Thinking more about McCourt the teacher-man, I recalled two stories about great teachers in my own sphere.
It begins with one I never knew, but whose legacy I did.
While I was the pastor of the Hobart Baptist Church, in Tasmania, two decades ago, I knew a number of people then in their seventies, who had been very prominent in church and public life, from that church.
One had been the city mayor, elected unopposed for 29 years. One had been the head of the Australian Baptist missionary organization. One had been a missionary pharmacist in Africa, and then headed up Alcoholics Anonymous support work in Hobart for decades. Several of their contemporaries were leading politicians: one, the Australian Defence Minister, another state leader of the opposition. I could identify about 10 of them who had all had really significant careers, in church and society.
I was intrigued. What was it about this group of people who, from their youth, had been life-long ‘salt-of-the-earth’ people?
I asked one of them, to answered: It was Harold Hackworthy. ‘Hack’ had been their pastor at Hobart Baptist Church, from 1930 to 1940 and he gave these young people a sense of vision and self-worth which had immeasurable significance in their lives for another 5 decades at least.
Hackworthy had served in the Australian army in the first world war, and was a down to earth man.
John Williams, one of the men I interviewed about Hackworthy, told me that when he left Hobart to begin training for the ministry, Hackworthy had given him this advice: ‘Always remember your daily devotions, and keep your bowels open.’
Here was a practical sense of balance: knowing how important it is to keep the faith, but also not to ignore the physical, practical realities of human life.
That insightfulness was expressed in his ministry at Hobart. he could see that he had an extraordinary bunch of young fellows. (Sadly, there is not record of his ministry including the young women in the same way, but we have to allow him to be a man of his time, I guess.)
Hackworthy would for the preach the Sunday night service, as was the practice of the time, but then he did something further: he would invite these young men to come to his home, and discuss it—or anything else they wanted to. He would light his pipe, put his feet up and invite them to talk. No topics were banned, anything from ‘predestination’ to masturbation, I was told. They could discuss the sermon, or any topic that might be interesting them, and these talks ranged over politics, world affairs, war, and theology in many expressions. What these people told me is that Hackworthy gave himself to them, thinking out loud, encouraging them to think and to evaluate commonly accepted ideas, but also to consider different ways at looking at these issues.
That’s the story of this one great teacher-pastor, who gave his proteges the freedom to think, to value themselves and also instilled in them a sense of responsibility, to make a great contribution as they were able.
Knowing what this fellow had done led me, one day, to thinking about another group of contemporaries, many of whom I knew.
These were all pastors and teachers, and two have been my colleagues at Whitley College. What they have in common is that they were all students at the New South Wales Baptist College at the same time. Three at least became principals of theological colleges, two as fine Old Testament scholars and one as a church historian. A fourth became a Professor New Testament. Another became General Superintendent of his state Baptist union, and another has for the last 15 years led the Baptist World Alliance’s department of education and evangelism, having already been a state General Superintendent. Still another has been one of the most impressive systematic theologians in the denomination, on the world scene, as well as a much sought after preacher. Others I know have been fine pastors of major churches in various states.
This was another cohort of astonishing talent and leadership. But, as I thought about them, I wondered whether there was something in their time that brought forth this talent, that led them towards such fine contributions to education in particular, but to leadership more generally.
I asked my late colleague Athol Gill, (who was one of this group). Without hesitation, Athol replied, ‘John Thompson’ —who had been their teacher of Old Testament. ‘He showed us that we could take the Bible seriously.’
He went on to say simply that although he may not now agree with Thompson’s position on some issues of scholarly debate, what Thompson did was to show them how serious engagement with the biblical text could enrich and stimulate a vision of life, church and ministry. He did not close off issues and stifle thought, but rather allowed them to go on as responsible Christians living in the contemporary world. These students have gone on to be scholars, thinkers, prophets and teachers, and all of them deeply pastoral in the way they did these things. I have been enriched by knowing many of them.
What a great legacy for a self-effacing but deeply committed teacher.