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BECOMING HUMAN, AN APPRECIATION OF THE LIFE AND MINISTRY OF GEOFFREY AINGER – WARREN BARDSLEY

 

What a very good thing for the churches that Warren Bardsley decided to publish this stunning tribute to Geoff Ainger, working with his widow, Barbara. Quoting extensively from Geoff’s own writings and including five bible studies, his songs and poetry and a CD of five sermons, this eminently readable book traces the making of a remarkable Methodist Minister, and is excellently entitled ‘Becoming Human’. Geoff’s dramatic call came in a cinema, while he was watching Spencer Tracey star in ‘Stanley and Livingstone’. As a young, local preacher, in the ’40s, he was part of the ‘Larkman group’, initiated by the Rev. Norwyn Denny, which fostered innovative open-air work around Norwich. Later, he and Denny were joined by David Mason and, encouraged by the Methodist Conference, worked together in the collaborative, Notting Hill Group Ministry of the 1960s, establishing a pioneering way of living out the Gospel in the community

Notting Hill in the 50s and 60s was full of social problems and unease, and the three realised that a traditional form of Methodist ministry was no answer. Geoff was well prepared for a fresh approach to ministry, through ecumenical experience at Bosse, in Switzerland, during his training at Richmond College, which included a visit to Taizé, and through meeting Bruce Kenrick and joining him in his pioneering work in East Harlem. His time there extended to a second year, during which he studied for a master’s degree at Union Seminary under such giants as Reinhold Niebuhr. His particular contribution to the small ministry group, living under a common discipline, was a theologically trained mind, a great gift for communication, and a shared conviction that the church needed to be a ‘hearing community’, committed to social transformation. The group worked through House Groups or House Churches, established an ecumenical centre for meeting and discussion, and developed what Geoff himself describes as a ‘spontaneity of ministry’. The Church, he suggests should be first of all ‘a party’, giving the ‘alleluia’ to life, and depending for its very life on being where Christ is, out in the community.

In the late ’60s, at the height of his powers, a family crisis sent him ‘into the wilderness’, where, when he did attend church services, looking for bread, he recalls that, too often, he found a stone. After a period of teaching, he was able to go back into full-time ministry, in Orpington, in 1984, where his preaching and bible studies challenged people and stirred the imagination. He insisted that questions were often more important than answers. The preacher must remember, he once said, that a particular individual may be desperate for a word that will help them through the next week.

So much of this book is eminently quote-able, but Geoff was ahead of his time, and his story remains a robust challenge and inspiration to any church minister, who needs reminding that we are not a cosy club waiting for heaven, but a called community sent to listen, and to love people into the Kingdom; to be used by God to create a little more ‘heaven on earth’. Like Geoff, they may need to wait on God and have the courage to react with spontaneity.

Canon Tony Barnard