My Journey to Christ
The conversion testimony of Kevin McGrane, elder of Bury St Edmunds Presbyterian church.
I was raised in a Roman Catholic family, my father having been born in Dublin of Roman Catholic ancestry. Baptism, Confession, Holy Communion and Confirmation followed in regular course. After junior education under Ursuline nuns, I moved to a boys’ grammar school established by Jesuits. The education was of a high standard (four years of Greek being particularly useful later). However, no student could take an ‘O’ Level in Religion as every examination board required study of the Bible, which was not permitted. Instead, we were fed a diet of Roman dogma, the sacraments, sacerdotalism, history of the Jesuits, and the Church Fathers. Catechisms instructed that doctrine was not always to be sought in the Bible but in the infallible teaching of the Church. We learned much about Christological heresies, but at no time could we have explained why Christ had died – we supposed that it was that we might have the Mass. Every week the whole school gathered for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, where we worshipped what we were assured was the Lord Jesus Christ, in appearance as a consecrated wafer fixed into a golden sunburst-style monstrance, borne at arms length by a Jesuit priest amidst clouds of incense. This, we sang, was the ‘newer rite’ that had superseded the former ‘types and shadows’.
From Romanism to Atheism
The great tragedy was that there was never anything more than crumbs of truth to be gathered – a starvation diet of Scripture alongside a surfeit of error. Even my father, who hardly accepted the Vatican II reforms promoting a more enlightened view of the Bible, became critical of this policy when I left the Roman fold. And leave I did. At sixteen, though convincingly devout, I knew this heritage was slipping like sand through my fingers. I had no safe grounds for believing this dogma, and would no longer do so. My parents referred me to the parish priest, who plied me with liquor but could not induce me to recant. For me, the pursuit of truth became an overriding aim, which included opposing error, superstition and hypocrisy. I rapidly drifted into atheism, keenly pointing out to my classmates the unreasonableness of Roman dogma. I refused to attend Mass with my family, or the compulsory Masses at school. I was prepared to accept any sanctions that might be imposed. With regard to truth, I felt this would be found through the scientific enterprise, and thus it was that I became a physics undergraduate at the University of Oxford. It was easier to be a radical atheist at Oxford, away from Roman Catholic pressure, but I was also exposed to those of genuinely Christian convictions: one training for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall; another, John Hughes, a student at my college; and others. I spent many hours discussing theology with them, and also came into contact with the theologian Michael Green, then Rector of St Aldate’s. I read books given to me on Christian apologetics, but these, and all the discussions, merely served to sharpen my counter arguments.
Unyielding spiritual blindness
Those who knew me as an atheist have spoken of my unyielding spiritual blindness. My response to evangelism was anything but indifference or apathy, more a reaction of fighting fire with fire. I distributed atheistic tracts, and had a determined zeal to promote atheist ideals. I should add that this was not like the contemporary New Atheist brand, which sneers and peddles weak discredited arguments. The likes of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens would have dismayed me as much then as now.
But my faith in science as a path to truth was severely shaken when I discovered at Oxford a systemic corruption in the enterprise. Science had a fatal flaw: human nature. This was a devastating and life-changing experience – the second time the bottom had fallen out of my world. Later, coming to understand more of the philosophy of science, I have never resiled from the stand I took against the corruption of science that I glimpsed at Oxford, and have seen with greater clarity since. As an idealist, perhaps, I had a very high view of the scientific enterprise, but I now see that atheism will eventually destroy it.
After leaving Oxford, I started a job in radar engineering in Chelmsford, and some months later arrived in Southampton to pursue further studies in electronics. Three hours after moving to the city, I was confronted by a Christian couple doing door-to-door evangelism. They asked me where I had studied previously. ‘Oxford University,’ I replied. ‘That’s interesting,’ said the woman, ‘Which college?’ ‘Hertford College,’ I answered. ‘Really? Did you know a student there called John Hughes?’ ‘Yes,’ I responded, ‘He often came to my room for discussions about Christianity.’ ‘He’s my brother,’ she replied. ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!’ (Rom. 11:33).
I was invited to attend a course of Bible studies, but the leaders were ill-prepared for presentations of alternative persuasive answers to their questions. They eventually asked me to stop attending Bible studies – I mention this to their shame as well as mine, and as an example never to emulate – one of them stating that I was not interested in truth. Such a statement was quite unfair: was it not precisely because the Apostle Paul understood the implications of Christian doctrine and had a passion for what he believed to be the truth that he was so zealous to extirpate the church? Likewise, I was far from apathetic about truth, and had made bold and difficult adjustments in my life in my search for it. Yet it was a zeal not according to knowledge.
I was angered and stung into reading more Christian apologetics. The arguments seemed no more persuasive than before, but now the Scripture verses underpinning them came to me as hammer blows. Why should those sentences leap off the page like a battering ram against the strongholds of my mind? How could these mere words land such devastating blows? Prayer was being made for me, and the Holy Spirit was convicting me of sin, righteousness and judgment, yet also showing me the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ – not through the lens of Roman Catholicism, but through the Word of God. The force of truth was irresistible, and I was granted repentance unto life. ‘Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O LORD’ (Psa. 25:7).
From darkness to light
I was given a Bible that day, which I read avidly, and that week I ventured into a Christian bookshop in Southampton and was amazed at the treasury of books available. The Lord, there and then, gave me a love of Reformed truth, and I was delighted to come away that day with Hodge on The Westminster Confession of Faith, Cunningham on The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, and a Greek New Testament. Before I returned to Chelmsford I had come to Presbyterian convictions, though such was a rather exotic species in those days.
The reaction of my parents was actually somewhat favourable to begin with: to be a Christian was surely better than to be an atheist. But when it began to dawn that this Christianity was decidedly Protestant, and Calvinist, and that I wanted them to know and believe the gospel, then a certain amount of antagonism became evident. My father quite genuinely enquired whether there were as many as twenty persons in the world who could possibly believe such things.
During my time at Chelmsford I regularly studied biblical truth within the framework of the Westminster Confession with Dennis Lewis and John Titcombe (who served as elders in the London congregations of the Free Presbyterian and Free Church of Scotland respectively before their call to be with the Lord), praying that God would again revive a commitment to full-orbed Reformed truth in England, and in Chelmsford in particular. In 1986 I attended the London Presbyterian Conference, which took the first tentative steps towards a Presbyterian denomination. I married and removed to Bury St Edmunds without yet seeing an answer to those prayers for Chelmsford, but God surely answered them by raising up a Presbyterian church in that town and elsewhere within a few years. Indeed, in 1991 my family, with a number of others, were founder members of Bury St Edmunds Presbyterian Church, where I continue to serve as a ruling elder.
‘Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen’ (Rev. 7:12).
Taken with permission from Protestant Truth, January-February 2012, Volume 18 Number 1.
What Can We Learn from John Knox? November 24, 2022
If it were to be asked what is the recurring theme in Knox’s words and writings the answer is perhaps a surprising one. Sometimes he could be severe, and sometimes extreme. Given the days and the harshness of the persecution he witnessed, it would be understandable if these elements had preponderated in his ministry. But […]
Reformed, But Ever Reforming October 31, 2022
It is rather audacious to claim that we are reformed. It can also be misleading when we call ourselves Reformed Churches. For this might imply that we believe that our denominations are truly reformed; or, even worse, that at some point in the past we were or became reformed and that the task of reform […]