the latter two-thirds of the 20th Century – immigration, peace and war, wealth and poverty, racism, sexism, and the role of women in church and society, land rights, industrial relations, the environment, integrity in leadership, the sexual revolution, Christian unity, the care of the aged, the homeless, and the despairing, to name a few.
His contributions were not as a politician, though he was politically well-informed and astute; nor as a social scientist, though his MA thesis published as ‘Coaltown’ was, and still is, regarded as a superior piece of sociological analysis. His contributions were as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus.
As a minister of the Gospel, he stood firmly in the Wesleyan tradition (one of the streams flowing into the Uniting Church in Australia). In Wesleyan theology, the revelation of God came through Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. The Gospel was at once personal and social; it needed to be articulated in word and incarnated in deed; it must find expression in works of compassion, caring and transformation for the marginalised, and acts of prophetic witness which challenge and seek to change the structural injustices which oppress people and rob them of their human dignity, value, and potential.
This understanding of the Gospel was not original to Alan; it is in the New Testament. He acknowledged many mentors who helped him embrace this ‘Whole Gospel for the Whole World’ (to use the title of one of his earlier books). His great gift to church and society was the rare skill and unflinching commitment with which he preached and practised this Gospel. I can hear him say: a purely personal Gospel is irrelevant; a purely social Gospel is impotent! I have never heard anyone who even approaches Alan in holding these two dimensions of the Gospel together consistently; and as a preacher myself I acknowledge that he remains an unrealised model.
1 saw this forthright presentation of the Gospel exemplified many times in Alan’s ministry since we first worked together 42 years ago, but I think the occasion which stands out for me was his first Mission to South Africa in 1963. Apartheid was deeply entrenched in South African society, and the Methodist Church of Southern Africa wanted someone who would come and challenge that monstrous evil, not as a social agitator, but as a preacher whose ministry would also offer hope to people whose lives were in danger of being engulfed in despair. At that time, we met a young minister in Capetown who would later become Bishop Peter Storey, a name not as well known as the names Mandela or Tutu, but nevertheless a very significant leader in the long and painful struggle to bring down the evil structures of apartheid, and in the holding of democratic elections in South Africa. I am glad to share this tribute which Peter asked me to bring:
When I first heard Alan Walker preach during the Mission to South Africa in 1963, his passion for preaching and his unswerving commitment to justice inspired me. I knew that he would be my mentor, but in the 40 years since then, he became an honoured friend. I give thanks today for a giant of the church, a faithful preacher of the Gospel of salvation, a passionate prophet, and one of God’s great peacemakers. He has left his mark, and the marks of Jesus, on countless lives, including my own.
Right now, all around the world, people will be giving thanks for his life and witness. Elizabeth joins me as our hearts go out to Win and the family, but we know that they are being held at this time, by a peace that is deeper even than their pain – the peace that only Jesus gives.
It would take more time than we have today even to list the highlights of Alan’s six decades of ministry, but it is appropriate to flag some of them very briefly (and I have chosen items which had on-going significance for the future):
* A mediocre student at Fort St Boys’ High School, his theological education (1928-33) stimulated a spirit of genuine academic enquiry, and led him to seek university matriculation concurrently and then to follow up with an Arts degree from Sydney University.
* A year in 1938-39 to study and learn at the Methodist Central Missions in England opened up a vast new world to him.
* A creative and seminal ministry (1939-44) at the coalfields town of Cessnock, which he did not want initially, introduced him to working with the media (press and radio at that time), and among impoverished, exploited and vulnerable mining families.
* A ground-breaking ministry (1944-54) at Waverley in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs saw the development of his concepts of the worshipping congregation as the hub of a community centre of special interest group life and activity, concepts he would later develop in the heart of the city.
* In 1948, an Australian delegate to the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam renewed earlier linkages with the world church.
* In 1949, along with Catholic Archbishop J.D. Simmonds of Melbourne, Alan was seconded as an Adviser on human relations to the Australian delegation to the United Nations under the leadership of Dr H. V. Evatt, particularly in relation to Dr Evatt’s work on the UN Declaration on Human Rights.
* Leadership of the amazing Mission to the Nation (1953-56) initially part-time and, for the last two years, full-time, projected him very visibly onto the national stage.
* ln I956-57, he joined the staff of the US Methodist Board of Evangelism in Nashville, TN. to lead a nation-wide mission to America along similar lines to the Australian venture, thus beginning his long and productive relationship with the great United Methodist Church in the US.
* In 1958, a dream was fulfilled in his appointment as Superintendent of Sydney’s historic Central Methodist Mission, a position he held for 20 years until 1978. The Mission became the base from which he reached out across the city, the nation and the world in preaching, social caring and prophetic witness.
* 1978-1988, he served world-wide as Director of Evangelism for the World Methodist Council.
* 1988 onwards, conceived, planned, and established the College of Evangelism, now named the Alan Walker College in his honour at North Parramatta.
Throughout these years we could reflect on his work as first religion editor of ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, the incredible seven-year run of I Challenge the Minister on television, Sydney’s Easter Mission, the creation and development of Fellowship House and later Wesley Centre, Teenage Cabaret, School for Seniors, the Singles Society, the Church of the Homeless, College for Christians, the creation and spread into more than 300 cities across Australia and overseas of the Life Line telephone counselling service, the Lyceum Platform, the development of Vision Valley, countless missions across the world, his three dozen books, the formation of the National Goals and Directions movement, and much, much more… Through all of this, his central focus was on preaching for personal commitment to Christ Sunday nights at Seven in his beloved Church-in-a-Theatre.
It makes your mind boggle and takes your breath away, doesn’t it? Of course, Alan would be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t accomplish all these things on his own. Many among us were privileged to play our various parts but the truth is that, without his leadership and inspiration, most of it would not have happened.
With this agenda on the go, Alan, for whom public ministry was a calling rather than a natural inclination., wasn’t always easy to work with, but he was always more demanding of himself than of anyone else. He wasn’t good at small talk; he always had something big on his mind, but it was never so big that he couldn’t listen to your pain, counsel with you in a compassionate and caring way, and pray with and for you. In my personal crises, there was no-one to whom I would turn with greater confidence and trust.
I want to refer to some profound experiences which Alan identified and which were like permanent guide-posts for him throughout his long and challenging life:
I.. The first such experience occurred on a hot, summer afternoon when he was 12. He decided to skip
Sunday School, and accompany his father, Laddie the dog, and Togo the horse from Wallsend where they lived, to the Boolaroo Methodist Church where his father was to preach. At the close of the sermon, Alan’s father invited members of the congregation to give their lives to Christ, and Alan was one of three who responded. Later he would describe his experience: ‘I can remember the sense of joy that came over me as we drove back along the dusty road through the gum trees. I can remember the sheer joy that I had been accepted by God and I was his child in a very special way because Christ had died for me. 1 can remember that very vividly even though I don’t know what my father said… I/ /regard that as the first vital spiritual experience that came to me.’
II. The second such experience was at the rail on the deck of a passenger ship as it sailed east across the Great Australian Bight bringing Win and Alan home from their eye-opening time in Europe, under the gathering clouds of World War II early in 1939. Years later he would describe that experience like this: ‘Should a Christian endorse the coming war, or should he espouse the cause of Christian pacifism? In obedience to what I believed was the clear teaching of Jesus and the meaning of the Cross of Calvary I espoused the cause of non-violence and the philosophy of positive Christian pacifism. Through the years of war which followed there were hours of loneliness and darkness. Many times I was tempted to abandon the stand I had taken, yet always I knew that for me it would have represented betrayal.’ He described that lonely choice in personal and spiritual terms as ‘second only to the first acceptance of Christ as Saviour which released into my life the conversion experience.’
For Alan, Christian pacifism was never passivism. It confronted evil in active and creative ways which worked for change without adding to the downward spiral of violence. He identified with Martin Luther King Jr. whom he greatly admired and with whom he had shared a platform in the US: ‘The way of non-violent resistance is not free of moral dilemma’, King wrote, ‘but it’s freer than the alternative.’
III. The third guide-post was as the public launching of the Mission to the Nation approached in April, 1953. Alan was tense and nervous, inevitably there was some internal church political intrigue, the pressures of deadlines were mounting, the church across the nation had placed its confidence in him to lead it in a giant act of daring and faith. Would he be able to deliver? Listen to what happened: ‘I walked into the stillness and gathering darkness of the Australian bush. Presently, in the stillness, an evening breeze stirred. I could hear it rustling in the leaves of the gum trees above me. Suddenly, there came to my mind the picture of Jesus talking to Nicodemus in Jerusalem: ‘The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes to. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit”… there came to my mind, there in the Australian bush, a simple sentence: “The wind is in the gum trees! The wind is in the gum trees!” It was to me a promise. We would hear the wind of the spirit blowing across Australia.’ And there are people in this audience today who could tell us that that wind did blow.
IV. The fourth guide-post was as Alan tried to resolve the tension between remaining on beyond his 20th year in the security of his leadership of’ the Wesley Central Mission in Sydney or, on the other hand, of accepting the much more tenuous challenge of leading the World Evangelism Program of the World Methodist Council. ‘At dawn one morning, he wrote later, I arose and walked the trails of Vision Valley. Presently, I came deliberately to the small historic Chapel which has been re-erected at the Valley. It is the oldest Methodist Chapel in Australia, built in 1828. In that Chapel, my forebear, John Walker, the son of a convict, worshipped and preached following his conversion to Christ. There my father preached his first sermon. In that Chapel, alive with memories, I sat at the small organ and played “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”. I quietly tried to sing: “Where He may lead me I will go, for I have learned to trust Him so”.’
‘The way cleared. I knew what I must do. I felt the presence of the Living Christ. He seemed to say: “Step forward! Be not afraid1 I will go with you to the ends of the earth”.’ They were the words his father had used in his first faltering sermon in that very Chapel.
We do not begin to understand Alan Walker if we think of him only as a forthright and controversial public figure. He never shied away from public controversy. In fact, since public controversy arises in relation to issues about which people care deeply, he believed that a Gospel word should be heard there. But he would never have been a public figure, if he had not first been a disciple of Jesus Christ. His discipleship was rooted in deep personal faith, in humble obedience, compassion and caring, in thoughtful biblical and theological reflection, and in personal piety and corporate worship.
V. There is a fifth guide-post which Alan did not identify in the same way but I know enough to be in no doubt that he would want me to emphasise it. It was Australia Day 69 years ago when he, in his first appointment as a minister at Hornsby, and a shy but beautiful young lady named Winifred Channon began dating (if you’ll excuse an American expression). The rest is history. Win, you are the unsung heroine of this day, and I know that you would be quite happy to remain unsung. But, as we praise God for Alan’s life, it is imperative that we should acknowledge the crucial role you have played in all that we’ve said, in loving partnership with Alan but also as an outworking of your own personal Christian discipleship and commitment.
It is interesting to me that in thousands of churches across the world which use the Revised Common Lectionary, as does my own congregation in Florida, the Epistle for the Sunday just passed will have begun with these words; ‘If I preach the gospel, it is no occasion for me to boast, for / /necessity is laid upon me and woe to me if I do not preach the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:16). I can hear Alan saying those words in concert with the Apostle Paul,
The gospel is, of course, good news – good news about God, about the world, about the future, about the human condition – but there is a sense in which it does not become good news unless it is shared.
Alan, thank you for sharing the good news with us so widely, so powerfully, so generously. See you in the morning!
Harold Henderson is author of Reach for the World: a Biography of Alan Walker.
More: visit the Wikipedia article on Alan Walker – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Walker_%28theologian%29
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia License.