J Howard Spencer – An Appreciation
At about four o’clock in the afternoon of March 14th 2007 the earthly remains of Howard Spencer were laid to rest on the Norfolk coast near where, for the past fifteen years, together with his wife Jean, he had made his home. Earlier, at Cromer Baptist Church, which he had pastored since 1992, there was not a spare seat as over two hundred people, from all over the country crowded into the chapel to take part in a service of thanksgiving for his life. That so many, from all walks of life and different Christian traditions, had come was testimony to the esteem, respect and affection in which he was held. It was not just family members who had come, not just members of his church, not just fellow workers in the ministry, but ordinary people who had been helped or instructed or encouraged by his ministry over many years. Many more were the expressions of condolence and the tributes from those unable to attend.
The service, conducted by his friend Colonel Donald Underwood, was a sober though not a miserable occasion. Those present knew that the church militant had lost one of its grand warriors. Some had lost a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a pastor, a confidant. But all rejoiced in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. They had the calm assurance of knowing that when, on 2nd March, Howard Spencer was called to join the church triumphant, after a long and bravely borne illness, at the comparatively early age of sixty-four, he was with Christ – which is far better. Howard’s desire was that through his funeral the Lord Jesus should be magnified. The tone was set by the hymns that he had chosen – I to the hills will lift my longing eyes; Not what I am, O Lord, but what thou art; The sands of time are sinking and I’ve found a friend, O such a friend – He loved me ‘ere I knew Him. Rev John Legg and Bob Gilbert each gave an appreciation and Donald Underwood was able in his sermon to movingly turn our eyes upward. Truly “the things of earth grew strangely dim …”
For the past fifteen years Howard had been pastor of Cromer Baptist Church, much loved by his people and exercising an influence for reformed Christianity throughout the county of Norfolk. Although Calvinistic in theology, a convinced independent and baptist, he was a man with a big heart, enjoying fellowship with true believers from other traditions. He had many friends in the Free Church of Scotland who were often invited to share his pulpit. Secondary issues were no bar to an invitation to preach at the monthly East Anglian Bible Rallies which were established, largely at his instigation, in 1989. He was a regular attender at the Banner Conference and the Grace Baptist Assembly.
Born into a Plymouth Brethren family in 1942, he often spoke of his godly father who instilled a love of the Scriptures and encouraged evangelistic zeal. He was a “free-offer” man without doubt, praying, he said, for revival every day since the age of sixteen and regularly preaching in the open air. Indeed, one of the highlights of his year was Cromer Carnival Week when he would engage in preaching on the seafront and help with the distribution of thousands of tracts.
In 1964 he married Jean Thompson and went to live at Thornton-le-Moor. Still attending the Brethren meeting on Sunday mornings, in the evening they began to attend Northallerton Baptist Church where they were introduced to the Doctrines of Grace by Rev Paul Cook. After Paul Cook’s removal to Hull, Northallerton Evangelical Church was founded under the leadership of Rev John Legg who encouraged Howard as a preacher. From 1979-1984 Howard was an elder of this church, but in 1984 the family had to move for employment reasons and, as John Legg comments, “Yorkshire’s loss was Norfolk’s gain.”
John Legg’s tutelage eventually bore fruit – Howard always described himself as a late developer – and in 1992 he commenced a joint pastorate with Cromer Baptist Church and what was then the Railway Mission in Norwich (now Norwich Evangelical Free Church). In 1996 he became the full-time pastor at Cromer.
As a preacher, Howard was orthodox, solid and experimental. He always thought of himself more as an exhorter than a theologian, yet consistently sought to teach the important doctrinal principles of the Scriptures. He urged upon his church prayerful and practical support for mission at home and abroad and was a great encourager, particularly of young men who showed potential for Christian service. On this, Hugh Collier, pastor of Great Ellingham Baptist Church, says, “To a young man in the ministry he was nothing but a constant encouragement and friend. Of the many things I will remember about Howard, probably his humility and gentleness will remain at the fore; along with the fact that he rarely prayed without tears. Norfolk will be a poorer place without him.” Howard also maintained an interest in history and politics which led him to be an enthusiastic supporter of the Christian Institute.
This appreciation is mostly concerned with Howard as a minister but we should also remember him as a family man. He was evidently devoted to his wife, Jean, who dealt with his “enthusiasms” with tact and diplomacy, but he was always willing to acknowledge her loyal support and help. He loved his children dearly and his grandchildren gave him much pleasure – he was always willing to talk more about their accomplishments than his own! But he was to suffer a cruel blow when, a few years back, he lost his younger daughter in tragic circumstances. At her burial someone was overheard suggesting, “This will destroy him!” It didn’t. He was able to tell his congregation, “Jesus says ‘My grace is sufficient!'” It is at times like that when a congregation finds out if their pastor really believes what he has been teaching them.
During the last few years, when he was incurably ill, he bore the increasing pain with fortitude and even in the last weeks, when the cancer was spreading, I never heard him complain even though the bodily weakness of a once strong man clearly embarrassed him. He only confided in those close to him and was reluctant to ask for prayer because he could not bring himself to broadcast his own difficulties. His friends, though, discretely passed the word around and he was aware and grateful that he was being upheld at the throne of grace.
How is he to be remembered? The present writer recalls a man of prodigious energy and tremendous enthusiasm for the cause of Christ, yet one who was always gentle with those who were weaker or suffering. And he got you to do things, not because he bullied or demanded but because, somehow, he made you want to help. He was, his friend Bob Gilbert says, a reluctant leader. He preferred to sit at the back but if required to stand at the front was prepared to do so.
Dean Olive from Alabama, USA, who ministered for a time in Norfolk, told me, “When I think of Howard Spencer, I think of someone with firm convictions but with a gracious spirit. He could speak the truth in love as well as anyone I have ever known. He was ever the gentleman, kind and gracious, but never compromising. The love of Christ was evident in his conduct and the love of truth was apparent in his ministry.”
We thank God for Howard Spencer and in a day of small things thank Him for all that He has done through Howard. We also remember that through his ministry of encouragement, others have been able to progress the work of the gospel in lands far away. All those who were involved with him consider it a privilege and some may wonder how they will cope in the future. Howard would tell us to look not to him but to Christ!
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