By Graham Kings
Providential Phone Call
“I’m sorry to phone out of the blue, but you don’t need a caretaker at All Souls, do you, by any chance? I am in my third year of reading theology at Oxford and am looking for a job for a year in London, before hopefully training for ordination.”
“Well, our PCC met last night and decided we needed to employ a second caretaker, because we have just completed a major building project. Come and see me to discuss all this.”
This conversation took place in January 1977, soon after I had had an interview with the Chelmsford Diocesan Director of Ordinands, mentioned in the last chapter.
The reason for searching for a job in London for a year was that Ali and I were getting married in July 1977 and she would be in her third year at Bedford College, University of London, reading social sciences. She had failed her first-year maths exams at Oxford, but, after successfully passing a retake, decided to pursue her studies at another university, in another subject.
Just before phoning Michael Baughen, I had phoned Dick Lucas, rector of the evangelical Anglican church in the financial area of London, St. Helen’s Bishopsgate. I had heard that it had gap-year graduates to serve as caretakers. Before the phone connected, I realized that All Souls Langham Place was much closer to Bedford College, in Regent’s Park, than St. Helen’s, and I replaced the receiver and phoned Michael Baughen instead.
Marriage and Alison’s Family
On July 16, soon after taking my finals at Oxford, Ali and I were married at St. Jude’s Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, by the vicar, Michael Porteus. At St. Jude’s, Ali was a member of the choir. Her father, Geoffrey Britton, would later be churchwarden and lay reader, and her mother, Barbara, would be the archivist.
The reception was in the church hall and Ali’s father interrupted my wedding speech. I had begun by saying, “First of all, I would like to thank Alison’s parents for bringing her into existence,” when he stood up and interjected, “It was a pleasure” and sat down again. Usually a reserved man, he was also very witty.
We were driven by friends to 2 All Souls Place, a triangular building at the back of All Souls Church, with two flats on the top two floors. We had the top flat, which overlooked the BBC, situated next to the church. At the beginning of BBC News programs you can see All Souls in the foreground.
The next day we took the train from Paddington to Newquay, on the north coast of Cornwall, for our honeymoon. Our reception caterer had provided a picnic lunch, complete with champagne. The cork flew out of the window of the train.
Ali’s father lectured in English (Anglo-Saxon and Chaucer) at Bedford College, London. His Birmingham Ph.D. was on the interlinear translation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which he studied while he was an atheist. Gradually, through the influence of the books of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, scholars of his period, he came to faith, reasoning that if there was a universe, then there was probably a Creator, and if there was a Creator then he ought to do something about his life. Ali was surprised to return home from a French exchange visit to discover that her father had joined another confirmation group at St. Jude’s Church. They were confirmed at the same service.
Ali’s mother, Barbara, gained a first in English at Birmingham University and met Geoffrey there. She and her sister, Anthea, both studied at Birmingham. Their mother, with great insight and determination, encouraged the education of her daughters. Barbara devoted herself to bringing up the four children, Nick, Ali, Hattie, and Edwina, and when they were teenagers studied at the Warburg Institute, under its director, Ernst Gombrich, and in 1972 gained a London University M.Phil. on Robert Tofte’s English translations of Italian poetry.
Nick gained his D.Phil. in maths from Corpus Christi College, Oxford and became a professor of maths at the University of Bath, marrying Suzie Skevington, a professor of social psychology at the same university. Hattie and Edwina were the first sisters ever to be members of Jesus College, Oxford — the college having become coeducational in 1974. Hattie read English and became a primary school teacher, marrying Keith, who read geography at the same college and became a geography teacher, and later chief education officer in Cambridgeshire. Edwina read French and Italian and married Matthew, who studied classics at Merton College, and they both later owned a cruise company.
In meeting Ali so soon after my spiritual life had come alive, my cultural horizons were raised as I joined this family of diverse gifts for whom art, literature, music, and museums were all part of the nourishment of life.
All Souls, Langham Place
All Souls is a lively, vibrant evangelical Anglican church, designed by the famous Regency architect John Nash, and consecrated in 1824.
If you stand in Oxford Circus, at the heart of the west end of London, and look north, the rotunda and spire of the church appear to be in the middle of the road as Regent Street North bends left into Langham Place, and right up Portland Place, towards Regent’s Park. This curve in the road was necessary because of a resistant landowner and swampy land.
Nash’s original plans were lost, but in 1971 Robert Potter, who had recently been appointed the church architect, did a test bore under the church and discovered very deep foundations, with magnificent inverted brick arches. This led to a major building project from May 1975 to November 1976, under the leadership of Michael Baughen (rector, 1975-82, and then Bishop of Chester, 1982-96) and Robert Potter.
The church floor was taken out, an excavator dug out the soil under the church to provide for an underground hall, lift, kitchen and cafe, cloakrooms, BBC studio for the Daily Service, cassette tape library, and store rooms. The London Underground Victoria Line ran underneath the church, and the BBC studio had to be soundproofed from the rumbling of trains.
I remember having to be quiet in my cleaning work between 10:45 and 11 a.m. Monday to Friday, when the BBC Daily Service was broadcast on Radio 4 from the chancel of the church. Once, I forgot and the lift doors clunked open during the live broadcast service, as I stepped out with my vacuum cleaner.
The new premises were opened on time and free of debt, and a few months later the PCC decided the church needed a second caretaker and cleaner. David Wilson, a member of the congregation, and I worked four days a week each, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and overlapped on Sundays. We opened and closed the church doors, cleaned the toilets, hoovered the carpets, dusted the surfaces, set out chairs for various meetings in the hall, and welcomed visitors.
Other memories of that formative year include hearing Bishop Stephen Neill preach for our World Mission Sunday: I was in the gallery behind the pulpit and noticed that he only had his Greek New Testament and no notes.
The friendship and fellowship of Wendy and Graham Toulmin, who lived in the flat below us, was wonderfully hospitable. Wendy was Michael Baughen’s personal assistant and Graham was a dentist. We met them again in the late 1980s when they were Australian CMS mission partners in Zaire, and their children went to St. Andrew’s School Turi, Kenya, with our two eldest daughters.
For my birthday, Ali paid for my organ lessons by Noel Tredinnick, director of music at All Souls and founder of the All Souls Orchestra, and we have stayed in touch. With Michael Baughen, Noel developed Prom Praise at the Albert Hall. After locking up the empty church at 9 p.m., I would sometimes play the organ quietly and then tap the “full organ” stop with my foot and the whole place would vibrate.
During this year, James Barr published Fundamentalism (SCM, 1977), and I formed a small group with Barry Morrison — chaplain to the Polytechnic of Central London and convenor of Forum, a discussion group at All Souls — and Dhyanhchand Carr, Ph.D. student at King’s College, London and Langham Scholar. I remember being helped by John Goldingay’s scholarly and irenic review of the book in the evangelical journal Churchman, where he perceptively distinguished between fundamentalism and evangelicalism.
John Stott’s Influence
The most famous rector of All Souls was John Stott, who served as curate (1945-50), rector (1950-75) and rector emeritus from 1975 till his death in 2011 at the age of 90. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Ridley Hall. When he died, I wrote “John Stott (1921-2011): More than Anglican but not Less” for The Times:
John R W Stott was more than Anglican but not less. Earthed in his beloved Church of England, his influence has percolated throughout the world-wide evangelical movement, through preaching, theological reflection, writing, statesmanship, and personal contact. A thought-provoking evangelist, he led missions to university students from 1952 to 1977 on five continents.
Within the world Evangelical movement of the second half of the century [John Stott] played to Billy Graham a role not altogether unlike that which J. H. Oldham had played fifty years before to John R. Mott. In each case the less flamboyant but more intellectual Englishman was endeavouring to guide the movement into new, less simplistic vistas. What is remarkable is how far Stott was able to go without losing the confidence of Graham. (p. 617)
Stott was influenced by his friendships and travels in the Global South. Of particular significance were his Latin American friends Rene Padilla (Ecuador and Argentina) and Samuel Escobar (Peru), both of whom were national secretaries in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) and had a crucial impact at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974. Stott was the key architect of the Lausanne Covenant, which has become a touchstone of holistic mission theology.
I first met him when he was chairing the staff meeting in August 1977, while Michael Baughen was on holiday, and benefited immensely from his reading group, which discussed contemporary literature and film, and included David Turner, John Wyatt, Vinoth Ramachandra, and Dhyanchand Carr.
My personal memories of Stott include: his humility shown in a handwritten note to the church administrator, apologizing for pushing a point a little too hard in a staff meeting; his delight in obeying the dominical command to “look at the birds of the air” (Matt. 6:26); his simple lifestyle and early rising; like many of his sermons, his punctilious written instructions for sorting out rubbish at his Welsh cottage being in three parts; his wry humor; his articulate and perceptive answers to questions in Q&A sessions; his diligence in meetings of the Langham Scholarship committee; and the meticulous patience and persistence of Frances Whitehead, his secretary for 55 years, in transcribing his longhand. Julia Cameron has written a fine biography of her: John Stott’s Right Hand: The Untold Story of Frances Whitehead (Piquant, 2019).
Stott conceived, and co-chaired with Monsignor Basil Meeking (of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity), the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission. I remember him reporting back to the staff at All Souls about this project. Three meetings took place over seven years. The report was published in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (January 1986) and hailed by the editor as a landmark “that will have lasting influence on our understanding and action in Christian mission.” In October 2016 I gave a lecture at the Pontifical Urban University, Rome, on “Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission, 1977-84: Insights and Significance,” which became chapter 14 in Nourishing Mission: Theological Settings (Brill, 2022).
When I was inducted and instituted as vicar of St. Mary Islington in September 2000, Stott kindly read one of the lessons. Alister Chapman’s biography, grounded in his Cambridge Ph.D. thesis, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (OUP, 2012), combines erudition, concise comment, and critical distance.
In June 1978, Ali took her finals at Bedford College and graduated later in the year. That same month I attended a three-day interview at Ecton House, Northamptonshire, organized by the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry and was recommended for training for ordination in the Church of England.
At a staff meeting soon after that, Frances Whitehead arrived with a cotton surplice. She announced that she had bought a new non-iron surplice for John. She asked, “Who is going on to train for ordination?” and threw the cotton surplice in my direction. In September 1978, Ali and I moved to Cambridge for me to study at Ridley Hall for two years.
The year at All Souls had been humbling in learning new tasks, delightful in developing deep friendships, and grounding in providing parochial experience.