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A Tribute to John Cheeseman (1950-2017)

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Posted by Marc Lloyd, 25 Apr 2017

Marc Lloyd pays tribute to former Council member of Church Society, John Cheeseman, who died earlier this month.

John read Classics at Oxford and then trained for ordination at a relatively young age. He commented that he had a feeling all might go well at his Bishop’s Advisory Panel conference when the Senior Selector’s first words to him were, “Pass the salt, John, one Oriel Man to another.”

Whilst an undergraduate, John had written The Grace of God in the Gospel (Banner of Truth Trust, 1972) with fellow Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union officers Philip Gardner, Michael Sadgrove and Tom Wright, who were concerned that a man-centred gospel was being presented to the University. The book was revised by John and re-issued by the Trust in 1999 as Saving Grace in John’s name alone. John argued that: “Surely the great need of the hour is to return to the God-centred truths of the gospel and to gain renewed confidence in our Protestant and Reformed heritage.”

John was grateful for his training at Trinity College, Bristol in the glory days of Jim Packer and Alec Motyer but as John’s website puts it, “he always says that the best thing he gained from theological college was his wife Joy who was training to be a church pastoral worker.”

John was a curate at St Nick’s, Sevenoaks and served subsequently at St. John’s, Egham where he was also a chaplain at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He then became Vicar of Christ Church, Leyton in East London (1982-90) and later Vicar of St. James, Westgate-on-Sea in Kent (1990-2001).

I first got to know John soon after Bishop Wallace Benn had persuaded him to became Vicar of Holy Trinity, Eastbourne (2001-10). I was a young Ministry Apprentice in a church in Hastings and John generously gave of his time to act as a mentor and sounding-board outside the parish. He was unfailingly kind and sympathetic, listening patiently to me and taking a real interest in how things were going. He was able to give me theological and practical pointers and book recommendations, and went to his files for notes on various topics which came up in our conversations, on which I was grateful for his wisdom.

John’s beloved cats were often included in chats in his study. I recall “Portia” as a particular favourite, and latterly there was a highly prized “Bentley” in the Cheeseman household, I understand.

After theological college, I returned to serve my curacy under John. He could not have been an easier training incumbent to work for. He had a relaxed and friendly style and, looking back, he seems to have been remarkably indulgent of my foibles and passions.

John was thoroughly sound. He is one of the few contemporary Anglicans to have been published by The Banner of Truth, after all. He always remained committed to a Reformed understanding of the faith and to the doctrines of grace because of his fidelity not to a system, but to the consistent truth of Scripture. On the Church Society blog, John gave a brief defence of the bondage of the human will here.

And explained the Bible’s teaching on election and predestination here, and here.

John was an encourager, a caring and diligent pastor who was always interested in people. In this he and his wife, Joy, were very much a team and he valued her counsel highly.

There was no pomposity or pretention about John. He was highly intelligent yet wore his considerable learning lightly. He had a real sense of fun and was no dusty academic. With his transparent humility, good humour and warmth, he was down to earth and able to relate to all sorts of people. During my time at Holy Trinity a member of the congregation with Downs’ Syndrome was especially close to John and they enjoyed sharing their love of Arsenal FC together.
John saw himself first and foremost as a preacher. He spoke vividly with an energy and passion which he thought were sometimes lacking in contemporary preaching. John was concerned that sermons should have a message and punch, not merely be exegetical notes or worthy but boring lectures. He stressed the importance of the sermon having one main theme, an overall point which would impact the listener. His preaching was clear and logical, engaging and comprehensible. He would often anticipate and respond to possible objections: “But you might say to me, ‘Come off it, Vicar….’” Like the Puritans whom John so admired, he stressed the importance of practical application. He valued church history and biography as helpful in earthing the truth of Scripture in everyday life. He sought to preach with variety and rejected a kind of Old Testament preaching which always finished with a rather predictable connection to Christ as its fulfilment. A flavour of John’s pulpit emphases is given in his Banner of Truth booklet, The Priority of Preaching (2006) and in his 1999 Churchman article. which contain useful practical advice.

Some of John’s sermons were adapted for publication as Elijah: Man of fire, Man of faith (2011) and Elisha: Man of mission, Man of miracles (2015) in the Day One People in the Bible Series.

John had a great sense of integrity and what he preached in public he sought to live out consistently in private. He was determined to stand for the truths of Scripture, even when it cost. But although valiant in contending for the faith, he also had an irenic spirit and did not court controversy for the sake of it.

John claimed that leadership and strategy were not his particular strengths. For the final phase of his ministry, he was pleased to be able to give up running the PCC and to concentrate on an itinerant ministry, although this was certainly not retirement.

John’s accommodation to the 20th Century was slight. During his years at Holy Trinity the church office would be printing his emails and responding to them on the basis of his scribbles in the margins, though later he did get online.

Although in some ways John might have seemed conventional and traditional (he would often be the only person present in a suit or tie), he had a surprisingly colourful dress-sense at times. One young man whom John encouraged in to the ministry commented that John was exemplary in almost everything except his bold combinations of jacket and shirt.

My lack of grasp of cricket disappointed John, though if memory serves me correctly, he managed to convince me that one should always choose to bat first. Now he has left the crease to return to the pavilion, he will be sadly missed.

John’s funeral is at St James Church, Westgate and Garlinge. This is on the Canterbury Road, CT9 5JU. The service is at 1pm on Thursday 4th May, followed by his burial. There will be light refreshments in the church centre straight after the service. John has requested people wear bright colours!

Marc Lloyd is the Rector of Warbleton, Bodle Street Green & Dallington, and Rural Dean of Dallington.

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