Growing Older by Paul Beasley-Murray
A mix of autobiography and biography, which contains very welcome insights from the career of his wife, Caroline, Paul Beasley Murray sets high standards for everyone he meets - in the tradition of ‘our best for the highest’
Growing Older - Our Story of New Adventures and New Horizons
By Paul Beasley-Murray
College of Baptist Ministers in association with PB-M Books
Reviewed by Michael Cleaves
First of all, a declaration of interest: as sub-editor of this work, I have read and re-read several times its full text, made many corrections and suggestions, and spent many hours in conversation with Paul Beasley-Murray (from here on PB-M) on its minutiae in the mould of ‘angels dancing on a pin’. So, any textual criticism could be aimed at me, but I leave PB-M to field any about its content!
I have known PB-M for something over 40 years, but the lasting impression is of his call at the BUGB Assembly in the late 1970s for the denomination to examine the causes of its numerical and spiritual decline over the previous decades, from its high-water mark at the end of the 19th century. He spoke from the back of the conference hall at the University of Leicester, interrupting the course of a debate and making the chairman, Dr. Ernest Payne, look like a rabbit scared by the onrush of a pair of headlights.
If I remember rightly, the Assembly resisted the inclusion of ‘spiritual’ in the following resolution, but it is arguable that it was from that event that the Union began its move from a traditional middle-of-the-road position in the church spectrum of the day to its present right of centre identification. Thankfully, the denomination has retained the other part of its identity in the forefront of the defence of religious liberty both in the UK and world-wide.
That story illustrates well the ‘interrupter-in-chief’ role which I see Paul as having filled for nearly half a century. Never content with the ordinary, he has been a voice raised continually for the church, and especially its ministers, to be better, go further, and achieve more than we might expect. Throughout his ministry he has urged, cajoled, prodded (and no doubt offended) many with his urgency for the promotion of the Christian faith at all levels of society. He has inspired and infuriated people, but always with good intentions. Growing Older . . bears witness to this: in his recollection of his past ministry, and in his present role of informal leadership at Chelmsford cathedral, he sets high standards for everyone he meets - in the tradition of ‘our best for the highest’.
This has no doubt been at some cost. Like Marmite, Paul has divided opinions - though I suspect that in his late 70s he has taken on the mantle of an elder statesman of the churches - Baptist and otherwise. His written output remains prodigious, and everyone who follows his weekly reflections online gets plenty to think about. Some of these are contained in this volume, and show that it is a wide-ranging work.
It is at the same time a mix of autobiography and biography - as it contains very welcome insights from the career of his wife, Caroline, as Coroner of Essex - and ministry handbook, a reflection on contemporary society, family life, and an up-to-date review of the Covid pandemic. If anything, this last section may be over-long for the average reader who may want to put the whole awful experience behind them, but the insights reward our patience.
One concern I have for Paul is his idea of what ‘retirement’ means - I suspect Caroline might feel the same! I don’t mean to say stop writing or doing things related to ministry - after all, these are his life callings - but do ‘slowing down’ or ‘taking a breather’ enter his vocabulary? I suspect not!
In addition, I read with great interest the contributions made directly by Caroline. As an ex-Magistrate who served for 26 years, I was fascinated by the details of her work, not least because, even as a member of the judiciary, the work of Coroners is rarely mentioned at our courts of first instance. I have already passed on to Caroline a serious suggestion that she write more substantially on her work, and I hope she will take it up, especially from the point of view of a Christian.
Which leads me to a further point: though PB-M writes personally of his experience of the death of his parents, the subtitle of this volume implies an approach to that which ranks with taxes as inevitable - our mortality. I find most Christians steer away from seriously facing their own deaths, other than expressing faith in the resurrection. I believe we shortchange each other if we do not come to grips with the ultimate mystery of life and death, as we are often unable to help each other grieve well.
My suggestion to the ever busy mind and pen -or word-processor - of PB-M is an in-depth study of the greatest challenge of ‘New Horizons’ - how does it all end, and how do we face it?
Meanwhile, I will recall with fondness, and occasional infuriation, my memories of PB-M - from sharing hotel rooms around the world; being stopped at customs in Manchester airport and being asked ‘And what is this?’; him diving (I kid you not!) into the Dead Sea; breakfast at McDonalds before preaching at Palm Beach, California; and other adventures!
But most of all, I will recall a man at humble prayer, knelt by the side of his hotel bed. This is the real man who, though ‘growing older’, is in many ways ever young.
Michael Cleaves has been a BUGB minister since 1975. He was chair of its International Committee for 5 years; a member of the EBF Council; a member of various BWA commissions 1985 - 2015; and is a Bishop Emeritus of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia
Growing Older is published by the College of Baptist Ministers in association with PB-M Books and is available directly from the author (email@example.com). The electronic PDF costs £5. The printed book also costs £5, but postage & packing is extra (£2.50 in the UK)