By John Ellis
The story of the building used by Wanstead URC is remarkable. It was built for an Anglican congregation in 1861 on a site close to the current URC offices in London. The land however was soon required for building St Pancras railway station, so the Anglicans built another church nearby and the new Congregational Church in Wanstead seized the opportunity to buy the entire structure, move it brick by brick and rebuild it ten miles to the east in their developing community. A recent major refurbishment has given the congregation a bright, attractive and flexible building while preserving its fine architectural features.
For the church’s 150th birthday we enjoyed the building but focused more on the people for whom it has been a spiritual home. One was an eight-year-old boy from a church family, Joe Wing, who in 1931 came to church as usual and found the speaker dressed in Chinese costume: he was a missionary on furlough. Joe was captivated by his stories and that day he became certain he should spend his life as a missionary. Little did he know then that he would become a midwife and first Secretary of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, bringing together black and white denominations across five countries. Nor could he have guessed the central role he would play in the Churches’ contribution to the struggle to free South Africa of apartheid. Desmond Tutu said he relied on Joe’s advice at critical times. Sustained by a resilient Faith, the boy from Wanstead helped change the world.
Joe Wing was clearly revered by many people I met when visiting our partner churches in South Africa. He was accorded the exceptional honour of being buried in the original LMS missionaries cemetery at Kuruman, amongst some of the most famous Victorian pioneers. Like Moses, Joe did not live to see the promised land for which he longed. A free, democratic South Africa only arrived two years after he died.
Now the new South Africa is 20 years old and continues to evolve, not always in ways the Churches welcome. One fascinating conversation was with the Acting General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana. He explained how the impetus behind the ecumenical council in the apartheid era was largely so there could be a strong voice for the Churches’ opposition to apartheid. Once President Mandela was able to form his Government, many of the leading members of the Council of Churches were taken into Government posts and the Council’s role fell away. The current President Zuma comes from a different background from Nelson Mandela and the Churches find they are having to think afresh about what is the proper role for the Churches in relation to the Government, and how do they find ways to exercise that role effectively.
One part of Bishop Malusi’s account that sounded very familiar was that the Churches have lost the enthusiasm they used to have for paying for ecumenical work. So the Council of Churches is needing to be highly creative in finding sources of funding for doing any work at all.
Isaac Watts did not have Joe and Marjorie Wing in mind when he wrote of the Wings of Faith. Nonetheless, his hymn (Rejoice and Sing 664) reminds us that in each generation our new challenges can be put into perspective by remembering the inspirational Christians who tackled courageously the issues of their day.