I bought a copy of Evangelicals Now today, and saw with delight a picture of Mark Ashton, Vicar of St. Andrew the Great in Cambridge at the top of an article. This is a student church, and I have always thought of it as my ‘home’ church, although I cannot get there very often because I live a long way off.
But looking closer, I saw with alarm that it was a piece about terminal cancer, addressed with his usual clarity. (The whole article is here) And at the end — even worse — was a short note that he had died on April 3rd!
For me this is dreadful news. I had had no idea that he was ill. In my memory he is still a man in vigorous good health. Perhaps I might share some memories here.
When I first went to the Round Church (as it then was) in the early 80’s, Mark had just arrived and was assisting Mark Rushton, who had made the Round the great centre of Christianity in the UK that it was during the 60’s and 70’s. In those days Mark had dark hair, I recall, and he grew grey as I sat under his ministry. When Mark Rushton died soon afterwards, Mark became vicar, a post he held for the remainder of his life.
The congregation outgrew the little church building, and moved to St. Andrew the Great some years later. He led the largest and most successful church in Cambridge, and was a powerful preacher heard with pleasure by his congregation, mainly composed of students and academics. I never heard him preach a bad sermon, nor one that did not lead the hearer to turn his mind to God.
The congregation in turn became too large for that building. Mark was always keen to do “church plants”, sending a clergyman plus a chunk of the congregation to renew a parish church in Cambridge that was on its last legs. I remember the first of these, when Christopher Ash was the clergyman, and it was a great success. I recall a subsequent visit to preach by Christopher Ash, and Mark saying at the end of the sermon how much he loved those sermons, “… I could sit under his ministry all day.” They were indeed excellent; but Mark’s were better.
He was primarily a preacher. There are few such whom I would willingly ask an unbeliever to hear, but he was one. I wish I had asked various people to hear him, now that it is too late. Too many preachers like baby-talk, and their efforts are an embarassment. But his sermons were for adults, and adults who were educated and educated and intelligent to the standard of a Cambridge undergraduate. Nor was the message watered-down; the full gospel was preached, and the non-Christian always had the opportunity to come to Christ. In the last respect, indeed, God blessed his ministry. There are many of his sermons on the church website in audio form — the only form in which they should be encountered.
He was not lacking in pastoral concern either. I remember that he once invited me back to the vicarage after a sermon, together with a few others. He can hardly have known me, but it was typical of the man. At the lunch he mentioned an incident in the previous week when he had found himself near a group of policemen harassing some people for no obvious reason. Mark stopped to see what was happening, and a policeman came up to him and rudely demanded who he was and what he thought he was doing there. Mark replied in his best preachers’ voice “I am the clergyman of this parish, and I am observing how you are treating my parishioners.” The policeman went back to his colleagues without a further word, there was a brief conversation among them, and they all departed promptly.
Indeed it was a mark of his pastoral care to notice the marginalised members, people like myself who could not attend often but would keep right on coming as they could. I remember after a sermon how he invited people who needed to talk to someone about a pastoral issue to come and speak to him. I was suffering at that time in the aftermath of an illness brought on in part by a church which demanded too much of me, was unable to offer commitment to anything, but I went to talk to him. His pastoral advice and encouragment was invaluable to me. He didn’t measure me by an attendance, but encouraged me to walk with God. Without saying so, he also prayed for me for the remainder of that year — I could actually feel the effect on my prayer and bible-reading, and I could feel it when it stopped, at the new year when (naturally) he must have revised his prayer list. From a man in church of a huge congregation this was kindness indeed.
He was also a very humble man. I remember one week that he illustrated his sermon with some cartoons, including a comic devil. I think he must have drawn them himself, although he did not say so, and they were excellent. But the following week he told the congregation that some people had objected that a comic devil was misleading and tended to suggest that we should not take Satan seriously, and apologised sincerely and profusely for them. I suspect that I was not the only person who wanted to kick whoever had criticised!
His preaching was powerful, and at one time I carried around cassettes of sermons from the Round to play in the car. It is unfortunate that his written work was not so good. He preached in 1996 a series of sermons on James, which were master-pieces. They were also issued in booklet form, but the booklet is lifeless and dull, while the sermons were among the best I have ever heard.
He never received any preferment in the Church of England, not even a canonry during the thirty years that he laboured. The congregation must have been the largest financial contributor to the diocese, and the success of the church plants must have increased the numbers of communicants and donors to the diocese. But that did not qualify him, it seems. Indeed we might ask who did fill the stalls at the cathedral, if such a man was not considered suitable. But I never heard Mark even mention the matter.
I only corresponded with him once. After an administrative change to a standing order, I queried the office as follows:
Thank you for this. I have completed it [a mandate] and returned as requested.
May I ask a difficult but necessary question?
Giving goes to maintain the ministry of the Round, and the fabric of its buildings. But this gay priests business leads one to ask, just who owns these buildings? I’ve been watching events in the US where apostate bishops have been seizing the assets of parishes and evicting congregations. Charles Raven had the same experience here. My little contribution is intended for the Round, not to pay a gay bishop to close it down: and I expect the same is true of a lot of people.
Can I ask what measures have been put in place to ensure that, in the event of this happening here, the diocese will not simply appropriate whatever is given to the Round? I know we raised a lot of money to refurbish the building: but I wonder, if the StAG building belongs to the diocese, not to the congregation, why are we raising all this money for it, if we have no guarantee against eviction? This question must be going to hit us in a few years, I would have thought.
It is hard to justify giving money to the Church of England as an institution at the moment, and questions of responsible stewardship come into this. I hesitated a lot before restarting this standing order. Has any thought been given to this?
All the best,
I was surprised but pleased to get a reply from Mark:
I’ve received your email of the 12th of November (which I will also forward to the church treasurer, in case he wishes to comment).
You are very generous to support us with a standing order and thank you very much indeed for that.
You are perfectly right to put your finger on that particular issue. Of course, the overwhelming majority of our income goes on paying for the staff and current programmes of the church. But the ownership of the church property is a moot question – vested in me while I am vicar, and the Church of England would find it very hard to get it away from me, unless they find me to be heretical or convicted of gross immorality. But at the moment of succession there is great vulnerability, and I’m certainly not in a position totally to reassure you in your misgivings.
We do have a couple of charitable trusts, which, we believe, are safe, and which support gospel ministry, both here and in some other churches. You can always route your giving to these, rather than to the Round Church at St Andrew the Great.
On a slightly more reassuring note, my own faith is not in the morality or faithfulness of the institution, nor even in our own power to resist it, but in the power of the gospel to continue to replicate itself in people’s lives. It always seems to me that the best safe-guard we have against the sort of fears you express is faithful gospel ministry, leading to conversion and growing discipleship amongst a body of people who will be kept by the word and spirit of God from straying out of His paths. It may at times seem a slim hope, but I believe it to be a Biblical one!
With very best wishes,
The combination of a straight answer combined with a focus on God, not the world, was typical of the man.
I’ve just created the link to Mark’s article above, and I read portions of it, and I admit that I am sitting here in tears. Mark was one of the best of men, and I feel sensibly diminished. My world has grown smaller with his passing.
The church website is here, with video of the service of remembrance here. A great number of his sermons are online at the church website in .mp3 format. There is also a useful talk he gave in March – pretty much his last, his voice showing the sign of illness, in .mpg here. See also a video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?hl=en-GB&v=H7Y_GJMnj_4.