The Testimony of Audrey Isabella Riche
Audrey Isabella Riche, for 44 years a member of the church at Bethel, Luton, and formerly at Hanover, Tunbridge Wells, passed away on September 4th, aged 81. The following is her own account of her early days, written in May 1986.
Sometimes I am asked: ‘How did you come to go to chapel?’ and I attempt to give a brief answer. Lately it has been much on my mind to try to write a little account of the Lord’s mercies to me in this respect. I was born on May 1st, 1929, at a farm in the parish of Much Hadham, Hertfordshire. I was the fourth child of my parents, another son being born nearly seven years afterwards. My father was a sincere churchman, attending the parish church at Much Hadham, where he was church warden. He was a dear man, kind and tender-hearted to the extreme, loving to help others, and never anxious about his own gain. His wish was to see his children grow up to be the same – religious and a help to society. We were each christened at the correct time, and then taken to church when we were thought to be old enough. My father said grace at meals, and we were taught to say our prayers at bedtime. We kept Sunday quietly, going to church, reading or quiet occupations, and perhaps visitors to tea. Sometimes we sang hymns in the evening. I think I was what is called naturally religious. I loved all these things. I remember sitting by an old lady who came to do mending for my mother and learning the hymn, ‘God is working His purpose out.’ I really loved it, especially the chorus:
Nearer and nearer draws the time
The time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.
I remember also struggling to read a book of Bible stories that my Grandma gave me.
My very earliest religious impression dates back to when I was between four and five years of age. We were going out, and my sisters and I were in the bathroom having our faces washed. I think perhaps someone had been naughty and mother was telling us about the judgment day. I was really worried, and I remember walking slowly from the bathroom to the bedroom thinking, what should I do? Some things I would not like my mother to know, so what if they were all open before God on the day of judgment? This fear was often with me through my childhood. However, I thought to be religious was the important thing.
My oldest brother, Geoffrey, was sent to a boys’ prep school in Bishop’s Stortford and my two sisters and I were sent to St. Mary’s Convent school. My father believed in the universal love of God to everyone. He thought there was good in all religions, just differences of opinion. He saw nothing inconsistent in sending us to the convent. He had heard that the nuns did not try to influence pupils to turn Roman Catholic and he wanted us to have a good education. He did not realise the influence it would have on my mind. I watched closely all that was done, and envied the Roman Catholic girls what I thought were their privileges – having catechism lessons, a library of books for their own use, and being closely knit in the framework of their religion. Once a Roman Catholic got a catechism book for me by deceit, I so badly wanted one.
As I grew up I longed more and more to know what was right. I often had to take my troubles to the Lord in prayer. I looked on the nuns as saints; they were such docile, sweet-tempered, kindly people. We once held a debate amongst ourselves – Roman Catholic girls against Church of England – but my feeling was, they lived their religion, knew what they were talking about, whereas we were so lukewarm and uninformed.
One thing I would here record. When I was about fourteen, I gave my autograph book to one of the nuns (my maths teacher, of whom I was very fond) and this is what she wrote in it: ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.’ This made a great impression on me and I began to pray more earnestly. I prayed as I cycled to and from school, by my bed when I had gone to change out of my school uniform, and also went into the school chapel for this purpose. I believe I did lean hard on the Lord at the time of exams and He helped me.
I also sought Him constantly as to what to do when I left school. I wanted to work with little children, and my headmistress recommended me to go to Saffron Walden Training College to train as an infant teacher. She also gave me the opportunity of helping in the kindergarten from the time I was sixteen to eighteen years of age. It was then, working closely with one of the nuns, that I wondered if I ought to become a nun. This nun once said to me, ‘If you ever want to be a nun, do your training first, and then enter a convent.’ So this settled my mind to go to college first and put off for a while this question of religion. It was not that I found it easy to give up the thought of my own home and family, but O I did want to be right.
All this time I was living in the midst of the world. Dances, cinema, the local tennis club were part of my life and I knew no different. It was either this or life in a convent, as far as I could see. I was not happy, felt I could not do what I would, and yet I longed after holiness.
I went to college with the intention of joining heartily in everything. When I found there was a Student Christian Movement, I felt this is for me and was pleased to attend the meetings. Once a month a speaker was invited to speak to the group. About the third month one of the lecturers, Miss Riche, was invited to speak. Before the meeting an announcement was made that it would be held in Miss Riche’s room and we were each to take our Bibles. I thought this seemed rather old-fashioned. I had a Bible, but I had hardly ever opened it. However, I went with it. I remember the time so vividly. We were sitting round – about twelve to twenty of us – on chairs or cushions. Miss Riche asked us to turn to the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 47. I had never heard of it and had no idea where to look, so the girl next to me found it for me. I cannot remember what was said, but was just so impressed with the newness and sincerity of it all. Most people seemed to like the talk and asked Miss Riche if she would speak again the next month. For my part, I could not wait for the month to go by – I did so want to hear more. In the meantime Miss Riche spoke to me once or twice in a very friendly way; she told me later that it was because she knew I had been to a convent, thought I might be Roman Catholic, and wondered why I went to hear her speak.
Well, the next time came at last, and there we were sitting round in the same circumstances as before, and, I don’t know how it was, but somehow the subject of predestination came up. I had never heard of it and did not understand what it meant, but what amazed me was that immediately most of the girls became hostile and argumentative. They obviously just could not bear the subject. I can see now how Miss Riche straightened her back and spoke with such firm persuasion that I felt sure she was right. I could not understand it; it seemed rather a hard doctrine, but I do not think I ever from that moment doubted that it was right. I remember Miss Riche saying something like this – that the world was like a garden, and the Lord, the Heavenly Gardener, had a right to come and pick what flowers He wished. O I did want to be one of them; I did want to know more about these things!
Well, after much heated discussion the meeting ended and to my sorrow the girls said that they would not listen to such things again, and they never did while I was at college. This was during my first term at college.
Well, in the rest of that year I often spoke to Miss Riche, usually just if I met her in the corridor, and she occasionally handed me a magazine to read – the Gospel Standard, the Friendly Companion or the Gospel Magazine. I loved the sermons, but was totally amazed that men could preach such beautiful things. It was during this time that I began to read my Bible daily, not because I knew that anyone else did that, but because it seemed the only way to become acquainted with it. Towards the end of my first year I was unwell and in sick bay for a few days. Then Miss Riche came to see me one evening and she opened her Bible and read Psalm 27 to me. It was all so new, so good – I have ever since counted that my favourite Psalm.
When I came to my second year at college, I had a study bedroom of my own instead of sharing. It then became easier for me to be independent of other girls and to come and go as I wished. Also, a strange thing happened. Second years were appointed to certain duties in college and I was put in charge of stationery. This meant opening the stationery cupboard once a week and the students came for whatever they needed. I did not know until I was given the job (and it was the students who voted people into these jobs) that it entailed getting the stationery cupboard key from Miss Riche each week and returning it to her, also ordering fresh stationery from her. This, of course, meant more opportunities of speaking to her, without other students being suspicious why.
About November that year, Miss Riche asked me if I would like to go to a little chapel at Dunmow with her one Sunday. I did, but do not remember much about it. Of course, a non-conformist type of service was quite new to me. Then in December she asked me to go to Cambridge with her, to Tenison Road Chapel to hear a Mr. Jones [Percy Jones, who died January 4th, 1982, aged 88]. That occasion I remember so well. I can picture myself in the seat now, and the minister in the pulpit preaching, and the feeling I had that it was God Himself speaking through that man to my soul.
From then it was that this preaching became so important to me. It was from then that I looked up to the Lord to place me where I could hear such preaching. I was also impressed with the hymns. They seemed so real. I had seen the people in the parish church hold up their hymn books and sing away, but this was different and it touched my heart.
After Christmas it was soon time to begin to look for a teaching post. One day I saw a letter on the notice board from Luton Education Committee asking for teachers for infant and junior schools. I told Miss Riche about it. She said she thought it would suit me well as there would be two chapels there for me to choose from. In the meantime she took me to chapel with her, I should think five or six times before I left college.
I remember so well when I left. I was parting with the friend who had been such a help to me. I had got ten weeks at home before starting teaching. My desire was to show them at home something of this ‘new thing’ that had captured my heart and affections. But everything went wrong. My parents were not pleased with the change, and my huge trial began, that of grieving my mother, whom I so dearly loved and could not bear to hurt, and yet seeming unable to do anything about it. A rift grew up between us, which lasted for the most part until the last few weeks of her life, when she showed again that old love and tenderness, that made it break my heart to lose her. I remember one time particularly when my parents wanted me to go to the seaside with them on a Sunday. When I refused they were so upset and said they would not go without me, and I had spoilt their pleasure. I was helping on the farm at the time and one day I was singing all day, in great sadness,
When through the deep waters I call thee to go
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow.
This reminds me to mention how I came to buy my Gadsby’s hymnbook. One day Miss Riche and I were travelling in her car, and she sang, ‘Fear not, I am with thee’ (Hymn 329). O how I wanted that hymn book! I found it advertised in one of the magazines she lent me, so I sent for one. How I loved it, and have ever since! I remember how she came into my room at college and I showed her I had got it, and she was so touched and said how she hoped it would be made a blessing to me, and it certainly has.
Well, these sad holidays came to an end, and the time arrived to come to Luton. I did not know how to wait to be near a chapel. The first Wednesday evening I went along to Ebenezer, only to find the service was cancelled, and as I stood outside wondering what to do, an old lady said to me (she also had not known the service was cancelled), ‘Come to Bethel with me.’ So we walked down Dumfries Street to Bethel. Then what a blessing that spot was made to me! Sundays and week nights I could hardly wait for the services. I can truly say the Lord blessed me, and watered my soul, and bored my ears to the doorposts. He knew the trial of my heart concerning my parents which continued and increased, and He so blessed my soul that I had no alternative but to press on, and to continue to draw water from the wells of salvation.
Here Mrs. Riche’s own account ends.
After a few years at Luton, she felt led to Tunbridge Wells, though finding it very hard to leave Bethel. She was greatly blessed under the ministry of the pastor, Mr. S. Curtis. In the Christmas holidays of 1955, she visited a friend in Luton, and was telling her of various things the Lord had done for her. The friend asked whether she felt the time had come to speak of these things to the church. She realised it probably had, but she wanted a word from the Lord, not just from man.
During these Christmas holidays she was at home at her parents’ farm, and things were very difficult for her, particularly as Christmas Day was on a Sunday, and she felt unable to join in with the usual Christmas activities on that day. Towards the end of the time, she went to bed one evening, and turned out the light, and the Lord spoke the word to her, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before thee.’ It was as if, without her thinking about what came next, everything the Lord had done for her passed before her. She longed for the Lord to show her what she should do before returning to Tunbridge Wells, and it was as though the Lord Himself spoke, ‘What doth hinder thee?’ And she said it seemed as if she could see a way ahead of her that went straight through baptism, and she answered, ‘Nothing Lord.’ From then the way seemed so clear.
On returning to Tunbridge Wells after the holidays, she wrote to Mr. Curtis, and subsequently went before the church at Hanover, Tunbridge Wells, and was baptized on February 9th, when Mr. Curtis preached from, ‘To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen’ (Rom. 16:27). She felt she could see such wisdom in every step of the way that the Lord had led her that there was not another text in the whole Bible more suitable for her. She walked through the waters of baptism with great joy, and wrote, ‘I have to say to the honour and glory of my precious Saviour that I was allowed to walk on in the light of that joy for a very long time.’
In 1961 she married Bernard Riche (brother of Miss Riche), and moved to Great Shelford, near Cambridge. They attended Oakington chapel, which was about ten miles away, and her great desire was to be able to live somewhere within walking distance of a chapel.
Her husband was eventually offered a transfer to a new office which was opening in Luton, and she often spoke of how the Lord provided a home for them about a mile from Bethel. They moved there in 1965 and she transferred her membership to Bethel in 1966. She was a person who saw the Lord’s hand in the little details of life, and many times over the years that she lived in their house, she would speak of how suitable it was in different ways for the family as they grew up there.
She loved the ordinance of the Lord’s supper, and sometimes mentioned how her pastor referred to it as a ‘strengthening ordinance’ and how often she had found it to be so. In the last few months of her life, she found it particularly hard to be unable to attend the ordinance.
In October 2004, her husband was taken suddenly, having a heart attack one night and passing away the following afternoon. The previous evening, Mr. J.R. Broome had been preaching at Bethel from Exodus 33:13. She had come to chapel feeling in much need, yet felt to be lifted above her present circumstances, though little knowing what was before her, and wrote of feeling the presence of the Saviour, then and in the days that followed.
In September 2006 she moved into the Harpenden Bethesda Home, and deeply valued this provision, the care shown to her, and especially the morning readings in the Home, and the services which were relayed there. She referred to Bethesda as being ‘a waiting place for that home above.’
Latterly she was unable to attend chapel, and listened to the services over the relay in her room. Many times she spoke of how good the services were to her, on one occasion saying that every word had been for her. Two sermons she particularly mentioned were the evening of June 13th, 2010, when the text was, ‘But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us,’ and the evening of August 1st: ‘The shadow of a great rock in a weary land.’ The former sermon was subsequently published in the Bethel Pulpit, and a few days before she died, she spoke of how she had enjoyed reading it.
On July 12th, Mr. Christian took the reading at Bethesda and read Exodus 33. The verse which had enabled her to go forward and be baptized, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before thee,’ was sweetly opened up and blessed to her again. When Mr. Christian read the words from Exodus 33, she was overwhelmed by the remembrance of the Lord’s goodness to her.
Then on August 8th, Mr. Jonathan Buss preached from the same text (Exodus 33:19) and this was a very special time to her.
On Friday, September 3rd, she had a happy day, enjoying a walk in the garden, time spent with another resident and visits from some of her family. About 8 o’clock in the evening, she had a stroke, losing the use of her right side and also her speech, and passed away in hospital at 6:20 the following morning.
While in the hospital, she was unable to communicate, although when spoken to, she would open her eyes and look at her family, and her eyes filled with tears when the verse was quoted to her:
His love in time past forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last in trouble to sink;
Each sweet Ebenezer I have in review
Confirms His good pleasure to help me quite through.
She had often spoken of how she dreaded having a stroke and being helpless and unable to speak, yet the Lord’s goodness to her continued to her final hours, in that she was taken quickly to be with Him, and not left for a long period in such a helpless condition. [A.A.K]
Note by her pastor
Mrs. Riche was a wonderful example of what it means to give up everything for Jesus’ sake. To her dying day she felt the sadness brought about by her separation from her father and mother whom she so dearly loved. She walked out the word: ‘Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach.’ ‘Whose faith follow.’ May we be ‘followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.’
Taken with permission from The Gospel Standard, December 2010
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