It would be easy to mistake John and Eleanor Mumford for quintessentially Anglican church leaders. John is one of those unerringly charming British types ? intelligent, witty; a true conversationalist. Eleanor exudes warmth and approachability; she is an intellectual match for her other half, but you would also rather like her to give you a big hug.
But the Mumfords’ story is not one of traditional Church of England leadership. Over the past 25 years the couple took risk after risk ? founding and growing the Vineyard church movement in the UK and beyond. Born into a committed Christian family, John went to train for ordination in his 20s, meeting Eleanor while at theological college. It never crossed his mind to consider another denomination. ‘I’d grown up in the Church of England. I was christened in it, I was confirmed, ordained and we were married in it,’ he says. Training as a curate under the charismatic leader John Collins, John and Eleanor’s theological outlook began to shift from being deeply conservative. ‘I thought I would just endure the charismatic nonsense…we even thought we might be able to correct them,’ John says. Having begun to engage with a more charismatic form of spirituality, the Mumfords went on to lead St Michael’s, Chester Square, London.
And then along came John Wimber. Or, more strictly, John Mumford went to find him. It was 1982, and he planned to use a two-week period of study leave to attend a conference in the US. Just before he left the UK, David Watson, a fellow church leader, advised him: ‘Whatever you do, don’t come back from America until you’ve met Wimber.’ So, when the conference ended, John took a plane to LAX in order to find Wimber, then leader of the Anaheim Vineyard.
Beforehand, John had written to Wimber, telling him of his intention to visit. ‘I looked up an address ? in those days there was no email, no Twitter ? and I wrote to him: “Dear Mr Wimber, Can I come and visit you, because David Watson has said I should?”’ John says.
Three days after making his way to Anaheim, John was invited to have lunch with Wimber. ‘This was the first time I’d ever met him, so as I walked along the corridor I was spouting away like an Englishman, “I’m so sorry, I did actually write to you and I violated my own values of hospitality, because number one, you never invite yourself and number two, you certainly don’t turn up if you have invited yourself.” Wimber said, “Relax. We did get your letter and we said to ourselves at the time: We think it’s the Lord and if the guy turns up we’ll know it’s the Lord.” I spent about a week there being a fly on the wall with this chap who formed the Vineyard.’
Eleanor met Wimber a year later, and was also profoundly influenced and shaped by his then-radical theology of the Holy Spirit, as well as practice of church and prayer. The Mumfords went on to spend a longer period with Wimber in Anaheim, watching and learning from him, which was when they began to sense a call to plant a Vineyard church in the UK. By their own admission this was not an idea that was well-received ? Wimber himself was decidedly unsure about it, and friends and colleagues in the Anglican Church were keen not to lose such dedicated and gifted leaders from the denomination. Even John and Eleanor were essentially against the idea ? but this is a couple who would not and could not ignore the voice of God.
To give up your main source of income, housing and status as a church leader in order to plant a church in your front room cannot be easy, but in 1987 ? when church planting was still an alien concept to many in the UK ? that is what the Mumfords did. They had two young boys and considerable disapproval to deal with; yet when I ask them what this was like, I hear realism about the hardships, but not even a hint of a complaint.
When Eleanor recently spoke at the HTB leadership conference to a 5,000-strong crowd in London’s Royal Albert Hall, Rev Nicky Gumbel introduced her as the ‘mother of two famous sons’. It’s an apt title: Dr James Mumford is senior researcher at the Centre for Social Justice; watch this space for news on his upcoming book on the ethics of life before birth. And, yes, Marcus isthe lead singer of award-winning folk rock band Mumford and Sons (a subject deemed totally off limits for this interview).
I spoke to John and Eleanor shortly after the HTB Leadership Conference, about which they bubble over with positivity; rejoicing in how the event united Christians who had come from across the globe and from an equally diverse array of church backgrounds. Eleanor was the only woman to give a main stage address. By the end of her preaching, the picture was not your average cross section of Royal Albert Hall goingson ? the crowd were standing, laying hands on one another and praying for healing by the power of the Holy Spirit. But for these two, that’s nothing out of the ordinary.
I initially responded to the call of God to plant a church by sticking my fingers in my ears and going “la, la, la, la, la”
You work very much together as a husband and wife team in ministry. Tell me about that.
John: We’ve always assumed what we were modelled by John and Diana Collins, who I trained under as a curate. It has never been an issue of gender; it probably comes as much from our theology of marriage as it does our theology of ministry, in that we believe we are one. When you work as a couple you play to one another’s strengths and complement one another. Eleanor has always been a very good speaker; she’s a better preacher than I am. I can get up on my feet and talk and eventually people will grunt, whereas she is more an exalter in terms of preaching.
What is the key to your marriage’s strength?
Ele: When John and I were first married we thought honestly that our first priority was to the Lord, our second was to the ministry and our third priority was to family. Then a wonderful guy called Angus Hunter came from South Africa and worked with John and I under John Collins. He said, ‘I have to be clear about the priorities in my life. God comes first, my family comes second and my ministry comes third.’ John and I said, ‘Oh dear, isn’t that pathetic? It’s all the wrong way round.’ And then we were so convicted and realised that he was absolutely right. So we repented of what we had previously said. Now, for us, the Lord comes first, our family commitment comes next, and after that our ministry comes. We’ve always held to that.
John: We are each other’s best friends and we talk together endlessly. John Collins also taught us to be rigorous about having days off. I remember early on, I’d booked up something for my day off and he got very stern with me and made me rearrange it for another day. We’ve stuck to that and it’s kept us sane. He taught us that we are not indispensable, or indeed indestructible.
Shall we talk a bit about Wimber? What did you see going on when you went to Anaheim Vineyard?
John: To start with, frankly, I was petrified that I’d stumbled across a cult. I went to one of their small groups ? just imagine me, I didn’t know California, it was blazing hot and there I was with suit and tie, rolled umbrella and briefcase because I didn’t know any better. I thought that the worship was endless ? all of 20 minutes. I was used to doing two minutes of worship; half a hymn, perhaps. But it was beautiful and riveting because of the intimacy and the engagement that came through. They also prayed for people ? ordinary people prayed; this wasn’t the clergy doing anything. Remember the Reformation? Martin Luther’s great cry was the priesthood of all believers. I hadn’t previously seen it so well developed; ordinary people doing ministry as opposed to the experts up the front doing it, as we were trained to. The Holy Spirit was very active and people were reacting to the Spirit of God in a whole variety of different ways. None was right or wrong; I had just never seen that before.
Ele: I met Wimber when he first came to London. He expounded the scriptures, which we loved, and then he just had, it seemed, access to information about any of us without any way of knowing it. He would give little snippets of information that the Lord was obviously giving him about physical conditions, and said he would love to pray for them. It was all done very graciously, sensitively, but very confidently. He taught us how to pray for the sick. We loved what we saw; Wimber was engaging, winsome, biblical and humane. It was an attractive way to minister.
You planted the first Vineyard church in the UK. How did that happen?
John: Certainly to my discomfort ? intense discomfort ? it felt like the Lord was directing us to the Vineyard. We loved those we met there as friends, but to actually join the limited fringe ? that was never part of the game plan. Do you remember that Jim Carrey film, Dumb and Dumber? When he was told something that he didn’t want to hear he would stick his fingers in both his ears and then go ‘la, la, la, la, la’? That was how I initially responded to the call of God to plant a church.
People have sometimes asked us, ‘Were you disillusioned or angry with the Church of England? Did you stomp out over some theological issue like bishops or baptism?’ The answer is: absolutely not. In one sense it was never leaving anything, because we are all part of the Body of Christ. It was like transferring, but I understand it’s not quite as simple as that.
The very first time we thought God had spoken to us about planting, I prayed and fasted, put on a suit and tie, brushed my teeth, combed my hair, took a deep breath, went and saw Wimber and said, ‘I think God has called me to be part of the Vineyard.’ He just looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Well, I don’t.’ Talk about falling flat on your face. That process probably went on for about a year.
Ele: There were 33 occasions where the Lord, we felt, specifically spoke to us through the scriptures, words, friends, strangers and pictures, confirming that this was what we should do. We kept a record of whenwe felt that he spoke to us.
When people heard that we were starting something, they would write to Wimber and say, ‘We understand you are planting a church in the UK. We’d love to be a part of it.’ He would write back and say, ‘Yes, it is true. We have started something with John and Eleanor Mumford, but we’re not at all sure it’s the Lord and we’re really not at all sure it’s going to work, lots of love from John.’ Then he would copy us in on it, so we had a sheath of letters that came regularly from him. In a funny way, we used to love him for it; it was such integrity, so honest.
What was it like when you planted the church in 1987?
Ele: God gave us clear instructions. The first one was that you ‘do not defend yourselves’, which was quite interesting as it said to me that we might have reason to. The second thing he said was, ‘I don’t want you to recruit anybody’; in other words, you can go to people who don’t know anything about Jesus and you can invite them to come, but you are not to go to any of your Christian friends and any other churches and say, ‘Hey, cheeky little new thing going on down here, come and join us.’ Thirdly, he said, ‘You plant a church that will plant other churches.’ Finally he said to us, ‘If you do those things, I will grow the church.’
God, like he said, grew the church. He sent people to us. We began to build a little group, and then a second, and then a third, and within six months we had 50 people.
What do you see the Spirit doing in the UK at the moment?
John: One thing is unity ? and it’s at the level of the heart. It’s not particularly visible, but it’s happening among the leaders meeting together. I also see the Spirit prompting a new emphasis offering the good news of Jesus to those who wouldn’t necessarily have come across it. I’ve noticed that there is much more of a sense of going to people rather than waiting for them to come to our building, the Alpha course is classic for that, and lots of Vineyard churches use the Alpha course as it’s a brilliant tool.
What is your hope for the future of the Church in this country?
Ele: John and I share a sense of optimism and excitement. I don’t think there is a time ? looking at Church history ? that I would rather have been alive than now. There are huge openings and possibilities. The darker the world gets, the brighter the gospel shines, so my ambition for all the churches and certainly for the Vineyard is just more. I want more churches, I want more leaders to train ? which we love to do ? I want more ministry to the poor, more praying in the streets; I want to see more souls saved, more bodies healed, more broken-hearted people put together, more marriages restored, more children. I think we just long for more of the kingdom and that God would use the Church.
It was God’s intention that through the Church the wonderful wisdom of God would be made known, and I would go to the stake for that truth. So we’re optimistic, we’re hopeful, we’re excited; we love what we do. It’s exhausting and exhilarating, but I wouldn’t be doing anything else.