Michael Green: a street fighter for the Gospel

By Steve Morris

Michael Green is nearly 80, but he has lost none of his boyish enthusiasm. The handshake is still strong. You feel that there is steel in him and he issues a caution. He doesn’t want to be praised in this interview… he wants a fair picture drawn.
His has been a life of influence within the Church, if not of high office. He’s been the head of a theological college, the rector at St Aldates, a professor in Canada, a writer and an adviser on various Anglican Commissions, perhaps most notably the Doctrine Commission. He has been an Adviser at the Lambeth Conference and to the Archbishops in Evangelism. But he’s never been a Synod member, never a bishop.
Isn’t he just an old street fighter, a proponent of the iron first in the velvet glove?
He laughs, “Yes I think I rather am… that’s a very fair description although I’ve never been called it before. There is an urgency in me, a sense of challenge. I am so aware of the contrast in my life before I met Christ and after, that I want to commend him to everybody, and I’m not afraid to do it in the streets… I was preaching in the streets yesterday and I shall be doing it again today!”
In this he is a rare beast – an academic with the common touch and an appetite for evangelism. Michael is a lifelong Anglican, and has seen many changes in the church, but would he be an Anglican today if he was just starting out?
“I think plants have to flower where the good Lord has put them, and my background put me within the Church of England. I have good friends amongst Catholic and liberal Anglicans and I really do value the breadth of the Church of England. On a good day the Church of England combines Word, Sacrament and Spirit, all three. When you look at other denominations, one or other of those tends to predominate… I wouldn’t give my life to stay in the Church of England, but I do believe it is an authentic expression of real Christianity, and it is widely respected in the world.”
That’s on a good day. But Michael sees clouds ahead, or perhaps more accurately the eye of the storm. He fears for the future of the Anglican Communion. He sees a split emerging as wide as that generated by the Reformation… the biggest and most significant turbulence for centuries.
“It seems to me that recently the Anglican Communion has been going in two directions. On the one hand the ‘orthodox’ or ‘traditionalists’ have tried to stick to Biblical teaching, sometimes naively and clumsily, but nevertheless seeking to make the Bible normative for Christianity as a revealed religion.
“On the other hand there is this ‘progressive’ or ‘revisionist’ strand in Anglicanism where you just make up your beliefs as you go along. You tailor your faith to the culture of the day. We have seen it happening in Britain, but it is massive in Canada and America. I would be surprised if the Anglican Church in Canada is still in existence in a few years.”
Michael pauses for breath and we see just a little tension creeping across his face. He wrings his hands and looks out onto the Oxford street. It would be wrong to have a one-dimensional view of Michael, to see him simply as a follower of the more conservative camp, lock stock and barrel. Let’s take the issue of women ministers and women bishops. As for women priests, Michael is in favour, although he hasn’t always thought this way. But what about women bishops?
“Well if you take the step of making women priests then there is no logical reason to close off higher leadership to them. I have known some marvellous women priests and the church would be worse off without them. We have taken an irreversible step towards women bishops, and that is entirely logical…but it produces all kinds of unhelpful reactions – phobia of women priests and the idea that men make naturally superior leaders.
“Others object from a flawed idea of ‘headship’, the kind of argument you find in some conservative evangelical circles. It really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”
Michael smiles, “Do you know that there was a female Pope once?” Laughter fills the room, and Michael is making a little light mischief again. But another question arises, and it is a thorny one. Michael may have taken a second look at the Biblical texts on women and priesthood and realised that there was room for a fresh interpretation, but what about the other hot topic, “homosexuality?” Why not shift on this too?
“Yes I remember Bishop Richard Harries arguing along these lines when he was Bishop of Oxford. But it seems to me that the issue is now dead in society at large… with substantial legislation on homosexual rights and same sex marriages. But I don’t regard it as parallel with the issue of women priests and bishops. The New Testament is explicitly against same-sex genital contact and those who try to argue otherwise haven’t dealt with full integrity with the biblical text. So although politically the issue is lost, we can take a stand in the Church. It is not the first issue on which the Church has withstood the State!
“I will take my stand quietly and firmly on this. There is no place for homophobia: I do not fear homosexuality! And though I regard it as wrong, I am well aware of wrong things in my own life. The church is the school for sinners.”
Michael believes that clergy as leaders should refrain from homosexual intercourse, but he acknowledges that, although it may have the ring of compromise and illogicality about it, this standard can’t be required of everyone else. Church is a mixed bag. Leaders have particular burdens and responsibilities and one of these is the matter of their own conduct.
Here we have it again. Michael is no paper-thin identikit evangelical. And this is why perhaps he’s managed to reach out to so many groups within the Church. But there are still rough edges about him, and some may wonder how he can hold such diverse views together without a degree of tension and compromise.
But what about spiritual tests of his own? What has tested him? He pauses. The pause extends for a minute or so.
“Well I struggled to balance my love of ministry and my love of family. I have four children who I love very much, but I haven’t always got that balance right. I’ve now got 14 grandchildren and so I need to work hard in getting this balance right…”
Another pause. “And never found myself to be immune from sexual temptation: that continues right to being an old man. I have never slept with anyone other than my wife, but we all rejoice in beauty of the other sex. It doesn’t mean to say that you want it, but it exercises a pull, an attraction… The Chinese have a wonderful saying… ‘You can’t stop birds of ill omen flying over your head, but you can stop them nesting in your beard.’”
Where perhaps Michael has been most fortunate is that he’s never been tempted by power for power’s sake. And this has given him an exceptional freedom. He has never felt the need as Disraeli put it “to climb the greasy pole.” And because of it Michael has managed to be an agitator for change. This has given him the freedom to move around the world, freedom to take on a job just because it looks interesting.
Indeed even after he officially retired 11 years ago he found himself taking up the offer to pastor a small church in the States, a small church that inevitably became a much larger one. And then he was setting up the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics at Wycliffe Hall to train a new generation of evangelists and apologists. So what have been the highlights of Michael Green’s time in the Church of England?
“I have two highlights. Setting up St John’s College in Nottingham in the 70s was a time of great excitement. It was just a building site and we ended up running what I think was the first-ever Bachelor of Theology degree course and modelling something very new and fresh. No college before had appointed a Director of Pastoral Training. We admitted students from overseas, and women to theological college for the first time as well, even though we were told by the authorities that they wouldn’t be ordained…” Ah it’s that streetfighter again… the urbane warrior… who has never known how to take no for an answer.
“The other highlight was being Rector of St Aldates. It was a very demanding and happy 12 years. We saw it develop into one of the key churches in the country and we had such love and trust among the team that it just broke out throughout the congregation. We once had the Home Secretary down to speak at a late night event; Willie Whitelaw didn’t know what hit him! Before he went on, we prayed for him and laid hands on him.”
Michael rocks back on his chair and chuckles. And we get a glimpse of how church could be, even in these straightened and turbulent times. A place of exploration, orthodoxy and joy. A place that engages mind and heart and does it with a spring in its step.
“I once had Mary Whitehouse down to speak and some agitators threw a bag of flour at her… and it hit me instead… it was a great honour to take a blow from a bag of flour in church.” The eyes twinkle.
Michael is perhaps best known for his books. He’s written over 50 of them. They’re marked by being thoughtful, clear and accessible. Perhaps Michael never hit the academic heights, but his books Evangelism in the Early Church and I Believe in the Holy Spirit are in libraries and bookshelves all over the world and in many languages.
“If I am remembered for any books then I think it will be these two,” he says. And the biggest flop?
“I wrote a book on Parish missions and no one bought it. It was called Forgotten Dynamite… which was a very ironic title indeed…”
But here we are at an Anglican Theological College, a vicar factory. Michael praises Wycliffe Hall for the way it has found its feet over the last few years and he detects much good coming from the place.
He wonders out loud, though, whether all theological training could do with being more hands-on and practical.
“Today, more than ever, we need Anglican vicars who bubble over with Jesus and who are courageous.”
And what about NT Wright going back into academia. Is that something of a disaster for the Church? Surely, I wonder out loud, we don’t need any more academics do we?
“I’ve known Tom Wright for many years, and no, I don’t think it is a disaster at all. He is an exceptionally gifted theologian and he has also done a superb job as a Church leader in Durham, in this country as a whole and internationally. But what do you do when you’re a man with two great talents? You can major on one or the other. Alternatively you can pursue both — and short change both, while giving yourself a heart attack in the process from all the overwork.”
Instead Michael sees this as a way of Wright sealing his legacy.
And as we draw to a close Michael strikes a poignant note. He laments the fact that some vicars try to do everything themselves, burying themselves in work and not thinking about what they will leave behind – the people who will take the Christian legacy on. He believes that they should make the most of their talents by always training up a handful of key younger leaders to take over from them.
And what about Michael Green’s legacy? Will it be in the books, or the teaching or the leading of colleges and churches? It is hard to say, but perhaps the legacy will most be passed on in all the regular Christian people Michael has inspired. Michael Green. Man of influence, but not power. Streetfighter. Evangelist. Few have taken up the challenge so heartily to pass on the blessing of a changed life to others. I hope I am not right – but they don’t seem to make them like this anymore.

2 Responses to "Michael Green: a street fighter for the Gospel"

  1. Kate Dobson   08/09/2010 at 11:36

    Surely you mean ‘straitened … times’?

  2. Philip Tory   28/06/2012 at 11:36

    This is a nice interview with an impressive witness for the gospel.
    I was privileged to hear Michael Green speak at the Prayer Partners Conference of “Through Faith Missions” last weekend (23 June 2012). He spoke about the Changing Face of Evangelism – and a very clear message it was.
    You can hear both of his talks on http://www.throughfaithmissions.org and then follow News and events > Partners Conference.
    Essential listening for serious evangelists.