Obituary: The Rev Donald English

Jeffrey Harris
Sunday 30 August 1998 23:02

DONALD ENGLISH was a Metho-dist minister of exceptional gifts. Several good careers were open to him as a young man, but he knew in his heart that his life's work was to follow in the true succession of John Wesley's preachers.

His name became known well beyond the bounds of Methodism. Through his broadcasts and particularly his Thought for the Day on Radio 4, he spoke to a huge number of people. Many of them were helped by his Christian comment on a news item. There was always a passage from the Bible which placed that news item into an appropriate context.

When he was Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council, in 1986-87, he was seen on television on important state occasions. He took part in the wedding service for the Duke and Duchess of York in Westminster Abbey. He shared in the service for the Festival of Remembrance in the Royal Albert Hall. He led bible studies for members of the Houses of Parliament. He lunched with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

I imagine that Donald English would sometimes wake up and pinch himself to make sure it wasn't all a dream. His parents, Robert and Ena English, gave him a Methodist home. He attended the local High Westwood chapel in Consett. He joined the Boys Brigade only because they had a football team.

In his early years at school, he gave little indication of his true ability. Jack Gair was the one who at Junior School taught Donald to believe in himself and enabled him to enter the Consett Grammar School. From then on, his academic progress was sure. He proceeded to the University College of Leicester (then part of London University) to read History. After taking his London BA degree, he studied for a Teaching Diploma. Then came National Service in which he became an Education Officer in the Royal Air Force. It seemed that his future was as a history teacher - or perhaps it was as a professional footballer, for he played for the English Universities team, and both Leicester and Sunderland were interested in signing him. But God had other plans.

A very important period of his life was now to begin. He returned to Leicester to serve as a travelling secretary of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship and was involved in training and evangelism in 11 universities in the North and Midlands. This was when he received his grounding in Bible study, prayer and Christian witness. More important, it was at this time that he felt God was calling him to be a candidate for the Methodist ministry. After acceptance, he was sent for training to Wesley House, Cambridge, and graduated, choosing the Greek New Testament as one of his options. He was inspired by teachers such as W.F. Flemington, Philip Watson, Michael Skinner and Professor Owen Chadwick.

After Wesley House, he served as Assistant Tutor at Wesley College, Leeds. An academic career in New Testament studies was now open to him, but this was not the way he believed God was pointing him.

In 1962, he was ordained into the Methodist ministry, married Bertha Ludlow and went overseas to Nigeria under the Methodist Missionary Society. He first met Bertha at a Brains Trust organised by the Christian Union in Leicester. Bertha herself had seemed destined for a distinguished career in education, but resigned as Lady Warden at Methodist College, Belfast, to go with Donald to Nigeria where he was to teach New Testament and Methodist Studies at the Ecumenical Training College, Umuahia. Among his students was the Rev Sunday Mbang who later became the Patriarch of the Nigerian Methodist Church, and also several other archbishops and bishops. So English became familiar with the World Church.

Next came six years as minister of the Broadway Methodist Church in the North Shields and Whitley Bay circuit. His preaching, teaching and pastoral gifts attracted a large congregation. English related easily to everyone, from children to pensioners. All felt he understood their needs and were led to a deeper faith.

He was then appointed to teach New Testament Studies at Hartley Victoria Methodist College in Manchester. For the first time, evangelical students felt they had a tutor who really understood them. When Hartley Victoria closed, Donald English was transferred to Wesley College, Bristol, to continue his work. He was there when at the age of 47, he was called by the Methodist Conference to be its President.

Scholar, preacher, author, evangelist, church statesman and later broadcaster, English was a man of many parts. But his real concern was for the mission of the Church. He was the natural leader for the Methodist Home Mission Division in 1982 and he immediately set about making his distinctive contribution to its life.

"Sharing in God's Mission" is a classic statement of his position, with biblical, theological, historical, and strategic insights and a commitment to evangelism, service and the struggle for justice. He was as comfortable advocating the Mission alongside the Poor Programme as he was leading the Bible studies at the Keswick Convention.

He was committed to working with other churches, including the black churches. He related naturally to people of other faiths. He was appointed chairman of the executive committee of the Nationwide Initiative in Evangelism, and later chaired the British Council of Churches Evangelism Committee and the Churches Together Co- ordinating Group in Evangelism.

The World Methodist Council had now recognised that Donald English was a man of exceptional ability. He served on both its evangelism and executive committees. In 1991, he was appointed for a five-year term as chairperson of the World Methodist Council. At the Singapore Conference in that year, English was visibly moved to tears as he expressed penitence for the racist and imperialist attitudes of white, Western people like himself. Joe Hale, Secretary of the Council, said that English gave it outstanding leadership. His Bible studies and keynote addresses were so powerful that Methodists from every part of the world wanted him to visit them.

Back in England, he led important evangelistic campaigns in York and Plymouth. He spoke about faith to large numbers of students at universities in Britain and Ireland. His stature was such that, in 1990, the Methodist Conference appointed him its President for a second term - the only person to serve twice since Methodist Union in 1932. Honours came his way: doctorates from universities in America and Britain. In 1996, he was appointed CBE for his services to world Methodism.

He retired from the active work of the Methodist ministry in 1995, but the demands on his time did not cease. It was while leading a campaign at Royal Holloway College that he had the first indication of a heart problem. He was fitted with a pacemaker. But now his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Donald and Bertha went to the Methodist Covenant Service to put their future into God's hands. Bertha died in July 1997. Donald struggled on, but his heart gave more problems. His last major public appearance was at York Minster in early July where he preached at an ordination service. Soon afterwards he was told he needed heart bypass surgery.

The wonderful quality of Donald English's life was that, although he walked in high places, he never lost the common touch. He was a deeply caring pastor to colleagues and their families, and to former students and friends. Thousands of people across the world will give thanks to God for him.

Jeffrey Harris

Donald English, minister of the church: born Consett, Co Durham 20 July 1930; Travelling Secretary, Inter-Varsity Fellowship 1955-58; Assistant Tutor, Wesley College, Headingley 1960-62; ordained 1962; New Testament Tutor, Trinity College, Umuahia, Eastern Nigeria 1962-66; Circuit Minister, Cullercoats, Northumberland 1966-72; Tutor in Historical Theology, Hartley Victoria College, Manchester (Lord Rank Chair) 1972-73; Tutor in Practical Theology and Methodism, Wesley College, Bristol (Lord Rank Chair) 1973- 82; President of the Methodist Conference 1978-79, 1990-91; General Secretary, Division of Home Mission, Methodist Church 1982-95; Moderator, Free Church Federal Council 1986-87; Chairman, World Methodist Council 1991-96; CBE 1996; married 1962 Bertha Ludlow (died 1997; two sons); died Oxford 28 August 1998.

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