MR. KENNETH HOWARD PASTOR OF UNION CHAPEL, BETHERSDEN
A personal tribute to, and reflection on, his final pastorate
Union Chapel is a longstanding Particular Baptist Church to be found in the attractive village of Bethersden, which is situated on the eastern edge of the Weald of Kent. To this country fellowship Mr. Howard* was called to undertake his final and longest pastorate
– lasting from 1 October 1980 until 30 June 1989, when he retired.
Bethersden has had a Calvinistic Baptist witness intermittently since the days when Oliver Cromwell’s troops were stationed in the village. The present Church was formed in 1809 and has from that day been a staunch adherent to the doctrines of grace. Under God, it has been most patterned and shaped this century by the 54 pastoral years of the greatly-used ministry and under-shepherding of its longest-serving Pastor, Herbert Dawson, during whose time in the 50’s and 60’s the Chapel was regularly full to overflowing. Mr. Howard was his successor, after a lengthy interregnum of some 11 years.
The bare facts of his time at Bethersden are that he served as Pastor for just under 9 years, during which time 2 members were added by baptism and 7 by transfer, including his wife and himself. In August 1983 he suffered a major heart-attack and for a while his life hung in the balance. He resumed preaching at Bethersden on 29 January 1984. His ministerial labours were interrupted for a further significant period during late 1985/86. Although, due to the seriousness of his heart condition, he was of necessity limited in his pastoral duties outside the pulpit from the mid-80’s onwards, from 1986 he was able to continue a regular pulpit ministry until his retirement in 1989, worn out in the Master’s service.
These facts in themselves convey nothing of the significance of his stay at Bethersden and the considerable effect his pastorate has had on the fellowship at Union Chapel. His imprint and legacy are still with us today. He will, I believe, be remembered chiefly at Bethersden for the following marked features of his gracious presence and labours amongst us.
(a) His call to Bethersden
His association with Union Chapel commenced one memorable week evening in February 1974, when he preached a never-to-be-forgotten sermon from Psalm 1.3. He himself singled out that evening as a very sacred and special occasion to him, when he was particularly drawn heavenward and felt the Lord “taking over” as he preached. From that time he came ever more frequently to Bethersden and was eventually asked to the Pastorate – an invitation he initially felt unable to accept due to godly fear allied perhaps to his innate caution.
On the invitation being re-issued the following year the Lord wonderfully appeared for him in clearing up all the questions surrounding the matter. He was highly dubious of those who so readily laid claim to “a word from the Lord”. It was therefore all the more real and sweet to him to have the Lord so clearly speak and apply the word four times, “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Numbers 6.24-26. In the strength of that he came to Union Chapel. It is a poignant fact that it was from those very same words that he preached his final sermon on the Lord’s Day morning at Bethersden on the last Sunday in June 1989.
Meanwhile as the Church waited for their new Pastor to arrive in October 1980 it was faced with the problem of accommodation for him and his wife Margaret. Venturing in faith on the Lord, a decision was taken to build a Chapel Manse – no cheap option to contemplate in the centre of a beautiful and highly-sought after Wealden village! The Lord wonderfully appeared in terms of Finance, land, and, supremely, in giving the friends at Chapel “a mind for the work,” so that in three months the Manse was completed.
(b) His preaching
To listen to Mr. Howard preaching was to hear a master expositor of the Word. It was for the expository style of ministry that he will perhaps be chiefly remembered at Bethersden. One friend described the experience of listening to his consecutive exposition of Revelation Chapter 1 as being “introduced to a whole new world of preaching and to see the Bible as I have never seen it before”. Hearing him was, from time to time, to be reminded of and be in agreement with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ testimony, “Kenneth Howard is the finest expositor in England”. Though no clone of the doctor’s, he was, in style and in the way he approached a text, very similar.
His ministry was multi-facetted at Bethersden, but had at its core, consecutive exposition. For example he preached a series on John 17, The Lord’s Prayer, (or a Directory for Prayer, as he thought it more correctly labelled!), the Ten Commandments, letters to the Seven Churches, and 1 Peter, chapters 1 and 2. He also preached a lengthy series on “the things most surely believed amongst us” – an exposition of Systematic Theology.
Many at Bethersden will always be grateful to God for his exposition, and the way he unfolded the Scriptures to them. A belief in the value of teaching in the ministry is part of “those things that remain at Union Chapel” and is a direct consequence of Mr. Howard’s pastorate.
In his ministry at Bethersden he was concerned that the Church should be “built up in our (i.e. Apostolic) most holy faith”. To this end there was a significant doctrinal emphasis in his preaching. His ministry also stressed the importance of the mind being exercised by believers whilst listening to a sermon, as well as the heart being touched. He was devoted to teaching believers to approach and understand the Bible in an expository and balanced way. To this end tie commenced a Bible Study where the participants under his ‘tutorship” studied Mark’s Gospel.
The abiding impression is of a man who was never more at home than in the pulpit. To preach was his great aim and everything was subservient to that great calling and privilege.
(c) His labours outside the pulpit
Chief among these was his research into the history of the Baptist witness at Bethersden – a study which took him back into the 1600’s and the unearthing of long-forgotten material. He eventually published his studies in a book entitled “Bethersden Baptist Beginnings” which chronicles the church’s history up to 1913. This book not only illustrates his genius for historical interpretation but also exemplifies his insistence on complete accuracy – a marked feature of his character. He abhorred sloppy descriptions of any situation, whether verbal or written! You didn’t just guess and hope with him!
His sense and love of history showed itself time and time again at Bethersden. His aim was that this would be of spiritual benefit to the flock. His concern was that the church would know her historic doctrinal roots and not become detached from those godly foundations. So, for example, at a Church Meeting on 5 July 1984 (the 175th Anniversary of the Church) he read the original 1809 ‘Declaration and Resolution” of the Church which was – in his words – “evangelical and free grace” in its content. He then from the chair moved that the Church should reaffirm its commitment and loyalty to the Declaration and Resolution, both as to its letter and spirit – a call which was answered unanimously.
He was also concerned that the fellowship should benefit from its Reformed heritage as a whole, both past and present. He therefore updated and re-formed the Church library, adding to it many of the Puritan classics with other historical, doctrinal and practical free grace publications. In line with this approach he introduced the Christian Hymns hymnal at Bethersden as an addition to the hymnbook then in use, in order to enhance the richness of the hymnology that the Church could draw from in its public worship. He also drew up a short Statement of Faith to summarise the Church’s historic doctrinal position, to be used especially for the benefit of new converts. With him, to look back into the past was in order to improve the present.
He had a concern that the Church should become an effective witness to the village. In his own quiet way he sought to become acquainted with folk in the village, mainly through his daily walk around Bethersden. He was greatly assisted in his efforts to reach out to them by his wife Margaret, and her many deeds of practical kindness to people in the village as well as by her verbal testimony to them.
(d) His prayers
He was immensely gifted in prayer. Often his prayers were a sermon in themselves through the manner and terminology of his approach to a living God, and the way in which requests were made of Him. In terms of spiritual food his prayers were at times rich in nourishment to the people of God. On a personal level I can remember most vividly coming to preach at Bethersden on a Lord’s Day in 1985 and finding him in the minister’s vestry with his deacons prior to the service. He prayed and his prayer was such that I cannot describe the sense of awe and sacred privilege that engulfed me as the Holy Spirit brought home the greatness and glory of a triune God through the language he used. A number at Union Chapel testify to never having heard any one pray who was so used to convey the sense of the Divine Majesty as he was. Conclusion
At Bethersden we have been privileged to have had amongst us a truly great and godly minister. An essentially shy and private man he showed his love and dedication to the flock which the Lord had given him, when in spite of a massive heart-attack he laboured on -under increasing weakness for another six years before retiring.
Never happier than when in the pulpit or study, his private counselling could, notwithstanding, be “second to none”. A man who, as Pastor and person, stood for correctness and an older style of formality in terms of personal address – became to me in my previous pastorate at Guildford known simply as “Ken”, who I could ring at any time on any problem, and who would take so much trouble, time, and the greatest care to give the best possible advice. He was such a kind and dear fellow-Pastor.
He was a man who laboured at Bethersden without much apparent fruit. How good it was that before he died he could be told that of the thirteen people who have since joined the church eight could testify of blessings received under his ministry. His works do follow him.
We thank God for him, and pray that in the days ahead we may be helped to build on and develop still further the biblical principles, that that dear servant of the Lord, Mr. Kenneth Howard, was enabled to lay at Bethersden to the honour and glory of God’s Name.
Peter Buss. Pastor, Union Chapel, Bethersden.
* He always insisted that he be referred to formally as Mr. Howard by his church and congregation!