Interview: Majoring on the majors

Sam Freney: Phillip, thanks for talking with me today. Part of the reason I wanted to ask you about your perspective on Chappo’s ministry is that I’m of the generation who largely missed him. I only heard one or two of his talks, and by the time I was at Moore College he had already left so he wasn’t reviewing our preaching—for which I’m somewhat thankful! For my (and my generation’s) benefit, why was Chappo so important?

Phillip Jensen: God gives different gifts to different people. The important thing is not the gifts we’re given, but what we do with them. Being a godly man, Chappo always used his gifts for the gospel, and always for other people. He could have used them for himself, but he never did. That was his godliness on display.

But when gifts are given, some people are given more than others, and Chappo was one who was given more gifts—gifts in the broad sense of the word. He just had a bigger sense of humour than most people, and a bigger personality. He would walk in a room and just take over. In fact, if he walked into this room now—well, apart from being shocked—our conversations would cease while he was here. But he did this with such fun and good grace that you were never offended. You would never say, “But Chappo, we’re talking here”. The way he dominated every room he was in made him an ideal itinerant evangelist: you simply couldn’t ignore him.

It was very hard to take offence at him, because he was funny. He was interesting, and more than that, he was interested in you. He had this knack of making you feel unique as he talked with you—it wasn’t intentional, it was just who he was. He was so good at this that nearly everybody thought they were Chappo’s best friend. For example, when he told his stories of life he included you in them. So rather than saying, “I’ve got a friend who said…” he would say, “Oh, as Dick Kernebone would say…” He would just include you in his friendships like this, and so years later when I finally met Dick I felt as if I already knew him, because I’d heard so many stories from Chappo.

Part of the giftedness of the man was therefore simply his personality. But one of the distinctive gifts he had was his very high intelligence—he was a very clever man. We would say he was under-educated for the brains he had. Instead of going to university—which he could have done, because of his pass in the leaving certificate—he went to not only the teacher’s college, but the manual arts teaching college. Given the brainpower of the man he could have been a surgeon, but he taught kids how to make teapot stands instead.

But because of his sheer brainpower, his mind never really rested. He was always learning; even in his retirement he was always making new discoveries, and loving finding out new things. This meant that he didn’t age—when men reach the stage at which they stop learning new things, they become old men. Chappo never did. He was constantly discovering new things in the Scriptures, and new ways in which one verse connected with other sections.

In fact because of his brains, he committed himself to being a teacher—
a task at which he was simply excellent. I don’t mean a teacher in the sense of being in the classroom, but much more broadly: he was always teaching, always explaining things. If you had a game of tennis with him he would tell you how to hold your racquet properly; he was just always teaching people all the time.

He analysed how people were doing things to correct how they did them, and he analysed himself constantly about how to become a better preacher. As an itinerant preacher he was a bad model of preaching to follow. He would preach the same sermon 20, 30, 40 times, and keep polishing and polishing it to make it better and better. He would tell the same jokes over and over again until he had the timing exactly right. That’s not much of a model for someone who has to preach to the same congregation every week.

However, he wasn’t a brilliant practitioner who then couldn’t explain that brilliance to others; he was an excellent coach. When he retired he worked with both SMBC and Moore College, analysing people’s sermons. He was famous for being able to put his finger on what you were doing wrong not only exegetically and theologically, but also in terms of what you were saying and your method of communication. So yes, you were lucky not to have gone through the experience, but on the other hand you were very unlucky, because Chappo was just so good at doing it.

My brother rang him up a couple of years ago and asked if he could send a couple of sermons for critique, so that he could keep improving and keep from going stale. Chappo was therefore telling Peter what to do, and what he was doing wrong. Chappo was an inherent and brilliant teacher; he just couldn’t stop himself.

SF: On his teaching and abundant brainpower: in his writing he’s got a real sharpness to his gospel presentation. He picks up on Jesus’ identity very clearly, and what it means to call him ‘Lord’—was that something particular to Chappo? Was he particularly good at it?

PJ: He certainly was good at it. I think that personality-wise it had to do with the family he came from: classic working-class, intelligent, uneducated, argumentative people. His father argued. John was raised arguing. His father was a railway worker, a strong unionist, a loving father, but argument and old Australian humour—teasing, pulling your leg—was just the way he raised Chappo. For example, his dad would go fishing with an old friend, and tell Chappo, “He was the first man to row a boat over the Blue Mountains”. So Chappo went off to show-and-tell time at school and told them about his father’s mate who rowed over the mountains. It’s important to understand this, because it was his family that taught him to be able to think, reason, argue, and, while not being cynical, not to be too gullible.

Surprisingly, he only spent one year at Moore College—he really was undercooked educationally at every point. One of the first times I met him I was at New College, having supper at Dudley Foord’s place. Dudley called half a dozen of us in to meet Chappo, and Bruce Smith dropped by to join in the argument and the fun. Now Bruce Smith, a lecturer at college, was also a larger-than-life personality, but he wasn’t larger than Chappo. As I walked away with Bruce he simply marvelled at Chappo, saying that he couldn’t work out how a man with so little opportunity to be educated could know and understand more than he who had spent so many years in study. Chappo could just see to the heart of theological and exegetical issues with unerring accuracy. He was so good at it, it was unnerving.

He was also never afraid of disagreement; he was totally happy with it, in fact, and totally happy to change his mind. I had a few real arguments with him: proper, stand-up arguments—not shouting, but real disagreements. For two years I would drive in to work with him, and we would argue in the car. The next day the argument would continue, but he would have changed sides—which was very disconcerting! I would say to him, “But yesterday, you said this and this”, and he would respond, “And I was wrong”. It just didn’t worry him. He was so passionate in his argument you would think that he would find new reasons to defend himself and never change, but he would recognize his error quickly and then move on. I found his capacity to disagree with himself quite challenging at times.

SF: On that ability to argue and fight, it seems in a couple of his books (A Sinner’s Guide to Holiness, A Foot in Two Worlds) he takes on charismatic theology, the idea of the victorious Christian life, and second-blessing teaching. Why were these so significant for him?

PJ: Because he was hurt. I’ve never really got to the bottom of what happened—Chappo always assumed I knew, but I didn’t. In the 1950s Geoff Bingham was ministering down at Holy Trinity Miller’s Point, and a large number of Chappo’s generation got really caught up with what Geoff was teaching. He taught them about a Christian life that was victorious over sin. It wasn’t tongue speaking, but it was this idea of victory and entire sanctification. It was all about Romans 6 and living a life free from bondage to sin. Chappo got caught up with it, as did many of his contemporaries. Many of them then went out on the mission field, including Geoff who went over to India. As it turned out Geoff himself realized his error: when he was in India he wrote back to them saying that he’d got it all wrong. Chappo had already worked out the problems: having ‘claimed victory’ three or four times he realized it was not all it was claimed to be.

So when the charismatic movement came Chappo knew what it was all about; he knew where it was coming from, and how it hurt and destroyed people’s lives. At the time when most of us were listening to the charismatics and trying to work out what they were saying and where it was coming from, Chappo knew what the theological substructure was. He saw that behind what the charismatics were saying was something very wrong and damaging. He’d seen so many of his friends hurt so he was very quick off the mark.

SF: I’m also told he was very active in church politics, in Armidale and in Sydney. Was that related?

PJ: Again, it was to do with his family. His father was a real Labor party man, who in his retirement would listen to the parliamentary broadcasts. He’d listen to the Labor speakers, but when the Liberal speakers got on he would turn the volume down, take the time, and turn it back up again when they were over. When asked how he knew they had nothing good to say, his father would simply reply “Well, they’re Liberal, aren’t they? Of course they don’t!” Passionate politics was therefore part of his breeding ground at home.

He was helped as a young man by Graham Delbridge, who later became Bishop of Gippsland. Back then he was head of the youth department when Chappo was at the end of his schooling and involved with many camping ministries. Graham was a very political man, and gave Chappo the vision of going to Armidale. He showed Chappo how to work within the system in order to change the system, rather than being a radical revolutionary who doesn’t end up doing anything. His upbringing was political, but the ecclesiastical circles in which he moved as a young man were also political.

He wasn’t just smart; he was good at church politics.

SF: So what kind of impact did he have in those political circles?

PJ: He ended up turning the whole diocese around.

He got on very well with the Bishop of Armidale, who was high church but was also a Labor supporter—I think he and Chappo were the only Labor supporters in the Diocese of Armidale. The bishop loved Chappo’s winsome personality. Chappo was brought in to the youth department (probably as a project for the bishop to reform and change him). But it meant that Chappo could keep bringing more and more Moore College men up to the diocese. This was the period when cultural Anglicanism was beginning to die—it’s thoroughly dead now, of course. It was still functioning in the 1950s, but the decline had started: fewer candidates were entering into ministry, fewer people came to church, and so on. In contrast, everything Chappo touched turned to gold. Young people were turning up, things were growing, and the bishop knew he was on to a winner. He kept giving Chappo more leeway, and invited more of the Moore College men Chappo recommended up to Armidale.

When the bishop retired in the 1960s and it came to the election of his successor, there seemed to be no real way in which the evangelicals could win. They were perhaps a third of the synod. Still, Chappo caucused them, held them together, and they went for a very good candidate named John Reimer. While not an out-and-out evangelical, Reimer was certainly a converted man, concerned for orthodox truth rather than tractarian practices. The high churchmen, however, wouldn’t have him so another election was called.

At this second election the evangelicals nominated Clive Kerle, who was a thoroughgoing Sydney evangelical. The main issue that faced the high churchmen in the diocese, however, was whether or not he would wear a cope in church processions and so forth.1 Kerle refused to, of course, but the churchmen of Armidale insisted that he should. In the end a layman said to the synod that not only did he not know what a cope was, but he was pretty sure no-one else did either, so what was the difference whether the bishop wore it or not? With that the vote shifted, and the evangelicals got 50% of the vote and installed an evangelical bishop—to their almost total shock and surprise.

The high churchmen of the chapter all insisted on wearing copes to the installation of the new bishop (who didn’t wear one), but then over the next four or five years they all resigned in protest. Every time one resigned he was replaced by an evangelical, and so the Diocese of Armidale was really turned around.

SF: I’ve always wondered how that happened!

PJ: It was John Chapman. He would always say it wasn’t him alone, but there’s no doubt who the men with him thought their leader was, and who they said held them together. There’s also no doubt who the rest of the national church blamed either. When he came to Sydney Marcus Loane said to him, “I’ve got enough problems here already, I don’t need you stirring up trouble!”

SF: In terms of his theological legacy, what issues that he taught on and fought hard about do you think we benefit from today? What do we need to keep fighting about?

PJ: He always majored on the majors. It was always Jesus and him crucified at the centre of Chappo’s preaching. This was assisted, to some extent, by being the diocesan evangelist—no-one can complain about an evangelist preaching about Jesus and him crucified—but he would have preached it anyway. That was a key part.

He modelled for us expositional and evangelistic preaching. So while Broughton Knox was teaching people that we had to expound the Scriptures, Chappo and Dudley Foord were out doing it. Broughton, whom I love dearly and who was a great contributor to my life, was not a very eloquent preacher. His exposition of the Scriptures was not something you could ever emulate: it was so idiosyncratic that you had to be Broughton to preach it. But he preached one sermon that greatly affected my generation. It was a funny sermon, as it was all caught in the title: ‘Prepare to preach properly or perish’. We certainly came away convicted that this was what we had to do.

But it was only when we saw and heard Chappo actually doing it that we could say, “Aha! That’s it!” In this way he was like John Stott. Stott was the first person Chappo saw doing this sort of faithful, close-to-the-text biblical exposition, but then Chappo did it for us in a very Australian way. Chappo had humour, which John Stott didn’t have; Chappo had illustrations, which John Stott didn’t have.

His commitment to the authority of the Bible was very profound. Last year (2011) he was very sick. My wife and I were out of town on holidays, so we rang our son to go to the hospital and see him. The second time he was there Chappo gave him a 15-minute lecture on how he needed to never lose confidence in the word of God, as he’d never be able to preach an effective sermon if he didn’t have that confidence. At that, our son rang us up and said, “There’s nothing wrong with Uncle John—he’s back on his old tune”. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t telling you something new, because the way he said it made it always worth listening to. For Chappo the authority of Scripture was always central, because it was the proper theological underpinning for expositional preaching, which was then the theological underpinning for proper evangelism.

It meant you had great confidence in Chappo—when you invited him out to speak you knew that when you brought your friends along to hear him they would hear the gospel clearly. I used to use him nearly every second year at the Katoomba conventions for this reason: people would be confident in bringing their young people to hear Chappo. It was never hit or miss with Chappo; the quality was always consistently high—predictable, but not in a boring sense.

Now yes, while he majored on these things, he did fight in controversies. In his early days, he fought against the churchmanship of the Diocese of Armidale. He fought the charismatic movement, and gave us great leadership in doing so. He fought against the different forms of liberalism that kept cropping up. In particular, he argued very strongly for the central place evangelism should have in the life of a Christian. So he strongly opposed the ideathat not all Christians have to be evangelists. Chappo argued that while we don’t all have the same gifts to do evangelism, we’re all equally committed to the doing of it. Evangelism is not an optional extra for some Christians; it’s what life is about. He always fought against institutional power; he never wanted the bishops to have too much sway. They were the main things he fought against, but the key thing about Chappo was that he just majored on the majors all the time.

He did this because he knew that if you lose the sense of hell and the sense of regeneration as being central, then you will stop preaching the gospel and you will start turning minor issues into major issues. Chappo just kept on making the gospel central.

SF: Thanks again for speaking to us. And thank God for Chappo!

  1. The cope is a ‘liturgical vestment’—a long, ceremonial cloak. In Roman Catholic tradition it is not normally worn during the mass (so it’s not tied quite as closely as some other vestments to the theology of the re-sacrifice of Christ); rather it’s more of a traditional processional garment. In the Anglo-Catholic part of the Anglican Church it’s an indicator of clerical status, and sometimes also associated with a Roman Catholic sacrificial priesthood understanding of the Lord’s Supper (despite a difference in Catholic use). In this context, therefore, the controversy in Armidale was whether the potential bishop would show his support for high-church priestly authority and status. —Ed.

7 thoughts on “Interview: Majoring on the majors

  1. Thanks for this interview and thanks Phillip for those insights,
    Two very different 2 bob thoughts,
    1 If it was true that Jesus was at the very heart of Chappo’s life and preaching, and i believe it was, so it was that love very central as well – he loved the God who loved him, passionately and at times tearfully as he reflected and spoke about the love of the Father and the of the Son. Therefore it was also true that his natural love of people was lifted higher by the presence of the Spirit who fruit is “Love, joy ….” I think people felt that John loved them, cared for them – this is one more reason he was so listened to. We could do worse that to focus even more clearly on love. 2Cor5:14
    2. Phillip mentioned a couple of times that Chappo was relatively under-educated especially compared to John’s powerful brain. True. John was also a great lover of MTC and SMBC. But I am wondering if that “lack” might be part of the reason he was so good and fresh.
    Spurgeon was another God given “freak” and he too was seriously under-educated – or were they. (Many others, including one of Syd best evangelical bishops only a few years back and DL Moody etc)
    * So a young Chappo almost certainly would NOT get through our net to ordination due to what seems like out high and pretty fixed standards. I think thats fair and it troubles me – don’t know about others
    We have lost other brilliant guys because they had specific learning disorders, and others who accidentally studied at the wrong world class evangelical college and wouldn’t do another few years at MTC. Working class men probably exclude themselves from considering Anglican ministry because we present as educated professionals.
    When i worked at a school for a few years one of the the best educators commented on another fine teacher that he thought the guy was so good because he had NOT been officially trained and so stayed natural and freer.
    It is at least possible that part of Chappo’s natural brilliance was because his mind was not shaped and changed by too long in the academy, he had to self teach.
    So that’s my wonder and worry as a lover of Chappo and of MTC …. most good things have unexpected and, worse, unexamined downsides. Maybe lack of seriously academic was part of his brilliance. Just maybe

    • Thanks Ian for your 2 x 2 bob thoughts! but I wonder whether we focus too much on ordination, and not enough on ministry. I have no formal theological qualifications, but have more than enough public and local church ministry to keep me busy, several times over. There are other men I know, again with no college education, but obvious God-given skills, who serve on ministry teams in full-time capacities. I would have loved to study at College, but never had the opportunity and I feel as if I have missed out. So I will encourage young men and women to get to College if they can (and that includes dozens of working-class guys from our time at Liverpool) because it will make their ministry easier. But if they can’t, just get on and do ministry anyway! There’s more than one way to skin a cat….

  2. Hi Ian
    We would like to suggest that it is not the self-made self-taught image of John that is to be commended but rather ‘who’ he learned. As a saved sinner, painfully aware of his shortcomings, he revelled in the life-giving grace of his Lord and Saviour. He could get out of bed every morning because he knew he was an undeserving, yet blessed, child of God.
    He lived by the scriptures – the words of his heavenly Father and his Lord, Jesus Christ. He fed on that word, he sought to live and die by that word. The very gospel was on his lips and directing of his life’s decisions.

    Whether a person studies the word of God at a College or not, a person still has to tremble before that word, live by that word and die by that word, for that ‘word’ is the very words of God. He confessed Christ because he learned well.

    Let’s not romanticise or crucify ways of learning – for what really matters is that we grow in love with knowledge and discernment. For it is the Spirit who gives wisdom and insight. Anyone learning anywhere must always be sober-minded and watchful, taking care to hear the voice of God in his word. Anyone studying will do this if they have the mind of Christ.

    To study at Moore College is a privilege and a time to think deeply – it’s not a brainwashing camp. In understanding be men!


    PS Why was John so passionate about full-time theological education in such a place as Moore College?

    BTW John did have a ThL.

  3. From my lay armchair I have often had similar thoughts about the “ministry” being reserved for those with good academic achievement and/or attendance at prescribed institutions. Where possible of course high academic standards should be welcomed but it does seem that we may lose (or never gain) good men because standards are too uniformly applied. A man can be a great preacher and pastor without knowing about conditional clauses and the optative mood in Greek.

    On the other hand, for the sake of the gospel and the preservation of conservative evangelical ministry I understand why high academic standards are desirable in the great majority of cases.

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