It was with a mixture of sorrow and joy that I heard a few minutes ago about the death of Mark Ashton, the vicar of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge.
Sorrow, because there is always sorrow in death, in the suffering of sickness and the separation from loved ones. Joy, because, as I am always reminded by the words of 1 Thessalonians 4:13, we are not to “grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.”
Mark was definitely one of those who, faced with his terminal diagnosis, could say with the Apostle Paul, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23).
My first recollections of Mark were at a meeting back in the early seventies. I think this was the one where I had my ‘Bateman’ moment, as “The evangelical who didn’t know where All Soul’s church was.” (Well, I just didn’t — there’s a first time for everything!)
Mark was, then and later, a lot of things I wasn’t — big, loud, confident, very much of the ‘public school’ Iwerne Camp model (though I’ve no idea whether he actually went to public school or saw the inside of a Iwerne Camp).
To be honest, I found him a bit intimidating. I could also find him a bit irritating. He didn’t seem to have much time for the ‘sophistications’ of church politics or wider strategy.
Mark was a ‘simple preacher’ and a gospel man through and through — which is not a bad thing, but could sometimes be frustrating. I remember at a clergy conference some years ago suggesting that evangelicals ought to involve themselves strategically in diocesan synods, etc. “Yes brother,” he replied, “Preach the gospel, just preach the gospel.” (Rarely can a ‘yes’ have had quite the same meaning of its precise opposite!)
Well, I still think he could have had a different vision at this point, but his work at St Andrew’s produced one of those flag-ship congregations which have been a feature of the English evangelical Anglican tradition at its best.
Mark would undoubtedly have attributed it all to the grace of God. And of course he was right. But as 2 Timothy 2:20-21 reminds us,
... in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonourable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.
Mark was, without doubt, “a vessel for honourable use”. He has left us an example to follow, and a legacy in which to rejoice.
Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:8)
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