Thursday, 22 September 2011

Charles Simeon

The 24th September is the anniversary of the birth of Charles Simeon who was one of the great preachers of the late 18th and early 19th century. He is part of my inheritance as a Christian. He was Vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge for 54 years (from 1782-1836) and his influence was still felt there when I was a student in the 1970's. What was so great about him? Well, he inspired generations of students to a living faith in God at a time when gospel preaching was often scorned, even by the clergy and members of the church. His teaching brought many to worship and to a lively faith that led to service overseas, ordination and commitment to some of the great campaigns of the 19th century such as the abolition of slavery and housing reform. Holy Trinity church followed (and still follows) in this proud tradition; in my time there I remember wonderful after-sermon discussions, prayer meetings and fellowship meals that attracted scores of people.  Many of my generation committed their lives to God's service at that time as well as making life long friendships that have sustained us in our faith. 

But the really remarkable thing about Simeon was, I think, the fact that he combined being a truly great preacher of the gospel with a staunch love for the church (not always found in evangelical Christians.) Although critical of the luke-warm and sometimes corrupt nature of the church of his time, he set out to serve the church with devotion and, in the words of John Moorman in his book A History of the Church in England, he 'did much to strengthen the bonds between those influenced by the religious revival and those who looked on it with some misgivings.' It can be difficult to be an evangelical who loves the church (was it Robert Runcie who famously said that evangelicals have no ecclesiology?) but Simeon showed the way. For that and for his humility he has always seemed to me a worthy exemplar.

He was a founder member of the Church Missionary Society and one of the first supporters of the British and Foreign Bible Society and, famously, inspired Henry Martin who translated the whole of the New Testament into Urdu and Persian. His legacy to the Church of England included the formation of the Simeon Trust; he used his own family wealth to acquire the patronage rights of many churches, often in strategic places in cities and towns around the country. The Trust is charged with ensuring that these churches are served by clergy who are faithful in prayer and in living and preaching the gospel. In Simeon's time patronage was often exercised in a manner that allowed men to be appointed to livings in the church who were of doubtful calibre as ministers of the gospel and priests. Simeon's charge to the Trust urges...

First that they be very careful whenever they shall be called upon to fill up a vacancy which  they must invariably do within three months of a vacancy occuring, that they elect no one who is not a truly pious and devoted man, a man of God in deed and truth, who, with his piety combines a solid judgement and a perfectly independent mind....Secondly, that, when they shall be called upon to appoint to a living, they consult nothing but the welfare of the people for whom they are to provide and whose eternal interests have been confided in them. 

A marvellous set of principles, I would argue! The clergyman Simeon is looking for is  someone devoted to God, loyal to the church, independent of mind, willing to care for and serve the community - and the Trustees are to get on with it! None of these long vacancies which, as Bob Jackson's research shows, are not good for the health of parishes! 

For more information about the Simeon Trust       

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