Following the news that the much-loved theologian, apologist and evangelist Dr Michael Green has passed away, Matthew Fearon reflects on a life well lived
Michael Green: 'I want a cool head and a burning heart'
Michael Green is an academic with a heart for evangelism and not afraid of a fight. Now in his 80th year, he shows no signs of slowing down...
It is a beautiful day at Wycliffe Hall, the Oxford theological college. Michael Green strides to meet me in shorts and open-necked shirt, smiling and carrying a New Testament. There is something endearingly impish about him; something in the eyes. It is certainly hard to believe that he’ll be 80 this year. He’s lost none of his verve and none of his humour.
Green is a man who has had a rumbustious, extraordinary life. He has managed to be in the thick of it and has an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. He may have officially ‘retired’ 11 years ago, but you probably wouldn’t have noticed. The time in between has included being a pastor in North Carolina (and growing that church immensely), working at Wycliffe Hall, and joining Alister McGrath in launching the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, where he is currently chaplain and tutor.
Green is a rarity. He is an academic and a street evangelist, with a heart for simple gospel messages and old-fashioned missions. He has been a rector of a large Anglican church in Oxford (St Aldates) and a pastor at an unaligned church in the USA. He has written more than 50 books and was a professor at Regent College, Vancouver. But none of this can capture his essence.
We head up to my study room at Wycliffe and chat about my own rather unconventional path to the priesthood. As I turn, he is beaming at me. He squeezes my arm.
"Ah, Steve, I see you are something of a rebel, like me," he says. "I grew up in a clergy household, I went to my father’s little country church, I sang in the choir – although there were only three people in it – and I sing like a raven. But when I went to school, I went to Clifton College and my friends and I did all kinds of wild things. We used to make gunpowder. It was three parts charcoal, two parts saltpetre and one part sulphur. We were running low on charcoal, so my friends and I decided to burn down some beach huts."
The smile broadens. "I was quite out of control and violent then, and my language was like a cesspit. But when I got converted, things began to change radically. All the same passion got poured into another pot."
And maybe that’s it. Green has always been happier away from the establishment. He’s always felt called to evangelism and mission and getting his hands a bit dirty, just like he did with that charcoal. And that endearingly provocative streak continues. Just last year, he wrote a spiky little book called Lies, Lies, Lies! (IVP) which tackled head-on the half-truths peddled by Christopher Hitchens, Dan Brown and others. "I’ve never quite been ready to be put out to grass," says Green. You get the feeling he won’t, for a while yet.
Tell us a bit about the early years.
I found daily school chapel a bit of a pain, but I began attending this underground meeting of about 40 boys in the cricket pavilion where we’d learn about the real Christ, the exciting Christ. It was in that pavilion that I gave my life to him.
I went into the army after I’d been to Oxford. On the first night all hell broke loose. Our barrack room was full of very miserable people who didn’t want to do national service. Many were in tears. Radio Luxembourg was blaring away, and I and a friend who was a Christian thought we’d better show the flag and so we knelt by our beds. I’m not even sure if we prayed.
Next day a bloke came over and said, "Hey, mate, can you help me? I’ve got wife trouble." I hadn’t even got a wife then, let alone wife trouble. And then it went on. The first night we got let out, I found the Salvation Army blowing their instruments but nobody preaching. So I said, "I’ll be your preacher." Then other people in the barrack room came to Christ. We had six or seven of them. It went on like that in the army. I managed to arrange the Garrison Theatre to host a Billy Graham rally! It was fantastic. A lot of soldiers came to faith.
Have you ever been tempted by high office?
I have been approached about being a bishop many times in this country and overseas, but it never happened. I’m glad, because it would have fettered me and played to my weaknesses and not my strengths – my strengths are leadership and taking initiative and blow the consequences. As a bishop, you have to have discretion and wisdom and play all sides equally.
But in any long life, there are bound to be things that could, and perhaps should, have been done differently. Do you have any regrets?
Yes, I do. When I was rector at St Aldates, here in Oxford, I think I went in too bald-headed. I tried to change things too much, too soon. Stupid things, really. I wanted people to come down to the front row to receive Communion – that was unnecessary. But I learned very quickly from that. I learned to be a bit more tactful.
Tell us about some of the battles you’ve been involved in.
Well, there was the day when I was hit with a bag of flour in my own church! I had invited a speaker whom the awkward brigade did not approve of, and the bag of flour, meant for her, hit me instead. All good for business!
Then there was John Robinson’s controversial ‘Christian’ book, Honest to God, that we had to confront head-on. I found out that Honest to God was being sold in Russia as an atheist book. So Jim Packer and a number of bishops and I attacked it. I piled in and wrote a book called Runaway World, which sold about half a million copies – it tried to face contemporary ideas, which was Robinson’s aim, but with orthodox Christianity. Robinson then wrote a book called But That I Can’t Believe! A marvellous title: I adapted it to But This I Can Believe and spoke all over the place on it. My aim was to remove wrong ideas as well as to proclaim New Testament truth.
Then, when a group of liberal theologians published a tendentious book, The Myth of God Incarnate, I assembled an equally distinguished group of orthodox writers who wrote and published The Truth of God Incarnate. We had to fight the clock, and the whole thing was conceived, written and published in six weeks – a publishing miracle by Hodder under Edward England. Incidentally, it outsold the other book five times over. I was rector at St Aldates at the time, and I challenged any one of the authors of the Myth book to come and debate me on the subject at a morning service. We’d set up dual pulpits and each have 20 minutes. None of them would come. Eventually one of them did, and he didn’t do very well at all, he was very nervous and people could not understand his message.
I have always been willing to challenge ideas and really engage with people’s world views. It seems to me that apologetics and evangelism go together. You need both if you are to win people today.
Have you ever felt despair? Did the controversies get you down?
No, I don’t think I have ever really despaired. You see, I haven’t had much hardship and suffering in my life, but I’m sure it’s coming. You can’t follow Jesus Christ the suffering saviour without having real hardship. I like to think that he’s the head of the body, and the head has gone through a thorn hedge and the body has to follow. Incidentally, I am very much against the ‘health and wealth’ gospel and that kind of thing. We need to be prepared for, and expect, suffering.
Are you a man somehow out of his time – from a more golden and innocent age? What about mission now, in our postmodern, pluralist and sceptical world? Do the old ways still work, or do we need something new?
The issue is that church people have lost confidence in evangelistic missions, not that they don’t work. There has been an enormous cultural change from modernism to postmodernism, but you can still have a highly credible apologetic in a postmodern world – it’s just a different one. One of our troubles is that a lot of our academic theologians have no interest in evangelism. I agree that perhaps the job used to be easier. There was a basic belief in creation and God and Jesus Christ. What we did was to challenge people with their need and point to Jesus Christ who is alive – and ask them to make a decision.
But now the apologetics scene is much harder. People don’t believe in God. They believe that Jesus is just a teacher – one of many, and no better than any of the others. He is just one of a rogues’ gallery of gurus. They do not believe in sin (everyone does their own thing) or judgement – that’s why they are so keen to believe that this life is all there is: they won’t be held to account. Resurrection is out. This change in the climate has panicked many Christians. Most preachers seem to have been frightened off from doing evangelism, except for some university missions. Or they rely on Alpha or Christianity Explored to do all their evangelism for them. Admirable, both of them, but we are called to do more than that.
Let me give you an example of how we can do evangelism day to day. I have been to a physio this morning – I have a hip problem. I said to her, "Your job must be very satisfying; you work with lots of wounded people and you see them changing, I have a job like that." She then said, "That’s fascinating. What do you do?" I told her, and that opened the door to a conversation about Christ. I said, "Do you have a faith? Do you go to church?" She said, "Actually, I’ve just started going and I’m doing a Christianity Explored course." I held out my hand and said, "Put it there!" We could then go on to chat about church and faith and her life and what she hoped for. We made a real connection and it gave me a chance to share my faith with her. Evangelism is not rocket science. Actually, if you are prepared to go for it, it’s like falling off a log. But we’ve got to meet people where they are at.
What makes a successful evangelistic mission?
The worst-selling book I ever wrote was called Forgotten Dynamite. It was about parish and university mission and how to go about it. There was no appetite out there for learning about parish missions because people weren’t doing it. So the book totally bombed. But missions do work.
You need a team – no prima donnas. Involve more than just your own church. Include all churches that are prepared to get behind the proclamation of New Testament Christianity. Proclaim that without fear or favour. Be bold and imaginative. Recognise the change of climate to postmodernism. Pay attention to the nature of the area – if it is a fish and chips sort of place, then make it a fish and chips mission. If it is more steak and wine, then add a different flavour.
I went on three missions this Easter and we had people coming to Christ in each. Perhaps in the headlong charge to newness – messy church, pioneer ministry and fresh expressions – we’ve lost something dear and simple, and that needs rediscovering. But we still have to be imaginative about how we present it.
Is there anything you have changed your mind about over the years?
I have changed my mind about women in leadership. I went to an all-boys school and grew up with traditional attitudes around me. But I then met some really fine women leaders and I re-examined the key Bible passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 and saw that they could carry a different interpretation. I want to see women leaders with a missionary cutting edge – the Church desperately need this. There are some magnificent women coming forward for ordination and I wouldn’t want to block them.
And what about today’s Christian leaders?
They need to have some cheek, to think outside the box, to bubble over with Jesus, to be totally relaxed ecclesiastically, and to work in a team. They need to exhibit, and to encourage, initiative. I am really encouraged by the people I meet here at Wycliffe Hall and at our Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. They come from all backgrounds and from around the world, and that is very refreshing.
I see people using their minds and determined to stand up for Jesus Christ. That really excites me. I love seeing my students, who are laymen and women studying apologetics, grow and use their minds. We need Christians who not only have a passion for Christ, but can think and be in the world, talking to people, getting beside them.
We want to get away from the sad fact that many evangelists don’t have much theology, while many academic theologians have no heart for evangelism. I am fortunate (almost an oddity!) because I am an academic with a heart for evangelism.
We need people who are outward-looking – we need Christians in society, non-clergy, who are determined, by their life and behaviour, to step up for Christ.
What discourages me is how shallow much of our modern Christianity is. I have been greatly helped by the charismatic movement, but it also has an awful lot of rubbish in it. The more you emphasise feelings, the less you tend to concentrate on truth, and in some parts of the charismatic movement, too many strange doctrines creep in which are garbage. I want to combine a cool head with a burning heart.
You have written about the growth of Christianity in Asia. Where is the future of Christianity, including the Anglican Communion?
The future is in the global South, in the two-thirds world. Not exclusively so, but that is where there is massive growth. Of course, there needs to be partnership. They know about evangelism, they know about sacrifice, and they know about passion. We must listen to them and learn from them. But we in the West have material and theological resources which could be a help to them. The challenge for the Anglican Communion, as it hovers on the edge of a decisive split, is whether it will be biblical and evangelistic, like the global South, or whether it will remain imprisoned in buildings, structures and scepticism, as has often been the case in the West.
It’s been a long life and a deeply fulfilled one. What about the next stage...do you ever think about death?
I am looking forward to being dead, but not to the process of getting there! I look forward to being with Jesus, but old age is difficult. I have a nagging sense that I’ve had a charmed life and that suffering is on the way.