Friday, March 31, 2006

An Appreciation of Alec Motyer

Since I posted a piece the other week in which I mentioned Alec Motyer, various folks have been in touch with me who, in one way or another, have had their lives touched by the Motyers. It seemed that it might be worth saying a few more things about Alec and Beryl Motyer because they have always been a model and example to Rosemary and myself.

I first met Alec Motyer toward the end of my first year in seminary, and then as my second year began I became field education student at his parish, St. Luke's Church, West Hampstead, London, a position that I held for two full years. In many respects those two years were the most influential part of my theological education because not only was Alec a fine scholar, but he was (and is) an extraordinary expository preacher, and a loving pastor.

Before coming to St. Luke's, Alec had been the Vice-Principal of Clifton Theological College, Bristol, one of the three seminaries that was eventually to be merged into Trinity College, Bristol. Alec had left under something of a cloud not long before I became his field education student. While I never knew nor sought to find out the details, it was an experience that I believe tempered the man so that a few years later when he became Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, he was ready for that work and excelled in it. His successor there was none other than George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Alec is Irish, born and raised in the Repubic of Ireland, education at Trinity College, Dublin, and ordained in the Church of Ireland, where he served as Curate at St. Kevan's Church, Dublin, before moving to England with his wife, Beryl. What is remarkable about him is that in many respects he looks no different now than he did forty years ago, although his flaming red hair is sandier as a result of streaks of grey. He still has the brightness of spirit and agility of mind that those of us who came under his influence loved and appreciated.

For two years, every Sunday morning and evening, I was privileged to sit under Alec Motyer's powerful preaching ministry. In some ways it is oratorically from another time, but beneath it was a profound and devout respect for the Word of God, and his belief that it is through these inspired words that God speaks to human beings and shapes their lives. It is not the preacher's task to get in the way of the Word, but to rightly apportion the Word so that it forms the lives of those who are willing and obedient enough to put themselves under its authority.

What I gained from these years was not only from his example of obedience, but also an understanding of how God speaks to us through Scripture, and how I might, as a pastor, open Scripture so that it speaks to those for whom I have spiritual responsibility. When I was first ordained my preaching style was a fourth-rate aping of Alec Motyer, although as the years passed and we went our separate ways I was able to develop my own distinctive manner of handling the Word. Yet to this day I often sit during preparation and wonder how Alec would handle the piece of Scripture that I find myself wrestling with.

Actually, Alec's life and mine did not go separate ways immediately after seminary. My first ordained ministry was as assistant in a parish just up the road from St. Luke's Church in North London, and then when a couple of years later Alec became Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, at his prompting I found myself as assistant on the staff of the large congregation in whose parish boundaries Trinity College sits. If as a seminarian I had the privilege of sitting under Alec's ministry, as a junior priest he had the more dubious privilege of sitting under mine!

That was not as daunting as I had imagined it might be, and it enabled me to continue learning from this man who had become so important in my life. He and Beryl were important not just for ministry reasons but for personal reasons as well, as I am about to recount.

On October 9, 1966, the second Sunday of the month, as I was standing with Alec in the gathering dark on the steps of the church in the gathering dark following the evening service this woman, a student at the London University college next door to St. Luke's came bounding up. To cut a long story short, within a couple of minutes we had been introduced and set to work putting back together the middle school group that had languished following the ill-health of its former leader.

I confess that for the first few weeks we were thrown together I couldn't stand this female. But Alec and Beryl believed with all their heart in the biblical mandate that it is not good for a man (or a woman) to be alone, and so they nurtured and stoked our relationship. Twenty-one months later this woman became my wife at a ceremony presided over by none other than Alec Motyer! Nearly thirty-eight years later I agree with Alec, it is not good for a man or woman to be alone, and I am thankful that he helped me find my life's partner, Rosemary, even if I was not initially too impressed by her (or she by me).

Alec is a product of an Anglicanism that is a significant part of our tradition, but which is perfectly happy to have full fellowship with those beyond our tradition, particularly on the conservative and Protestant end of the spectrum. He is a low churchman who is still happiest celebrating the Lord's Supper from the north end of the communion table, and who believes pulpit takes priority over sacrament. While most orthodox American Anglicans might regard the Catholics as their nearest denominational neighbors, for Alec it is Presbyterians of a more conservative color. He is very much a product of the definitely Reformational Church of Ireland in which he was reared.

He also taught us to have a healthy skepticism of the excesses of modern scholarship. While he encouraged us to be use our brains and be scholars, which meant reading and learning from the stuff that was being published at that moment, he also made sure that we asked significant questions of it, not necessarily accepting the validity of dominant theories.

For example, the central focus of Alec's intellectual life has been his study of the prophecy of Isaiah, and since retiring he has published two substantial commentaries on this great book. While benefiting from those students of the text who believe that there is actually an Isaianic school and that you can point to two or three different voices within that school, Alec has never been convinced and believes most of that magisterial book came from God's inspiration of Isaiah of Jerusalem. I hazard that Alec has read just about everything ever published in English on Isaiah, but he has not allowed academic orthodoxy to turn his head.

While I have not always agreed with Alec's theses, I am profoundly grateful for his example and teaching that I need not be carried along by what is intellectually fashionable. Rather than being an anti-intellectual or obscurantist mindset, what this does is lead to an independence of mind that does not allow itself to be "tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine..." (Ephesians 4:14).

Alec, like his former colleague and another mentor of mine, Jim Packer, has drunk deeply at the wells of the Puritan tradition. Now sneered at, particularly in many Anglican circles, there was a richness of theological reflection and pastoral faithfulness among Puritans that we would do well to listen to today. The Puritans certainly had their shortcomings, but there was a faithfulness to their theologizing and pastoring that sought to bring the rich essence of biblical theology to play in ever facet of human living and personal holiness.

This stream of Anglicanism continued to have a dynamic life within particular elements of the evangelical movement in the Church of England, parts of Australia, and in other pockets. It is richly composted soil, enabling us to recognize that theological developments that seek to sidestep the normative values of the Christian faith as found in the 66 books of Holy Scripture are ultimately theological and spiritual missteps. This, probably, is something that makes some of us us awkward partners and bedfellows to those who would be more cavalier in their understandings.

Alec Motyer is around eighty now, and despite some ill-health a few years ago, is a spritely energetic man. He and Beryl live on the outskirts of Manchester, England, not too far from their daughter, Katie, who was born, appropriately enough for an Irish couple, on St. Patrick's Day, 1967. When Rosemary and I were ministering in Bristol, Katie was in our Sunday School, but now has children of her own of that age!

I have written this appreciation because I want to honor this man who means so much to me. My life and ministry would have been far poorer without his presence, guidance, and wisdom. As far as I am concerned he is a giant of the Twentieth Century. He is not so proud that he had to get ecclesiastical accolades, for he ended his ministry pastoring a small congregation on England's South Coast. This is a man who has not been in ministry for a good "career in the church," but because he was prepared to accept whatever call the Lord Jesus made upon him. I pray that I might continue to learn this lesson from him.

p.s. You can get an idea of the extent of Alec's writing by Googling his name, or by going to

1 comment:

bryan said...

I totally agree that Alec is in biblical terms a giant.
When in the early seventies I had a wonderful conversion and wanted to spend all my time serving my Lord, the one problem I had was coming to terms with the Old Testament or the Bible Act one as he would put it.
That was until I attended a Saturday morning seminar for local preachers held at Pip n Jay, the subject understanding and preaching from the Old Testament.
It was probably the most enjoyable and rewarding two hours of my spiritual life.
I have had and given away many copies of the two cassettes recorded that morning and they have had the same effect on those who listened to them. The pastor of the Baptist church that I attended said it had helped him so much he would like to keep them for other clergy to listen to.
I would like very much an opportunity to meet Alec again just to thank him.
I have for the last two years been meeting every two weeks with an 89 year old neigbour and guiding him through the bible, which I would never have been able to do without the help I received so long ago.
Incidently my neigbour is a German and was in the Hitler Youth, and the German army all through the war.
Bryan Bignell 8/12/2008