At a gathering of catholic clergy, what are we to say about Charles Simeon, the evangelical clergyman who ministered for half a century at Holy Trinity Cambridge, and who died on this day in 1836? I read his biography when I was an undergraduate at the other place. It was approved Christian Union literature, that slim blue paperback with three silhouette caricatures of Simeon as a preacher on the cover. The author was Handley Moule, the early twentieth century bishop of Durham. I was touched by it, more than I expected. I kept it all through my ministry, though I’m afraid I left it behind in the Deanery at Durham when I retired.
What was it about that book? I think it was the character of the man himself. It wasn’t that he sat loose to the doctrines that characterised evangelicalism: justification by faith alone, the sufficiency of atonement through the sacrifice of the cross, the centrality of the scriptures, the final coming of Jesus as saviour and judge. All of these he embraced and preached ex animo. But it was the experience of Christian faith that mattered most to him, how every believer needed to have a personal relationship with Jesus. It all flowed out the profound change of life he had undergone as a young man preparing to receive communion in Kings College Chapel. He was overwhelmed, he said, by a sense of God’s redeeming love. Like John Wesley a generation earlier, his heart was “strangely warmed”. It’s the classic evangelical story of conversion.
When you have ministered in a place as long as Simeon did, you become a legend in your own lifetime. No doubt the decades at Holy Trinity, where he had met considerable opposition to begin with, were looked back on later with a kind of apostolic glow. It no doubt coloured the way Bishop Moule wrote about him as a fellow evangelical who was, perhaps, an important role model for him.
I put the book down persuaded that Simeon was the best kind of Church of England evangelical. His personal qualities seemed to breathe the spirit of our epistle reading today from Colossians, what it was that St Paul gave thanks for in them: “your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven”. Simeon was renowned as a great preacher and evangelist whose sermons drew crowds from miles around. And yet, I guess, the most compelling sermon he gave was the life itself. As the preacher spoke, so the man lived.
For all of us in public ministry, our evangelical example, the gospel we embrace and embody in our own habitus or way of life, is the sermon that is remembered when a thousand others have been forgotten. Conversio mori, the conversion of life, isn’t the prerogative of only one sector in the church. The Rule of St Benedict sets out what this vow means in the life of the community and of each individual. And Benedict would certainly have endorsed a famous saying of Simeon, when asked what he had learned most as a pastor. “The three lessons which a minister has to learn” he said, “are: 1 Humility. 2 Humility. 3 Humility. How long we are in learning the true nature of Christianity!”
“The true nature of Christianity.” To humble ourselves before God is the very heart of the converted life, whether it is before the scriptures, the holy sacrament, or the divine image in the neighbour we serve in his name. To humble ourselves before him, whether it is in worship or penitence, adoration or fear, preaching or presiding, listening or praying or loving or serving, in times of trouble or of joy. Our vocation as priests, as ministers, as evangelists is, I think, to be a public embodiment of the virtue of converted humility and humble convertedness. We know it when we see it in others. May it be seen in us too, this great work of God in our lives and ministries, and in the depth of our souls.
Given at a gathering of the Society of Catholic Priests at St Martin's, Byker, 13 November 2018