I was one of those who went forward at a Billy Graham Crusade. It was the early summer of 1966, at the Earl's Court Arena. He preached there for a month. Close on a million people must have heard him. I was one of about forty thousand who responded to the "altar call" (though I don't think that phrase was being used any more in the 1960s).
There. I've come out and admitted it. I won't say it changed my life. I'd consciously become a Christian earlier that year, thanks to friends in the school's Christian Union. Before that I'd been a chorister. I hadn't been brought up in a church going family. My parents told me on my first day as a chorister not to bring any of "that religion" back home with me. It was for the music that they were encouraging me, that alone. So they were not best pleased when I announced my conversion, though they did come to my baptism and confirmation a few months later.
So yes, 1966 was an annus mirabilis, a year of joyful wonder, no doubt about that. And Billy Graham was part of it. I went with friends to hear him several times. I didn't care for the musical style of Cliff Barrows and George Beverley Shea - I'd have preferred O worship the King and There's a wideness in God's mercy to Blessed assurance and To God be the glory (still do). But I remember admiring the sheer professionalism with which these vast events were managed. I also recall being impressed by the diversity of people sitting on the platform - Anglican bishops, civic leaders, some black faces I didn't recognise. All in all, it was great theatre. You couldn't but be impressed.
He was a master of rhetorical technique. Where had he learned it, I wonder - from the study of classical Greek and Roman rhetors, or from American politicians or the great preachers of previous ages? Maybe he was one of those natively gifted people who come to realise they have power to sway human minds and hearts. He knew how to work a crowd. And he knew exactly how to speak in such a way that you would think it was directly and personally meant for you. To achieve that calls for charism of a high order.
But most of all, I was drawn to the man. It wasn't so much the content of his addresses (none of which I can now remember), but the way he gave them, the kind of human he came across as being. (I wonder if this is true of all of us preachers most of the time?) What struck me more than anything was the sense he conveyed of a profound personal integrity. He seemed to have no "side". It was hard to suspect hidden agendas or imagine ulterior motives, though the cynics tried hard enough. He believed every word of his own message, and as far as we the audience could tell, lived by it. All the obituaries I have read confirm the impression that he was a genuinely humble man who "loved his Lord", as Donald Coggan would have said, who never regretted giving his life to the gospel.
I think, looking back, that it was his essential goodness that impelled me to go forward that evening. I craved innocent, unselfconscious goodness (and still do), that singleness of mind and purpose that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount calls "purity of heart". I was already aware as a teenager that I fell well short of it myself. I wanted, so to speak, to nail my colours to that mast. It was an aspiration. Perhaps I knew in some obscure way that this would be a life task, that conversio is never a once-for-all decision, but a lifelong turning away from what is destructive or corrupting or evil towards all that is good and true and beautiful. "Think on these things" says St Paul. I believe Billy Graham was one of those rare people for whom this was a daily habit.
I met him once, briefly. This was in May or June 1984 when he came to the original Sunderland FC ground at Roker Park to preach to the North East. Nearly twenty years older than when I'd last seen him, he had not lost his good looks. I'd been sent to report the event for a newspaper. By then I'd moved away from conservative evangelicalism into a more catholic and sacramental spirituality. So I perhaps went to Sunderland prepared to be critical. The stadium was only half full: maybe it was the keen wind blowing off the North Sea that night, or maybe the people of County Durham and Northumberland were just worn down by the miners' strike that had begun a few months earlier.
I went to the press conference. You could tell that Billy Graham understood how to engage with, if not a hostile, then a suspicious media. (The press mostly don't care much for religion until a significant exemplar of it dies - today's obituaries strike a very different, and far more positive, tone from the press commentary of thirty years ago.) He was courteous, direct and shrewd in his answers. He wouldn't get drawn into debates about American politics, what he thought about Viet Nam, Watergate and so on. I asked him a question, possibly about race relations in US; or was it about Nicaragua? I don't think it was the miners, though that would have been interesting. I was probably trying to be clever. But he played a straight bat, and you couldn't quarrel with that. He looked me directly in the eye as he spoke. His gaze was piercing, questioning, placing me under scrutiny. I thought: here is a man who deserves to be taken seriously.
So why didn't the Billy Graham brand of evangelicalism "stick"? I was asked a similar question by George Carey once, when he was Archbishop and came to preach at Sheffield Cathedral. "You were on course to be an evangelical leader, Michael. What went wrong?" I said I didn't accept the premise that anything went wrong. But it would take a long series of blogs to explain. Maybe I don't entirely understand it myself, though as I get older and look back on my life, things gradually fall into place, even if gathering the fragments is always a work in progress.
I suppose that as the prophets said to Elisha, "the place where we live is too small for us". I don't mean this unkindly. We all move home many times in our lives, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally. I have good evangelical friends whom I honour for their faithfulness to Christ and their loyal witness to the gospel. But I found the evangelicalism of those days too talkative, too busy, too extraverted. There was not enough silence in it, not enough space to contemplate, not enough imagination or playfulness, not enough awareness of the place of beauty in religion. And it didn't seem to reach into the complexities of the human heart (well, mine, anyway). No doubt a lot of it comes down to temperament. But I have to say that I became increasingly at odds intellectually with the way conservative evangelicalism did theology.
But I want to think (and pray) that I haven't lost what has been most precious in my evangelical formation: a love of the scriptures and a belief that they must be central to Christian life and thought; a conviction that personal relationship with God is the essence of all religion if it is to mean anything; and not least, a spirituality that is ardently focused on Jesus' cross and passion. As a student (at Trinity College Bristol!) my tutors told me to read the radical New Testament critics and John Henry Newman's Apologia. Oh, and to try to grasp the principles of liturgical prayer. I realised how much bigger the Christian world was than I'd imagined. That's it, really. The rest is history.
There are many mansions in our Father's house. God not only moves in mysterious ways himself, but moves us in ways that are just as mysterious when we try to make sense of them. I know that on many matters, Billy Graham and I would not have agreed since those heady days of the 1960s. He probably wouldn't have been comfortable in my liberal catholic, inclusive-church world, nor I in his. Except for this. I have no doubt whatsoever that he would have honoured my stumbling attempts to walk my Christian faith journey with integrity, just as I want to honour his. For what matters most is the same, to "turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ" as the Ash Wednesday words put it. Discipleship is as simple as that, purity of heart. Billy Graham helped me to start out on that path. For that, I'm grateful and glad.
Farewell to a great Christian man. RIP.
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.