Fifty Years in Aberystwyth
It’s quite overwhelming to see so many of you here today, November 14th 2015, numbers of you having travelled far, even hundreds of miles to be with us, and have gone to such expense to be at my Golden Jubilee – fifty years of being in the pulpit of Alfred Place. I’m tempted to think you don’t know me, or that knowing me you’re a very forgiving bunch. One thing I’ve learned in the past fifty years is how God hides my falls and failures and follies from those who love me, and that God is great in mercy to them that fear him. As I have told you often, there’ve been times when if you’d known my heart you’d have spat in my face. One of my closest friends said to me recently about this special anniversary, ‘It will be O.K. They will say nice things about you … but you know your own heart.’ You have made this long trip not out of duty but because of your affection for me, and also because you identify with me, and I have been your spokesman preaching the gospel message in this community – just as you’ve been my voice supporting this same divine message where you live. We are in a gospel brotherhood that will last for ever.
This is a weekend of thanksgiving, and I am joined in the ministry by Dr. Joel Beeke whose friendship and encouragement has enriched the last decades.
In 1965 this congregation was looking for a new pastor and my dear cousin who had been my best man the previous year, the former professor of Welsh at the University here, Dr. Bobi Jones, gave my name to Mr. Wynne (one of the deacons of this church at the time). He told him I was a theological student who was awaiting a call from a congregation. He in turn passed my name on to the church secretary and subsequently I came here to preach on three occasions. I had numbers of friends amongst the students who were unsubtly dropping heavy hints that if the congregation called me, they would be attending Alfred Place in great numbers. A crowd of them turned up on the first Sunday and that helped my cause.
Then there was a group of people in the congregation who were a part of the growing company of evangelical Christians who had developed a delight for the historic Christian faith and who wanted that preaching from our own pulpit that would declare the whole counsel of God. Amongst them and with us today, thank God, were Dr. Ieuan and Mrs. Ivory Davies. They and others believed that a reformational ministry would be the most interesting and helpful and lucid and soul-enriching and God-honouring and saving message that anyone could hear. A number of them had been students in what was then the Inter-Varsity Fellowship. Some had loved to sit at the feet of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on his visits every couple of years to Aberystwyth. There was a new interest in the writings of the Puritans and the evangelical leaders of the 18th century, men like Whitefield and Daniel Rowland. These people began to be indebted to the Banner of Truth, and I myself came precisely from that background. They prayed much, individually and together, that I might come as their minister. Finally they voted successfully if narrowly to call me. I just scraped in, to the majority’s rejoicing. My cousin Bobi called me that Sunday night fifty years ago; ‘Good news Geoff,’ he said, ‘You’ve had the call.’ I wept. My mother-in-law was staying with us in Swansea at that time as our baby Eleri had just been born, and she was agitated about my tears; ‘What’s wrong?’ she cried. Iola explained that I’d had the call from Alfred Place and we were going to live in Aberystwyth.
There are about half-a-dozen people in our congregation today who were attending the church at that time, three or four of whom actually participated in the voting, issuing that call to me to become their pastor-preacher. I soon baptized some of them, and then have baptized their children, and anticipate that it will not be long before their grandchildren will also be baptized when they make a credible profession of faith and come to the Lord’s table.
We’ve made this 50 year-long journey together, the changing congregation and myself, and today’s celebration is as much about their praying, and encouragement, and patience, and kindness to me as it is about the keeping power of God. Paul asks the congregation in Corinth, ‘What do you have that you didn’t first receive from God?’ The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing.
My becoming a Christian over sixty years ago was all through God choosing to become my Saviour and to give me a new heart. My extraordinary good health, my mind, the great people God brought into my life, the books I read, the teachers who taught me, particularly at Westminster Seminary from 1961 through 1964, all that was God’s plan and accomplishment. And especially so was my wife Iola whom God blessed me with, who’s been exemplary in her life and constant in her support. Iola looked after the two women’s meetings and was loved by them all, and I had no rebellion from the ladies because of the leadership provided by Iola (plus a growing number of other women who were my supporters). My daughters also never caused me five minutes’ sleeplessness – not to mention our future godly happy sons-in-law and the terrific grandchildren whom God has given us. I would be tempted to think that there cannot be another family like mine in the world, but I know differently; there are many in Wales. So all these were God’s gifts of grace to me. I should have been a colossus with all those wonderful privileges. My God has supplied all my needs exceeding abundantly above all that I asked or even thought, certainly more than I deserved.
So why did I come to Aberystwyth and why did I stay here as a rare one church minister? It is not a difficult question to answer. Aber. is a lovely town on the Irish Sea at the heart of Cardigan Bay. I never tire of walking along the promenade and watching the sun set. There is scarcely a day when I fail to visit the sea. That perambulation is still wonderful therapy for Iola. Around us are the mountains. What a delightful and healthy place to live. My wife and daughters loved Aberystwyth. I could not act on my own and cry, ‘Enough! We are moving somewhere.’ There would have been revolution. My wife’s much loved only sibling lives in this town and so six cousins grew up together without a cross word.
Then I was the pastor of a happy church. I do love the people in Alfred Place. I once had a vivid dream; it’s been quite unforgettable. I found myself on my first Sunday in a new church in a street in Barry town – where no church building exists. I was looking around the congregation from the pulpit and everyone there was a stranger, and I was overwhelmed with regret and grief that I had left Alfred Place to go to a fellowship of strangers. What folly of mine! Then I woke up mighty glad that I was still in Aber. But I have to acknowledge also the fact that I never had a serious call to go any place. In other words, nobody else wanted me. And God wanted me here.
Then an additional attraction of Aber. is the university and the arrival of students every autumn. There were 2,000 of them fifty years ago, but there are 10,000 today, half the population of the town. They bring that cheerful blend of irreverence and respect to me into the chapel and at the Manse and at their meetings and they all call me ‘Geoff.’ That’s fine. It’s my Christian name. We live in a first name culture. Their presence has been inspirational and challenging all through these five decades. They have been one of my most satisfying encouragements; many of them have gone into the ministry.
The first was Austin Walker and Mai; he is with us today and is a preacher in Crawley. There is Keith Underhill, 40 years in Kenya. Spencer Cunnah and Wendy, now in London. Chris Pegington a missionary in Austria and then in Wales. Tim Mills of Bradford. Gary Brady and Eleri in London. Keith and Janice Hoare, who were missionaries in France. Graham and Sue Heaps in Dewsbury. Mark Vogan in Ecuador. Derek and Rosemary Thomas in Columbia, South Carolina. Trevor Jones in London. Megan Patterson in Benin. Gareth Edwards and Ceri now in Haverfordwest. Richard Brunt in Welsh churches in London. Alan Davey of Bordeaux, France. Ian Middlemist and Hanna of Haverfordwest. Malcolm and Ruth Firth of Riga, Latvia. Andrew Whitehouse of West Park, Wolverhampton. Jim Sayers and Helen of Abingdon. Dan Peters and Hannah of Newcastle. Ian Hughes of Gwersyllt. Dafydd Hughes of New Zealand. Ed Collier of Sheffield. Richard Killer of Japan. Oliver Gross of Welshpool (and Bristol very soon). Mark Rowcroft and Abigail of Darlington. Luke Jenner of Halifax. Jonathan Hodgins and Caroline of Oswestry. Jim Day of Ingleton. Geoff Lloyd of New Zealand. Peter and Demelza Hilder of Little Mill in Gwent. Fiona Adams is teaching in a W.E.C. School in Senegal. Elizabeth supports her husband Hicham in Carcassonne, France. All those thirty or more men are preaching. I was but another link in a chain with them all. Many came from homes and congregations where they were taught and encouraged in godliness. They belong to them and those places, not to me, but they came here and listened to me at a formative time of their lives, and I confirmed and clarified what they had been taught.
Maybe they realized how ordinary I was, that the Christian ministry did not require unattainable perfection but it did insist on utter reliance on an all-sufficient attainable Saviour. They were helped hearing me year after year, and they thought that they too might help people by preaching the Bible, that it was an understandable and worthy calling, the pastor-preacher. They had a growing desire to do this and they responded to the same call from God as I had.
Some of them today are not quite where I am, but most of them are, and are men of God, some not working in a place in the sun that I have, and many are fine pastors. Very few have lost their way and defaulted on free grace. A number have been restored. There are other preachers too who once were with us, and I am sorry inadvertently to have omitted their names. I do apologize. I must say that this flow has not dried up, that there are going to be other preachers and missionaries soon, from men in our congregation today. Maybe they will be even finer, stronger servants of God. May it be so!
But I am not absolutizing the preachers. There are many more, men and women who are now leaders in congregations all over the U.K. who are keeping the faith and are mature, wise people who are the backbone of many churches and the prayer meetings, and the word I preached also touched them a little during these past fifty years.
So the university was one of the glues that stuck me to Aber, but so was my appreciation of Aber. itself, as one of the most important communities in Wales, a historic and cultural town. When a university moves into an area then there is an indirect but definite challenge to a supernatural gospel of Christ, to the Bible’s emphases on creation, the fall, redemption and regeneration, the authority and truth of Scripture and the blood of the Lord Jesus. Aberystwyth was no stranger to that trend especially in the first half of the 20th century. A cerebral religion of morality and social concern replaced the truths of man’s ruin, Christ’s atonement, and the Holy Spirit giving life. It had a chilling and deadening effect on Welsh religious attendance, and inevitable declension resulted as the Downgrade dominated theological colleges, pulpits, and pews. You know that Aberystwyth was the place where the 1823 Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists was officially received by the Presbyterian church. A plaque on a shop wall two shops up from the Pound Shop in Great Darkgate Street today marks the place where it was accepted. There was a day when the Confession of Faith was considered that important.
Our pulpit marks the place where it is still preached. In such a town it is important that the theology of the Confession should be believed and loved. So it has been that in the past half century the evangelical gospel has slowly re-emerged and other pulpits also preach it today. There is no hope for the church without those truths. There is only one gospel message. Paul says that if he or an angel preached any other gospel then let him be accursed.
So now I guess that I am in my last year as pastor, and not leaving nonchalantly, but still with a sense of urgency concerning my vocation, praying that my last months will be my best months, but I am aware that this period has to be the time to end my ministry as the pastor-preacher of this congregation. When I wrote to Iain Murray fifty years ago and told him I had had a call here he replied hoping that I would be in Aberystwyth as long as William Jay had been in Bath. Well, I had a go! Jay was there for 62 years, but his last years were full of ill health of body and mind. It was not the best time of his ministry by far. I will certainly avoid that.
We are praying that the congregation will soon be able to call another man to follow with these convictions concerning biblical doctrines and ethics. He will have some fine elders who are seeking to serve the church wisely. He will have a congregation who demand all the counsel of God be preached to them, and he need not fear being taken from the truth by their smiles or intimidated by their frowns.
I have stayed in the ministry so long because I had a big God and big truths and a big message and a big calling so that I needed all these years to magnify Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to humble man. I had hopes that I would preach through all the Bible in fifty years but though I have preached the New Testament completely and some of it a number of times, there are parts of the Old Testament I have not been able to deal with. The Bible is simply too great for all of us. In the last fifteen years I have written out my sermons in full and published them on the world wide web. They say that I am the first Welsh minister to publish so many sermons during his lifetime. There are about 1200 of them on the web. I get at least a thousand hits a week of people hearing my sermons and so I have a larger congregation than the flock that meet in Alfred Place.
What are some of the lessons learned in the past years? First would be the importance of the Lord’s Day. The men I know who have influenced me the most, whose lives have been most like the Saviour’s, have been men who had a high regard for Sunday. And they kept it special. They strove to give to God the whole day.
Second would be the importance of singing the great hymns of faith in our hymnbooks. I love some of the new hymns and you see I chose one today, ‘The Power of the Cross,’ but what riches there are in the psalms, and in the hymns of Luther, Mason, Toplady, Wesley, Watts and so on. I have added a hundred tunes to our hymn book, many modern, others American and Welsh and English, and we have joyfully learned them and sing those new tunes to the words of Gadsby and Bonar and Newton and Cowper and the rest. We can do that because in the pews we have words-only hymnals whereas in the USA each member of the congregation has a music copy. I am always eager to learn more tunes and present the great old hymns in new guise to this generation, as the new tune did to ‘Before the throne of God above.’ We sing on Sundays through the course of a year 400 different hymns (and incidentally, thus we are reminding ourselves that we are a microcosm of the church of God over four millennia, the people who have worshipped God). We are treading in the paths where our fathers trod and benefiting from the praise they gave to God. I hope that that commitment to glorious doxology worthy of a glorious God will not die. I hope others will be enriched in their affections through singing the great hymns.
Third, the importance of trusting in the financial provision that God makes to those who are faithful to him. I know that there are churches who have closed for many reasons, but it seems to me there are few who have closed because of lack of money. For these fifty years we have balanced our books, maintained a building that is soon to be 150 years old, modernized it and we have given at least a tenth of our income to the mission field. Freely we have received from God and so freely we give to God.
When forty years ago we ventured in faith to establish a residential home here in Aberystwyth for men and women with learning difficulties, we knew little of what would be involved in buying and purchasing Plas Lluest and welcoming sixteen residents to live there and getting staff to work there. We started with a gift of £5 taken in an offering at a mid-week prayer meeting. God has so far provided our needs. The site and building in Plas Lluest are today worth between one and two million pounds.That home was not my vision. Others in the congregation, especially Bud and Phyllis and Linda Mort, were responsible for that, but I did recognize that this concern was from God.
And when we came to start a Christian book shop, which we did, and then to build one on the plot of land next to Alfred Place, once again all our needs for this were provided. Of course that Book Shop could not have been started or continued without the commitment of my very close friends, Michael and Norma Keen. And when Keith Underhill believed the biblical pattern was to be sent out by the local church and the needs of himself and family would be provided by the congregations of those who knew he had a call from God, then in the teeth of our doubting hearts that was done and all Keith’s needs for forty years have been met. It seems to me that there is a momentum of godly needs created and godly provision made in all these things. This is from God to this congregation and to other gospel congregations too, and Joel Beeke could rehearse many other great ways in which provision has come to his church and seminary in Grand Rapids. I am as anxious as anyone else to continue to inquire of God what he would have us do in the future.
What my hopes are for the future are the emergence of an awakening ministry in our pulpit and many other pulpits, and more loving Christ-likeness in my life and in the lives of every Christian. May God’s will be done on earth as it is done in heaven. He asked us to pray that, not to tantalize us, but that he could hear our request and answer us willingly with all his open loving heart.
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