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  • downinnorfolk


Updated: Jul 21, 2022

I am Martin Down. I come of a long line of godly men. My great-grandfather, Henry, was a minister of the Bible Christians in the second half of the 19thcentury. The Bible Christians were an off-shoot of the Wesleyan revival in North Devon in the early 1800s. Amongst the achievements of the Bible Christians was the foundation of Shebbear College, a school to educate the children of poor families in this agricultural area. My grandfather, Claude, benefitting from this education, got a job in the Civil Service and moved to London, and was among the first residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb. Two sites were allocated on the Suburb for churches to be built: one for an Anglican Parish Church, the other for a Non-conformist church. A group of such Non-conformists met together in 1909, including my grandfather, and decided not to argue about whether this church should be called Methodist, Baptist or Congregationalist, but to build a Free Church for all.

In this church some 30 years later I was baptized as an infant and brought up as a child and a teenager. The church was my second family. The years after the Second World War were a time when churches flourished again, and my own father, Evelyn, was the Superintendent of the Free Church Sunday School, with some 300 children on the roll. During the course of his life my father held every office in that church, except that of Minister.

I grew up learning and believing the stories of Jesus and the elements of the Christian faith, for which I shall be eternally grateful. However, in my teens, partly due to what I was being taught in school about science and evolution, I began to have doubts about the reality of God. When I went up to Cambridge University I was interviewed by the College Chaplain, to whom I introduced myself as an agnostic. For the first time in my life I stopped going to church.

One day during my second year, I was in my room studying a rather dull academic book, when my mind started to wander. For the first time in my young life, I asked myself, "Why am I doing all this?" Soon the educational train was going to hit the buffers, and I would be getting off: what was I going to do then? I pondered this question and found I had no answers. So I asked myself, "How am I even going to decide what to do?" At once something became clear to me: I was not going to do it, whatever it was, for the sake of how much money I would earn. "So how am I going to decide?" I asked myself. At that moment I heard a voice speaking to me, as clearly as if someone else were in the room with me: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." Of course I knew at once whose words these were. "So," I said out loud, "OK. But what does that mean?" The same voice replied, "Go and be a missionary."

I was shattered. It took me a week before I could produce the next essay for my tutor, and two years before I could finally say 'Yes' to God. To be addressed by God or by Jesus would be a challenge for any agnostic. But to be a missionary was the last thing I wanted to do. My childhood had been filled with stories of missionaries, most of whom, it seemed to me, had ended up boiling in the pot. One of my first children's books had been about the life of David Livingstone, the great missionary to central Africa. One picture in the book had always stuck in my childish mind: Livingstone being mauled by the lion, its teeth bared, pouncing on him. After the War my own uncle and aunt had gone out to Northern Rhodesia (as it then was) as missionaries, and had come home on furlough with stories of giant spiders and snakes. As a child, I was terrified!

So now I tried to persuade God that there was another way for me to go – perhaps to be a teacher, as my mother wanted me to be. When I came to the end of my degree, I signed up to go back to College for a fourth year to study for a Post-graduate Certificate of Education. Before the university term began in October I had to do a preliminary teaching practice at our local primary school. On the last day, as I was walking home through the Big Wood behind our house, I stopped in a sunny clearing and said out loud to God, "Well, I can't do that for the rest of my life. I give in; I'll do it your way." At that moment, as the dappled sun shone down on me that autumn afternoon, I was filled with the peace of God. Later, I talked to my parents as we sat together at home in the evening. "I'm not going to be a teacher." I said, "I'm going to be ordained and be a missionary." My mother was disappointed, but my father simply said, "Why not?" At that moment my childhood fears left me and I realized, "Yes, why not? What have I been making such a fuss about?"

I went back to college and told my long-suffering tutor that I was not going to do a PGCE after all. I asked if I could stay on for a fourth year and read Theology as a preparation for ordination. One miracle then followed another. The Ministry of Education, unusually, extended my State Scholarship for a fourth year. I had been attending the College Chapel as I had wrestled with God over the past two years and I had decided to be ordained in the Church of England. So I went down to London to see the Bishop of Willesden, who agreed to present me for ordination. But I had not even been confirmed. So I took Confirmation Classes with the Dean for a few weeks and the Bishop of Ely came down to confirm me in the College Chapel just before Christmas. I attended a Selection Board in January, and to everyone's amazement I was recommended for ordination immediately. Returning to Cambridge I next discussed with the Dean where I should train. I knew nothing about the theological colleges of the Church of England, nor about 'churchmanship'. The Dean suggested I crossed the road and talked to the Principal of Westcott House who would advise me. Over tea I told my story. At the end the Principal said, "This House was full for next year, but this morning I had a letter from a man to whom I had offered a place, telling me that he was converting to Roman Catholicism. If you would like his place here, I would be pleased to offer it to you."

So began two years training for ministry in the Church of England. I then served two curacies in the diocese of Manchester, towards the end of which I applied to the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to work overseas, as I supposed that that was what all missionaries did. Twice, posts were offered to me, neither of which sounded to me like missionary work as I had heard about it in Sunday School. In the end practical circumstances ruled them both out. Just then I was offered a job by the patron of a living in a Lincolnshire village, combined with the post of Diocesan Director of Ordinands. I took it, and thus began a ministry of more than 50 years in country parishes. It was during those years that I became aware that rural England needed missionaries every bit as much as darkest Africa, or the South Sea Islands.

My first sermon after ordination had been about the Gospel for that day: the story of the miraculous catch of fishes, Luke 5.1-14. I invited us all in the church that day, including myself, to let down the nets for a draught and to become 'fishers of men'. After I had moved to rural Lincolnshire, for thirteen years I labored in my country parishes to do just that; first in Fiskerton, and then in Corby Glen, a group of five parishes in the south of the county. All I can say of those thirteen years is that, not withstanding preaching the gospel as faithfully as I could, and visiting every home in these parishes, as I had been taught, I had caught next to nothing. Then came my 'mid-life crisis'. Unconsciously, as I now see, I had come to realise, "There must be more to it than this".

One day in 1983 Dorothee, one of our organists, asked me if she could come and talk to me about something that had happened to her. So one Saturday morning we were sitting in the kitchen over a cup of coffee, and she said to me, "I have to tell you that I have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. Do you know what that means?" I had read some years before about David Watson and the remarkable growth that he had seen in his church in York. In 1973 I had even been to a diocesan conference about the Charismatic Renewal, but I had come away confused, and irritated by someone who had pestered me about 'speaking in tongues.' So I asked Dorothee to tell me more about her own experience. I was intrigued, but not sure what to say next. As she was leaving, she finally said to me, what I guess she had really come to say, "And what about you?". I had to confess, "I don't know about me. I don't recognize what you're talking about in my own experience, and I don't understand it. But I want to know more." Dorothee promised to introduce me to the friend who had introduced her to the Holy Spirit.

Sometime later the husband of this friend invited me to a meeting of the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship, at which the speaker was to be the Bishop of Pontefract, Richard Hare. The Bishop told his own story of being fascinated by the Charismatics in his diocese, and how he had attended some of their meetings. As he said, "I recognized that there was something here too powerful to ignore." At the end of one such charismatic meeting people were invited to come forward for prayer. In his purple cassock and all, he went forward and knelt at the rail. A couple that came to pray for him asked, "What do you want then?" He had answered, "I don't know, but whatever's going, I want it." The bishop's testimony was that he drove home that evening 'as high as kite' - but not too high to wonder, what are they going to say in the diocese when this gets out!

At the end of his talk, Bishop Hare invited anyone who wished to do so to squeeze his right thumb in his left hand as a sign to God, and pray as he had prayed, "Lord, I may not understand all this, but whatever's going, I want it." And like the bishop, I got it. It was 29th June 1983. It was not a sensational experience, indeed I was not aware for some time that anything had changed. Other people noticed some change in me before I did, and I still do not know what it was. But something had changed.

From 1984 to 1988, I moved out of parish ministry and worked for the Good News Trust, a small Christian library service that took the gospel out in small book-vans, to villages in different parts of the country. In 1988 I moved back to parish ministry, to two Norfolk villages, Ashill and Saham Toney. Now these were the years when we let down the nets for a draught and indeed saw a miraculous catch of fishes: we saw many people coming to faith and being filled with the Spirit; we saw healings; we saw signs and wonders; and we moved in the gifts of the Spirit. But we also saw a split developing in the two parish churches. This came to a head over the issue of removing some of the Victorian pews. In the end this resulted in a new congregation gathering in the Community Centre on a Sunday morning alongside the more traditional ones in the parish churches. This new congregation eventually built a new Worship Centre of its own, which was dedicated by the Bishop of Lynn just a few months before I retired in 2005. This new church is now called the Fountain of Life, and continues to grow under my successors to this very day. Praise God.

The story of all this is told in much more detail in three books that I wrote during those years, Speak to These Bones (Monarch 1993), Streams of Living Water (Monarch 1996), and Building a New Church Alongside the Old (Kingsway 2003). After more than 30 years as a country parson, I have continued to help out in many such country parishes in my retirement, first in Norfolk and then in Oxfordshire, seeing again in these parishes some of the many problems that rural churches still face, churches that I still love and which I want to see flourish.

This story of my life also forms the first chapter of a small booklet that I am writing about The Problems of Rural Churches and their Solution.

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