Book review: ‘Michael Green, by his friends’

Sep 24, 2019 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

This collection of tributes, just released by IVP, paints a detailed picture of evangelist, pastor, scholar and mission activist Michael Green who died early in 2019. The different but dovetailing perspectives of more than 30 contributors are excellently marshalled and edited by Julia Cameron. This is no detached, merely factual biography, but a series of warm, affectionate reminiscences mixed with a clear overarching account of the life and various ministries in which Michael was involved and in most cases, led. The reader learns about an amazing man, and also a snapshot of the history of English Anglican evangelicalism from around 1950 to the present – a history in which perhaps only John Stott played a more influential role than Michael Green.

The book is organised chronologically, but not in a strict way – this allows some degree of overview of the decades when dealing with the various themes of Michael’s life. A timeline after J.John’s foreword and Julia Cameron’s brief introduction is very helpful in setting the key stages of Michael’s life against important events in the nation’s history.

There are four main parts to the book. ‘The formative years’ covers the period from Michael’s birth in 1930 in a vicarage near Banbury, through school, National Service, university at Oxford (where he was OICCU President, met Rosemary and began to gain his reputation for bold faith, a sharp mind and winsome, extrovert manner) and his curacy in Eastbourne. A number of voices from contemporaries narrate the many memorable stories and comment on the man and the development of his character and ministry.

In ‘A man of many talents’, a number of senior leaders, all influenced by Michael, are given space to write about his ministry as theological educator, church leader, author, international speaker, and evangelist to students and parish missions. A number of contributors emphasise independently that  Michael refused to accept the normal divide between academic theology (he led, or was on the staff of, four theological colleges), pastoral work (assistant at two churches and vicar of one) and evangelism. For him, the reality of Christ, the truth of the bible, the urgency of communicating the gospel message and inviting people to repent, believe and live for Jesus was all consuming. The purpose of academic theology was to better understand the word of God, not an end in itself or, as was commonly held in evangelical circles when he began teaching at London College of Divinity, something to be avoided.

We learn from Jane Holloway, who served many years as Michael’s PA and then developed her own public ministry with his encouragement, that he was at first a reluctant author, having only written in an academic style until persuaded to write down his evangelistic and apologetic talks and capture some of the racy energy – these became popular Christian classics of the 1960’s such as ‘Man Alive’ and ‘Runaway World’. Michael also made more in-depth systematic theology broadly accessible with a number of titles in the ‘I believe’ series of the 1970’s and 1980’s. He was a great help to contemporary writers such as Vaughan Roberts and Alister McGrath. Remarkably, he continued writing into his old age, and his book aimed at students, ‘Jesus for Sceptics’ (2013) is a best seller on campuses today.

Michael’s ebullient personality, powerful preaching and prayerful concern for those who don’t believe is the main theme of the book. J John speaks of Michael’s passion for the gospel, his commitment to clarity and arresting illustration in communication, and his reliance on the Holy Spirit – and these qualities are reiterated by contributors as diverse as Richard Cunningham from UCCF, Amy Orr-Ewing from OCCA, Michael Cassidy from African Enterprise, mission thinkers Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden, Archbishops Ben Kwashi and George Carey, and pastor/evangelists Bruce Gillingham and Andrew Wingfield Digby. We learn of the rapier-like cut and thrust of his communication, the sheer energy of the work of university and parish missions, and his skill in moving from preaching to a large group, leading a smaller discussion group, and engaging one to one. A number of amusing stories are recounted, such as the time when Michael engaged with a heckler during open air evangelism; the heckler walked away to get on a bus, and Michael followed him for a personal conversation, shouting to other members of the team to continue the preaching!

Part three of the book describes Michael’s continuation of ministry after passing retirement age, and the final section is about the end of his life, the reaction which followed, and a tribute from his son Tim on behalf of his family.

Was Michael Green almost too good to be true? There is a danger of a book like this turning into a hagiography, but this is avoided. Certainly he was an inspiring figure, but there are hints of how those who worked with him could be exasperated by his ‘100 ideas per hour’ nature. Relationships were not always easy, particularly at St Aldates Oxford, although of course his time there (1975-1987) was very fruitful; described by contributor John Woolmer as “frantic, exciting, challenging, exhausting, eventful”. He could be intimidating, perhaps making others feel inadequate next to his brilliance. George Carey, who appointed him to the Springboard initiative in 1990, suggests that this was sometimes the case when Michael tried to enthuse demoralised and even cynical clergy, used to expecting decline, to focus on mission and growth. The supremely gifted evangelist with huge amounts of faith and optimism can sometimes fail to understand those individuals who have got used to feeling “we can’t”. But overall, on a national scale, according to Carey, the emphasis on evangelism by the current Archbishops is largely due to the “turnaround” that Michael and his team brought about in the early years of the 1990’s ‘Decade of Evangelism’.

This book is dedicated to “the new generation of evangelists”. Michael was unique, and this very readable account serves as an excellent memorial to his personality, talents and achievements. It also contains a number of examples of his methods and innovations which will continue to be useful for evangelists to study and try out in practice in future. Perhaps also his ministry will be remembered as appropriate to a particular time in the nation when there was more openness to the gospel, when large numbers would turn up to hear evangelistic preaching, where big names commanded more respect. Has such a time now gone? Whatever cultural challenges face the church,  and whatever mission methods that will be required in the future, we certainly need leaders and gospel preachers with the courage, boldness and energy of Michael Green.

I personally had three encounters with Michael. First, in the mid 1980’s he spoke at my university CU which its fair to say was dominated by conservative evangelicals with suspicion of anything charismatic. After Michael’s talk, he invited us to “be laid back in the Lord” and receive the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Some of the CU leaders’ faces were like thunder, but many of the rank and file appreciated what he did – no-one else would have dared! The book refers to these divisions in Anglican evangelicalism and how Michael was respected by both sides. Then, on another occasion Michael was at a Gafcon meeting in around 2012, and I thought at the time that he seemed rather quiet and out of touch, a relic from the past. I later learned that his hearing aids weren’t working that day, and he had many more years of bringing people to Christ after that! The last time was in October 2018, just three months before his death. Archbishop Foley Beach of ACNA and Gafcon was visiting the UK, and I picked Michael up from his home to take him to meet Foley in a pub just off the motorway. They knew each other well from Michael’s two years in a North Carolina ACNA church, and spent a wonderful hour together, after which I was able to glean some more wisdom from the great man on the drive home.

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