It’s Friday night. I’m sitting for tea with one of John Collins’ previous parishioners – the son on one of his Curates. A call comes in. It’s Chick, John’s daughter. She’s ringing on John’s behalf to check I’m not going to say anything too nice in the blog today. He wants everyone to understand it was a team effort, and desperate not to distract from God’s glory, nor leave any offence as the story gets told.

How many would be biographers regularly get berated by their subject to make them a smaller part of the story? How many people are so careful, even in their 90s, about the legacy of others around them? How many are diligent to make sure all the glory goes to the Lord?

John explained this reluctance himself in 2001 when two would be biographers tried to write about his (extraordinary) time at St Mark’s Gillingham:

I had the greatest hesitation in accepting your invitation. Firstly, I deeply dislike talking about my own ministry ‘What we did at St Mark’s’. It think there is a great danger. A great danger of pride and triumphalism. And I suspect when we get to heaven we shall have much surprise over who is considered important in the Kingdom, and I don’t know that clergy will figure as largely as we [myself included] imagine they will. This is the first thing.

The second is this: What God did at Gillingham was, as you will see, undoubtedly bound up with my own personal spiritual life. Again I suppose, one is what one is, but I deeply dislike talking about my inner life. I always respect what Francis Bacon said of Queen Elizabeth, ‘She refused to make windows into other men’s hearts and secret thoughts’. As you see it involves me personally – this story.

The last thing is that God has surprised me. It is very easy to misinterpret. When people say, ‘it must have been exciting to think all that out’, it wasn’t really like that. Usually I have not been aware of the implications of what was happening. I really believe that ‘God takes the things that “are not”, to bring to naught things that “are”’, and he can take anyone at anytime and take them and through it (this is the romance of the Christian life) there can be ripples of blessing going out from it far greater than man or woman can imagine.  [John Collins to Nabil Shehadi and Jim Dainty, 2001]. 

So on Monday I’ll head as planned back to Adelstrope and talk through the instalments planned for the next few Saturdays… for today let me just explain how I came to the task I am now set to.

As I mentioned last week the journey began early 2016 in the garden morning on my sabbatical. Reflecting on a hectic and exhausting period of ministry I felt God speak to me very clearly: “I want you to be more like John Collins”

I had heard the name. I was in the middle of researching the HTB network for the first stage of my doctoral degree at Durham, and my own training incumbent had often referred to this extraordinary man who had passed over HTB to his talented curate, Sandy Miller, and then become Sandy’s curate for the final five years of his ordained ministry.

But I had no idea how old John Collins might be or even if he was still alive! This information was providentially discovered the following Sunday when I went to the early service at St Paul’s Hammersmith, and there found myself talking to Helen and Sir Eldryd Parry, who had been friends of John and Diana Collins ever since the two men had been at University together after the war.

Eldryd assured me that John was alive and well, and indeed that he would rather like to go and see his old friend. I, on sabbatical, offered to be the driver and it wasn’t long before Eldryd, Helen and I were making the way up the motorway, with the Parry’s regaling me with stories from their own adventures at HTB and St Paul’s Hammersmith.

I remember feeling extraordinarily at ease as soon as I saw John. I was an extra person in a reunion of lifelong friends, but I was astounded by the warmth of welcome I received from John, even down to him insisting on paying for lunch for us all.

I had begun my doctorate as a quest to find examples of longevity in ministry that could inspire current church planters. I was interviewing a lot of church planters in the HTB network and asking what keeps a minister going through thick and thin? How do you run the race of the Christian life well to its conclusion? I had been looking at what motivated Wesley and Whitefield and was delighted to find I shared a passion for them with John. It was a memorable encounter with someone who had clearly lasted the course as a church re-vitaliser. Furthermore the interview he kindly granted gave me insights and background that saved me from several errors as I wrote up my initial findings regarding the HTB network.

In September 2017 I was attempting to interview Sandy Millar. I asked again about John Collins. Sandy recounted how John had always resisted writing up his life’s work story, and despite a couple of attempts from well-meaning friends, he had always followed the advice he had given to David Watson at the time David had written his first biographical book – namely don’t do it! I was conscious that the legacy of the man I’ve so enjoyed meeting two years previously was likely to be slipping out of public consciousness/memory. So, I asked Sandy if he might put in a word with John as to whether I could interview him and try and tell the story a little. Sandy said, “I know what he’ll say but I will mention it to him anyway”. I later found out the Sandy had sold the idea in his own special way: “If you don’t let him write it someone else will”.

If you’ve ever had the privilege of visiting John and you arrive a little early you will, like as not, find him sitting with his Greek New Testament and a commentary, salvaged from his now diminished library in his retirement quarters. As you hear his stories you will realise all the people who helped shape and mould that discipline, including Henry Chadwick, EM Nash, John Stott and his father, a country clergyman who spent hours each day educating John (including on his parish rounds). But you’ll also hear of a God who has made and continues to make, all the difference in John’s life. He likes to tell an anecdote from his father, that right up to the point of his conversion, despite all his upbringing, he had ‘never detected even an ounce of leadership’ in the young John Collins.

And so, on with the story… I hope it will do you as much good as it has done me… More importantly, my hope and prayer is that as we revisit some of these stories of renewal and near revivals God will open up wells again for the church in this land that have been too easily blocked, and living water will flow once again.

Next week: early days