At the Evangelical Alliance Conference 150th Anniversary Celebration I had heard Clive Calver speak with passion and conviction about unity and christian social action. The man whose extraordinary energy and conviction had gone a long way to transforming evangelical fortunes received a standing and deeply felt ovation. Not everyone in that huge assembly was an undiluted Calver fan but all of them knew what he had achieved in rallying the troops, encouraging them to forget the deadly tribalism of evangelicalism and concentrate on gospel tasks given them by Christ.
Under Calver’s driven leadership the Evangelical Alliance has become the voice of evangelical christians throughout the land. if the radio or TV want to know the evangelical view, it is to the Evangelical Alliance they turn first. If a politician wants a christian briefing on a contentious issue, the Evangelical Alliance “think tank” is at their disposal. If a spokesman against secularism or heresy is needed on a phone-in or studio debate, Evangelical Alliance is likely to be called in.
As a member of no evangelical tribe I can say these things without, I hope, seeming partisan, or people feeling that Calver has slipped me a five to improve his image. These are simple facts.
So it was on a chill December day I made my way to South London, just along from the old ruined tower of St Mary’s Newington, to the H.Q. of Evangelical Alliance in the Kennington Park Road. This is, for those who don’t know, not a rich area. Kennington and Kensington inhabit different universes.
Arriving early I was obliged to enjoy a sumptuous fry-up and mug of tea at the nearby Parma cafe for all of œ1:45 before presenting myself in the bright, cheery reception area of the large citadel-like office building.
Calver is a young-looking mid-40s with a remarkably boyish face, warm smile and slightly surprised brown eyes. The famous moustache has been removed. Over a cup of coffee I asked him:
Where did you begin?
“I was born in Ipswich. My dad was a stationmaster. Then we moved to Tottenham.”
This is an early setback for an Arsenal fan and I feel the need to clear up where he is spiritually in this matter. He assures me that he is not a Spurs supporter. In fact he says he used to be an Arsenal supporter until he “grew our of it”. Now he is a regular, with his son, at Wimbledon. “The Crazy Gang” are noted for their direct (“route one”) football and the fact they continue to challenge at the highest levels of the Premier League.
On paper and human terms they are too small, too poor and definitely not part of the footballing establishment. What keeps them there is their teamwork, their commitment and their sheer delight in upsetting the odds. You can tell a lot about a man by the team he supports. Wimbledon could be a metaphor for Calver’s spiritual journey.
Were your parents Christians?
“Yes, they were strict pietistic baptist. I chucked all that over at 16. I wanted to change the world and moved into the radical left politics of the East End. I was five rows from the front when we stormed the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square”
What about your personal morality?
“Into boozing and wenching. I believed in justice but didn’t manage it in my own life. Victor Hugo wrote, `Revolution transforms everything but the human heart’. That’s true. I realised later that what I needed was a God who changed my life, not just defended my thought.”
How did that encounter come about?
“My mother persuaded me to come to church with her and an old family friend, Roger Forster, was preaching. it was incredibly boring. But… there was something about him – absolutely real. He had what I was searching for. He and his wife didn’t just preach the gospel, they lived it. Their home was open house for any druggie or dosser who needed it.
“I asked him what it was he’d got that gave him that compassion that I only talked about and he said `Jesus'”
Two weeks later, in Morning Lane, Hackney, Calver gave his life to Christ. Six months later the Barclays Bank employee by day, revolutionary activist by night, was at London Bible College studying theology and trying for a London University B.D.
How did you get on with all that liberal theology?
“While the university lecturers taught heresy the teachers at LBC taught us the answers to it!”
Were you a good student?
“No. At the end of the first year the Principal had to sign for a student to continue. I was last man above the `cut’. The second year was very different. A smashing girl arrived and we started going out.
“She had been converted while working in Lebanon, during an air raid. she had seen the faith of the christians there. She turned out to be the Principal’s daughter, Ruth. And there was a delegation to Gilbert Kirby complaining that our friendship was a bad witness to the college, it would damage his reputation and it wouldn’t last.
“Gilbert simply replied, `she knows herself well enough and, as for Clive, I believe in a God who still does miracles today’
“Gilbert trusted me and I have always been grateful to him. He has been a friend, a mentor and a guide.”
At the end of college Calver had, as he says, “in ascending order of importance – a degree, a dog collar and a wife” – but no job.
What did you hope to do?
“I told Ruth I wanted to be General Secretary of Evangelical Alliance! Clearly that wasn’t a first post. The problem was I would have emptied a church and I had a jaundiced view of mission.
“What I wanted to do was to reach people like myself.”
So what happened?
“Roger Forster breezed into my life again and gave some simple advice. `If you want to live in God’s world in God’s way, go and do it and he’ll provide for you’ So we did – and He did.”
Calver was taken on as an associate evangelist of Youth for Christ and did two years as an itinerant evangelist. On his travels he met another long haired young man who was to make a tremendous impression on the Christian world.
They became great friends and began to work together. The man was Graham Kendrick, son of a Baptist manse, and probably the modern songwriter that Christians will be singing in a hundred years’ time – if the Lord doesn’t pre-empt us.
They formed a touring team `In the Name of Jesus’ and went round schools and prisons breaking down barriers to people hearing the faith.
They were together on the platform at Bournemouth
Friendships are very important to Calver.
Was this the start of the charismatic era?
“Graham and I both had separate charismatic experiences”
What was yours?
“On mission. We were people of the word, committed to doctrinal truth and converted by what we’s seen. A student from Keele prayed for me at four in the morning and I knew surrender to God. it was more knowing God than knowing about him.
“The move into the gifts came gradually.”
It was Aquinas whose experience of God stopped him writing the Summa Theologica for, he said, beside that experience all else was but straw.
During Calver’s time at YFC it continued to grow under the leadership of Phil Vogel. Calver met another young man, Pete Meadows, editor of Buzz Magazine and they hatched a project called `The Ploughers, Sowers and Reapers Annual Convention.’ The first effort in 1979 saw 2,700 attended. We know it better now as `Spring Harvest’ and its multiple sites and weeks now cater for 80,000!
Do you have children?
“Yes. Vicky, 20, who is reading theology at Durham, Kris and Gavin doing A-levels and Suzy who is 13”
In 1980 the Argentinian evangelist Luis Palau, saw Calver, was impressed by him and took him to the States for several weeks of leadership training. The following year he was one of the ambassadors to Billy Graham to persuade him to come to England for the 1984 Mission England.
But before Graham arrived something extraordinary was to happen.
What did you do next?
“I was asked to apply for the post of General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance”
This was a remarkable decision. Calver was only 33 and was a radical voice. He had written the book, wonderfully entitled With a Church like this, who needs Satan? It was an enormous gamble on the part of the Council. Just how big was soon to emerge.
What were your priorities?
“To promote unity in the gospel and to speak that gospel powerfully to the nation and win our right to be heard by living as we preach.”
Just how vital that unity was will be retailed to you by older evangelicals. For them 1966 was not the year of the World Cup but the year of Westminster Central Hall when the fragile unity was blown apart, evangelicals went their separate ways and were effectively without serious influence for a generation. Calver refuses to dwell on that past. We are, he insists, all capable of using our disagreements as an excuse for not doing our job for God together in the nation. Many evangelicals will privately admit that the problem is they are, by nature, congregationalist and, in leadership terms, not usually team players.
How did you begin to tackle this?
“I asked the entire council to resign”
The people who appointed you?
“Yes. They were good and godly people. Many much better than me. The trouble was they were usually 4th or 5th in their organisation. We needed the leaders here if there was to be unity.
“God bless them, they resigned unanimously and that work began. Now a quarter of the council are here one day a week and one of them does two days and one at home. We had to make it clear that Evangelical Alliance was their alliance, their network, the corporate voice of Evangelicals if we wanted to influence the nation at all for Christ. We had to replace the spirit of competition by commitment. We were allowed our differences but not to bad mouth each other, and learn to work with one another.”
Is it unity at any price?
“Not at all. You have to subscribe to the Evangelical Alliance basis of faith and then the invitation is simple. Come and be yourself in Jesus”.
Do you have any catholic members?
“Some individual Roman Catholics, yes, and some Anglo-Catholic churches
“We had a complaint from one minister about a local Anglo-Catholic church belonging. We simply pointed out that the vicar was a converted man and preached the gospel. He and his PCC subscribed to the E.A. basis of faith.
“The use of bells and smells, so important to the complainant, was utterly irrelevant here.”
How did you gain the confidence and respect of those who thought you too radical?
“Ian Barclay was critical in that he encouraged me to go for the job then when I’d got it offered to work for me. As he said `You with your hands up will be balanced by me with my hands in my trouser pockets – I’ll give you a little Anglican respect’
“The fact is prayer, friendship, willingness and hard work have been critical.”
The achievements of Evangelical Alliance under Calver have been truly remarkable. In 1983 individual membership was 1,382, it is now over 60,000. Church membership was 450, it is now over 3,000 and representation of more than 5,000.
How have you handled to potential division over the Toronto Blessing?
“26 church leaders came together in a London hotel room and talked and prayed till they reached an understanding. Those in favour asked those against to listen to the case and judge it by the fruit and everyone agreed to dot the theological work needed to check out the experience. That understanding has held for three years”.
You said in our speech at Bournemouth that evangelicals should work with anyone on key issues to the faith. Are we likely to see a catholic speaker at Bournemouth in future years?
“I’ve taken part in meeting with Cardinal Hume on the pro-life issue. I have been absolutely clear about our difference but on this issue of scripture we are absolutely together.
“It is urgent to work together where we can. It’s a big bullet for the constituency to bit but I believe there is a growing awareness of where we have agreement on primary matters and can work on secondary issues.”
What about the dividing issues in Anglicanism just now?
“We know there is a radical realignment in the church – division over faithfulness to the scriptures. On the homosexual issue I am not phobic and they know that. I have worked with them and cared for them but I radically disagree with them. For me it’s like the woman taken in adultery “neither do I condemn you but go and sin no more”.
“As for the women issue… I am a warm supporter of women in ministry and masculine headship. To expect them to function equally in the same areas is to undermine the gifts of God’s creation. We have a vital partnership and it is complementary.”
I cannot think of any member of Forward in Faith who would argue with that solidly scriptural line.
Listening to Calver today and at Bournemouth is to catch a man with an urgent vision for a vibrant and united christian witness aiming for scriptural obedience and a full and compassionate involvement in the life of the nation, reclaiming the ground from the sterile and destructive nostrums of secularism.
His warmth and cheerfulness are infectious.
How much part he will be able to play in this vision is now in the Lord’s hands. Calver has serious heart trouble and has been on heavy medication for some months to try and solve it. In January he will have some idea of his future. Pray for him. Her is a man who has achieved more for the church of God in this land by his mid-forties than most of us achieve in twice that time.