Today I want to honour my friend, Alan Wilkinson, who died just a few days ago on 3 May 2017. Alan was one of the most thoughtful and challenging people I have ever met. A brilliant Oxford graduate, he had worked in the chemical industry, before becoming the Administrator of the Manchester Business School.
Our paths first crossed in 1975, when Anne, his teenage daughter, asked to be baptised. I went to see her parents. Alan and Irene were not churchgoers. As far Alan was concerned, Anne’s wish to be baptised was just a form of perverse teenage rebellion. Nonetheless, as a supportive parent, he together with Irene came to the baptismal service – but that was as far as his church attendance initially went.
Then Brian, Anne’s brother, asked to be baptised, and the pressure was put on Alan and Irene. Irene who had been brought up a Methodist experienced a renewal of her faith, but Alan dug his heels – he could not and would not believe. For months and months I sought to argue Alan into the Kingdom, but kept on failing miserably. At the time our church was using Evangelism Explosion as a means to reach out to people in our community. I vividly remember asking Alan the two so-called diagnostic questions: “Do you know for sure that you’re going to be with God in heaven one day?”; and “If God were to ask you why he should let you into his heaven, what would you say?” The purpose of these two questions was to diagnose where people are spiritually and what they were trusting in for eternal life, and normally ended up in a positive Gospel discussion about. But when I used those questions with Alan, I got absolutely nowhere. He just tied me up in knots.
One night Alan couldn’t sleep and so he got up and read Malcolm Muggeridge’s account of Mother Theresa, Something Beautiful For God. As he read this story, he underwent an emotional conversion in the sense that he came to believe in God. But he still could not believe in Jesus, and in particular he could not believe in the Cross. He wrote me 12 sides of foolscap listing his objections to the Christian doctrine of the atonement. So I prepared a sermon specially for him. My text was 1 Peter 1.18-20: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ like that of a lamb without defect or blemish”. I began by saying, “If ever there is a key doctrine, then it is the Cross of Christ”, and ended up pleading with my hearers to respond to God’s love: “Have you experienced the redeemed power of Christ? Have you taken advantage of the freedom Christ has achieved? Tonight God offers you his gift of love and life”. Alas on that Sunday evening, 7 October 1976, Alan wasn’t present!
Finally, in despair, I gave Alan three heavy tomes by the three great theologians of the 20th century: Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and Peter Forsyth. I told him to read these books and said that I would come back to him in a month’s time to continue the argument. When the time came, I spent much of the day preparing for the intellectual fray, only to discover that when I called on him that evening, he and Irene wanted to be baptised! What rejoicing there was! And what deep commitment ensued. At one stage Alan led a discussion for non-Christian business men whose wives were Christians and who wanted to know what made their wives tick, and over two years Alan led five of these men to Christ.
Alan it was who helped me with my church growth survey of 350 Baptist churches, which resulted in our book Turning the Tide: an assessment of Baptist church growth in England. Alan not only helped me with the survey, he also helped develop a new ‘spiral-bound’ model for the mission of the church, where the emphasis was on making disciples, rather than just on church growth.
Alan constantly challenged me – and made me think. One day, after I had been eight years in Altrincham, I told him that I had been to meet the deacons of what seemed to me to be an exciting church. “Well Paul, if you want to go there and repeat what you have done in Altrincham – go with our blessing. But if you want to grow and develop, then stay with us.” I stayed in Altrincham for another five years, and was the richer for the experience. Later I wrote a booklet entitled Radical Leaders: A Guide for Elders and Deacons in Baptist Churches. With Alan particularly in mind I dedicated this booklet to my former deacons, and added “To a large degree I am what I am because of them”.
Alan was a wonderful man, who proved to be a means of blessing to many. As my father once said, if nothing else had happened in Altrincham, the conversion of the Wilkinson family would have been sufficient to justify my ministry in Altrincham!
Sadly toward the end of his life Alan developed dementia and became a shadow of his former self. Thank God, however, Alan is now free of all those limitations. Alan is now free to enjoy a new life in his Saviour’s presence.