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Through winding paths (2)

January 2015 | by Frederick Serjeant

The Bishop of Southwark invited me to be vicar of St Peter’s, Battersea. This was the Clapham Junction area of south London, with slum clearance, a new high-rise flat area and a large influx of immigrants (continued from ET December 2014).

The church building could hold 1000, but there were about a dozen worshippers on Sunday mornings.

It was in this parish that I joined with some other clergy in a prayer group for revival. In a short period of time we began to hear of strange things that were happening in the USA. An Episcopalian rector called Dennis Bennett had known a personal experience of the Holy Spirit and ‘spoken in tongues!’ This had spread in his congregation.

Fountain Trust

Our bishop invited him to come to speak to our group. Meanwhile, a curate of John Stott (a well-known evangelical in the Church of England) — Michael Harper — also shared similar things with us, and the Fountain Trust was formed as an inter-church Charismatic organisation, to further this ‘work of the Spirit’.

I was persuaded of the truth of the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ as a separate experience subsequent to regeneration. I sought it ardently, and one evening in prayer ‘spoke in tongues’ — or so I believed. Mary was not too enthusiastic. She had ‘gone along’ with me in my evangelical leanings, but this was a bit over the top!

Work in the parish was extended with outreach to heroin addicts; something new on the London scene. Two curates joined the staff, with a lady parish worker. The next-door parish church had been closed and it was amalgamated with mine. This made it one of the largest parishes in England. In a ’flu epidemic, I conducted 14 funerals a day for three days in succession!

My connections with the (Charismatic) Fountain Trust continued. I became the ministry secretary and found myself taking part in various meetings and conferences. In this period, I met with some of the well-known Charismatic leaders, not only in Britain but from the USA, South Africa and elsewhere.

Baptism

Through my conference connections with men outside the Church of England (CofE), I was challenged by the need to bring everything to the bar of Scripture. One result was that I was persuaded that baptism was to be by immersion and for believers only!

I was duly baptised by a Baptist minister friend and joined the ‘Baptismal reform group’ which then existed in the CofE. From that time on, I baptised no babies, but offered instead a service of ‘naming and blessing’.

After a few years I found myself becoming a ‘burnt-out’ case. I knew it was time to move on. Indicating my thoughts to my bishop, I was offered the rectory of West Mersea, Essex. Here I was following an evangelical rector, though the congregation was very mixed.

During my time at Mersea, I became more and more frustrated at the formalism of CofE worship. I was distressed too by the fact that I was ‘unequally yoked’ to a bishop, archdeacon and rural dean, none of whom appeared to believe in the Virgin Birth or resurrection of our Lord.

It was all too evident that they did not see the need to be born again. In 1975, the CofE synod decided that clergy should no longer be required to make a vow of assent to the 39 Articles.

By this time in my pilgrimage, I had come across some Banner of Truth publications and, notably, was greatly influenced by A. W. Pink’s book The sovereignty of God.

Secession

Now that the CofE no longer held to the 39 Articles I knew that I must resign my living as rector of a parish and leave the CofE. I found this a very difficult decision to make and, in God’s dealings with me, I came near to a breakdown.

A series of events in the parish precipitated my decision. I could not in good conscience remain in a denomination which evidently was relinquishing its biblical, Reformation foundations.

With three boys still at school, I resigned the living and we moved to a small terrace cottage in north Essex. I returned to university and gained a B.Ed. (Hons) degree and engaged in an independent, church planting work, while supporting myself as a teacher. I taught Religious Education in comprehensive schools.

In this period, I was involved in the ‘Restoration movement’ and came to know most of its national leaders. Arthur Wallis had been a friend since my early Fountain Trust days; he introduced me to some of these leaders.

I broke with Restoration movement house churches over the issue of ‘heavy shepherding’, coupled with its ‘kingdom-now’ triumphalism. I also became very disillusioned with the Charismatic movement. I had to question the reality of the manifestation of ‘the gifts’. Increasingly, I came back to Puritan and Reformed teaching.

I attended the Banner of Truth conferences and was greatly helped. I came to the conviction that Arminianism is the root cause of many of the aberrations in evangelicalism today and must be countered by faithful Bible teaching, especially of the doctrines of grace.

Pastor

My final church before retiring was Hockley Evangelical Church. I was pastor there for 11 years. During the early years there, I was asked to teach Computer Studies in the local comprehensive school.

This led me to see the importance of encouraging good Reformed (and Baptist!) materials on the Internet. So my present ministry in so-called retirement was born — ‘Grace Gospel Software’.

Having supposedly retired to Bridport in Dorset, where Mary and I joined the Baptist church, after a few years the church set us apart to a church planting work in Cerne Abbas.

After spending a year in Bible teaching with a small prayer group there, a decision was made to establish a new church, which called me as their pastor, in May 2001.

We moved to a little village called Sydling St Nicholas, which is in the next valley to the Cerne Valley — a very beautiful spot (but don’t tell everybody!).

We moved the church meeting place in 2003 to Dorchester and met in the YMCA Hall. We were looking for a man to replace me as pastor, since I felt I must step down at when I reached 80. I continued to 85 without us finding a new pastor. So, with some sadness, the work was closed after 12 years, and Mary and I moved back to Bridport.

It has been a winding path for my wife Mary and myself, from belief in transubstantiation to sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura. But God is the God of all grace, through Jesus my Lord.

Frederick Serjeant