Bernard Thorogood: His reputation, influence and legacy

The Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, reflects on the work, service and reputation of an influential Church leader

Bernard Thorogood, who has died aged 92, was General Secretary – first, of what became the Council for World Mission (CWM, from 1970 to 1980), and later, of the United Reformed Church (from 1980 to 1992). Obituaries appear elsewhere. This blog is a reflection that arises from Bernard’s reputation.

I met him, but not often. I was ordained while he was at Church House. Shortly afterwards, he was greatly encouraging and supportive when I left for service in Johannesburg with the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. I valued his moving capacity to be affirming and so respectful of one more than a generation his junior, sharing wisdom from his effective work in the Pacific. I also have the privilege of working alongside Neil, one of his sons, as we collaborate in the life and work of Westminster College. Neil and I often speak of Bernard, and so much I respect in the father comes from those discussions with the son. I cannot say, though, that I knew him well personally.

In a sense, that is what makes my real point. I honour Bernard Thorogood not because of our close association but because of his fine reputation, his far-reaching influence and his lasting legacy. That seems to me be even more of a tribute than one shaped by the bias of friendship. It certainly emerges in conversation with colleagues in the URC and the global Church. More, however, it emerges from reading Bernard’s valuable writings.

I served churches in South Africa during the final years of institutionalised apartheid. The Church, galvanised by the South African Council of Churches, was significant in campaigning for the end of what it described as a doctrine that was heresy and a practice that was sin. In that country at that time, the prophecy of Amos inspired and challenged me, with its withering critique of those who think keeping quiet is a prudent thing to do (5:13). Bernard Thorogood’s A Guide to the Book of Amos (SPCK, 1971) – in simple, sometimes stark, language – prodded me to take the prophet to heart: ‘Amos was not a prudent man. He could not “keep silent in such a time”, but felt compelled to speak.’ I still remember wondering whether the six-monthly renewal of my work permit was a lamentable sign that I had been too prudent.

Bernard’s work with both CWM and the URC involved leadership during times of change. Profound changes to the Church’s thinking about mission bore particular fruit while he was General Secretary of the Congregational Council for World Mission. The change is summed up in Robert Latham’s chapter of Gales of Change: Responding to a changing missionary context (World Council of Churches, 1994), which Bernard edited: ‘Every church had the right and privilege to give to mission, as well as to receive, both in people and money, each according to its ability.’ Bernard was among those who saw that this change was essential and timely. So, CWM was born in 1977, singing Caryl Micklem’s hymn:

Thanks be to God, in whom we share
today the mission of his Son;
may all his Church that time prepare
when, like the task, the world is one.

Similarly, the URC was but a decade old when Bernard Thorogood moved from the General Secretary’s office at CWM to the URC’s. It was a newly united church, constantly changing.

To these change contexts, he brought far more than administrative, fiscal or management priorities. His roles grew out of skilled theological reflection. In No Abiding City (1989, republished by SCM Press in 2012), he writes of the Church as being on a pilgrimage, forever called to take the risk of changing as an expression of its faithfulness. Risen Today (SCM Press, 1987) shows how he roots that conviction in the confidence that the Easter Christ is contemporary: ‘… the resurrection of Christ is linked to our future because we have to deal with the living Christ in our day.’

It makes Bernard Thorogood deeply relevant for our thinking as the 21st century challenges us irresistibly to unearth new ways of being the Church. Moreover, the current coronavirus pandemic is catapulting us into innovation that many suggest is so radical – to our roots – that we should not, will not, go back to the way things were, even two months ago. In his own concluding chapter to Gales of Change, Thorogood says things a quarter of a century ago that I find so prescient of what we need to hear now:

The forms in which mission is most appropriately encouraged and sustained will surely change, just as the emphasis will change as the human condition cries for healing, and we cannot anticipate that the structures now in place will last for a century. They will give way – to the developing unities of church and world. They will project what the family of God is called to be as a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God. … The Christian presence in a torn and very unequal world, where affluence leads to complacency and poverty to bitterness, where for very many people life is still brutal and short, but where the longing for human dignity and peace is never stilled, that presence will take its pattern from a cross and an empty tomb. Mission will always be about suffering which is transformed into healing and joy and renewal. At that point our thankfulness and expectation are one.

All that said, I do not believe that Bernard faced death comforted by the strategies of a church bureaucrat, less still as a manager of change. He was first and finally a disciple of Jesus Christ. In No Abiding City, he says: ‘The eternal gospel is, at its heart, a revealing of the heart of God. It is a showing in the world of that loving, renewing, sustaining purpose which lies behind the whole cosmos, which we recognise in Jesus and which is proclaimed by the followers of Jesus in every age.’ Perhaps that is why, aged 90, he could publish his final volume – A Basket of Prayer (Xlibris, 2017); also sold by Amazon – and reflect, as if presciently, upon Christ’s word from the cross (‘It is finished’):

In the end we shed no tears,
but simply worship as the story ends.
But not the end.
That chapter is finished,
another page is opened,
and this Jesus of the cross
is with us, everywhere, for all time.

May your presence, Lord Jesus,
complete your work in me.

Amen. May it be so.

Nigel Uden, May 2020

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