Following his retirement from Sheppey Evangelical Church, Joe Gregory was delighted and honoured to be appointed as The Connexion’s President. Below is an opportunity to read about his fascinating account of his journey from boyhood to Pastor.
A Time for Everything
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot. Ecclesiastes 3:1-2
Firstly, I’d like to say that no one was more surprised than I at being asked to serve as President for the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, especially at the 200th Annual Conference! Now working in this prestigious new role, I thought that it would be good to provide some autobiographical detail with my first ever article.
Growing up I was raised as a Catholic by my Irish parents in Harlow in Essex. It’s changed a lot now, but believe it or not Harlow was a good place to grow up in the 1960s. There were lots of green spaces and cycle paths linking different parts of the town. I remember growing up spending hours running around with my friends, and later spending the summer holidays playing football all day at the field which was only five minutes walk away.
Even as a youngster I always believed that there was a Creator God, that everyone is here for a purpose. I also believed that we had a soul which would continue after we died, I could not accept that everything about me would die along with my earthly body.
My best friend and I learned to read very quickly at Primary School and we found ourselves volunteering (or was that being conscripted!) to read the Scriptures at Mass each Sunday. It was quite a large church, a couple of hundred people or so, and Gerard and I would get dressed up in our cassock and surplice feeling special, having the best seat in the house, serving as altar boys each week.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but my father had a problem with alcohol, which was why my mum had to do several cleaning jobs to help put food on the table. My dad’s abuse of my mum got worse and I retreated into the world of rock music. I became introverted and in the early to mid-seventies lived for the next Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or Bob Dylan album to come out. Needless to say, I stopped going to Mass each Sunday at that time.
Unsurprisingly, I also struggled with Secondary School. At Primary School I was one of the top pupils, then at the Catholic Comprehensive I attended I found that there were loads of people with more ability than me. In addition to this I couldn’t concentrate on doing this newly introduced thing called homework. I considered it an affront and a waste of time, when I could be listening to Stairway to Heaven on the headphones. This would also help me to block out the noise of my father shouting at my mother downstairs.
Eventually my father left home, and I remember my mum and I celebrating with a bottle of sherry that night! I think we were most of the way through the bottle, when I persuaded her to pay for us to go to the Black Sabbath concert taking place at Hammersmith Odeon the next evening. It was great, and she loved it too!
Teacher Training College
Despite my failure at A-levels I was able to enrol at a Teacher Training College, just down the road from High Leigh Conference Centre, at Balls Park College in Hertford. Feeling euphoric from seeing two incredible Led Zeppelin concerts at Earl’s Court and then Pink Floyd at Knebworth, I was ready for a fresh start in my life. I was lucky, 1975 was the final year in which one could enrol at Teacher Training College without A-levels. Of course, I can see now that luck had nothing to do with it. Now I look back and see that Jesus was coming for me!
A New Beginning
I arrived at Balls Park Teacher Training College in September 1975 ready for a fresh start. It was a small college, with almost a family feel to the place, where everybody knew everybody else.
I remember being interviewed by the Principal, Paul Sangster, son of the great 20th Century Methodist, Dr W E Sangster, for a place at the college. I didn't know who he was at the time, but he immediately put me at ease, and although he was searching in his questioning, there was something Godly about him.
The social life at Balls Park was good, I grew in confidence and had a great circle of friends.
My Irish-Catholic upbringing had left me with a sense of God as a being who was distant. He had created an amazing world and universe but was generally aloof from everything that went on.
In late October 1976 the Christian Union organised a visit from Youth With A Mission, YWAM. There was a promise of fireworks and hot drinks, so I went along. The fireworks were brilliant, but the words of the speaker lit a fire in my heart as well. She told us about Jesus, how He came to live on earth to provide us an example of how to live with compassion and justice. She told us how Jesus died in order to reconnect us with our Father in Heaven. Shockingly, God wasn't this distant figure who created the Universe, He was a good Father who wanted to be involved in a personal way in our daily lives. After Jesus conquered death on the Cross, He sent His Holy Spirit to be with all those who believed.
I remember crying in response to all this and I then prayed with someone, and my life was forever changed. I had a Father in Heaven who loved me with all my fears and imperfections.
A Second Chance and Renewal
I moved to the Isle of Sheppey in 1979 to take up a teaching post in a middle school and started attending a local Baptist church. There would be many challenges in the coming years. My first marriage came to an end and that was a particularly difficult time. I remember lonely hours spent in a cold damp bedsit in Sheerness questioning God's plan.
Then He sent a student to Danley Middle School. Elizabeth Russell wanted to help out on an Activity Week. I was organising a week in France, and I duly snapped her up as an extra member of staff. We had an instant connection.
I remember Elizabeth's parents agreeing to let me tag along with them (and Elizabeth!) for the first ever New Wine week down in Somerset. It was an amazing time of worship and teaching and an opportunity to listen to God in a spirit-filled environment, it was as if He was saying, "See, trust in my plan. I am the God of the second chance".
We were married a year later in July 1990, and I feel truly blessed having had her in my life for the last 34 years.
Elizabeth and I started attending Sheppey Evangelical Church in September 1990, and we have been there ever since.
The Salvation Army got in touch with me asking if I knew a Thomas Gregory. Apparently he was my father and living on the Isle of Man. I really struggled about how to respond because of the way he had treated my mother while I was growing up. Whenever I thought about him, I would be filled with anger and bitterness.
However, Jesus taught us to forgive. If I was to be serious about my revived faith as a disciple of Jesus I should agree to be contacted by my father and see what happened.
I then discovered that he was being treated for liver cancer in Liverpool hospital. I went to visit in the school summer holiday and Elizabeth came with me to offer support.
A short while later my father was taken into a hospice on the Isle of Man. I travelled across the Irish Sea to visit him in the October half-term. I took along New Wine worship tapes, and I was able to pray with him. He came to accept that Jesus loved him and enjoyed the worship songs which gave him comfort at night in the weeks ahead. He died on Christmas Eve.
I truly believe that if I hadn't been able to forgive him, I would have been left bitter and resentful. Forgiveness is good for the mind and the soul. Jesus knew what he was talking about!
I spent nearly thirty years as a primary school teacher and then fifteen years in ministry at Sheppey Evangelical Church. I retired last September and as I reflect, I can see that God is sovereign and has a plan for our lives and a plan for His church.
In September 1979 in my very first teaching class, was an 11-year-old boy called Trevor Jones. Over the years we became good friends. He got to know Jesus in a powerful way as a teenager, and in the time since we have supported one another and prayed with one another.
It's awesome that he has now taken on the role of Pastor at Sheppey. I look forward to seeing what happens next.