John Richardson visits a convention of men

‘And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.’ Matthew’s casual detail – that the figure of five thousand for the number whom Jesus fed on one miraculous occasion only counted the men – is a painful reminder of a problem which increasingly affects Western Anglicanism. With few exceptions, Christian congregations and activities lack men.

All the more remarkable, therefore, that on Saturday 20th April, Westminster Central Hall was packed entirely with men – some 2,400 of them – attending the first Annual Men’s Convention. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s because it is an entirely new venture mounted by a group of individuals who simply felt the time for such an event had come. And given that the Convention was booked out several weeks in advance, who can say they were wrong?

Sam, be a man

This ‘great multitude’ had gathered to hear two speakers, Richard Coekin (pastor of congregations in Wimbledon and Mayfair) and Phillip Jensen (brother of the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney) addressing them under the heading ‘Be Men of Courage’. In addition, there were several seminars, on evangelism, the workplace, being a husband or father, and a special seminar for younger men.

But what persuaded them to give up a Saturday basically to go and be preached at? The answer must surely lie in the illustration Phillip Jensen gave at the start of his first talk. Phillip told the story of Sam Rayburn, an American from a poor background who rose to be Speaker of the US House of Representatives. When Rayburn left home to go to college, his father, an undemonstrative person, accompanied his son to the local station, There, as the train arrived, he took from his pocket twenty-five dollars, all that the family had, and as he gave them to Rayburn he said to him the words which were to control his life from that point on, ‘Sam, be a man.’

A degraded concept

Who today, however, would choose those as the words their son would take with them to be their guide through life? Can we imagine what a reader of the Observer, the Guardian or the Independent would make of them? Alternatively, can we imagine how someone on a Club 18-30 holiday might interpret them? Manhood is a devalued and degraded concept in Western society (and it is surely no coincidence that most of the men at the Convention were white and middle-class). Western Christian men know something has gone wrong, but it is much harder for them to go about putting it right, hence the attendance at the Convention.

Richard Coekin gave a helpful exposition on the ‘righteous man’ and the ‘wicked man’ of Psalm 1, exhorting the attending men to be prepared to swim against the current tide rather than sit ‘in the seat of scoffers’. In fairness to Richard, however, it was Phillip Jensen most men had come to hear, and Phillip did not disappoint them, with surely the most politically incorrect material on offer in London since the time of John Knox.

Phillip began with the story of Deborah, who was not, he observed, an example of biblical egalitarianism, a pioneer of women’s leadership before her time, but a sign of judgement on Israel – a reminder of what must happen when men are too weak to take on their proper role. Over his two talks, ‘The Man of God’ and ‘The Courage of Faith’, Phillip went on to develop his two themes – an exhortation to men to discover practical godliness, and an attack on the values of feminism – for Phillip is quite clear that feminism is wrong, intellectually, morally and spiritually. And Phillip therefore challenged the attending men to challenge their own wives on feminism – for example by buying them a copy of Kirsten Birkett’s Feminism, which critiques it from a post-feminist viewpoint!

A new strand

There seems little doubt that the organisers and platform speakers of ‘Men of Courage’ represent a new strand within evangelicalism. Not exclusively Anglican, they nevertheless include a number of Anglicans and people involved in projects initiated by Anglicanism. Their theology would be that of Reform rather than NEAC, and they are impatient with the institutional structures. Such impatience can cause its own problems. Nevertheless, we are likely to see more of such initiatives in the future.

Meanwhile, the measure of a good conference is surely the effect it has afterwards – and the effect on the men with whom I attended was striking. More than one wife found herself greeting a spiritually re-animated husband on his return home. Yet a month on, the old habits are returning. Surely, however, the lesson is not that the theme was wrong, but that the message needs constantly repeating in the face of the pressures of our society. Which is why there’s going to be another Convention next year – in the Royal Albert Hall. And it should be full.

John Richardson ministers not far from Stansted Airport