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A Tribute to Evan

Ken Russell


Ken Russell writes in tribute to Evan Lewis,
theologian,  reformer, and founder of this Website    

Mornington is honouring the contribution of Evan Lewis this morning,  and it is my privilege to add my own  “tuppence worth,”   while at the same time acknowledging help given by two friends & colleagues who have known and worked with Evan much longer than I have,  viz  Colin Gibson and Donald Phillipps.
          None of us can be quite sure what weight Evan gives to family influences in making him what he became in adult life,    but we can fondly believe that genes and filial example had a bearing.     His grandfather, Rev J.J.Lewis,  was a dominant figure in colonial Methodism.  A picture of him is given in the memoirs of Rev Thomas Cook,  a leading UK Wesleyan evangelist who toured New Zealand in 1894,  and was hosted in Dunedin by Evan’s grandparents.
         “Mr Lewis is a scholarly and thoughtful preacher with a loving Christian spirit. . . .  he is of liberal views and has helped much in securing the extension of the ministerial term, and Methodist union.   He strongly advocates the doctrine of Christian perfection,  which truth he has helped to keep disentangled from misrepresentation.  In 1890  Mr Lewis was elected to the chair of the Conference.  Methodism in New Zealand is of a very active and advanced type,  and few have helped more to make it what it is than Mr Lewis.”
         Skipping almost 120 years and perhaps 4 generations,  the synergy with grandson Evan is remarkable,  and pull in older brother Rev Dr Jack (J.J.) Lewis,   a higher-profile former President,  Principal of Trinity College, ecumenist,  and New Testament Scholar,  and the same Lewis “tradition”,  if that is what it might be called,  has been profoundly revisited on our Church these many years later.
        Not for Evan any ambition for connexional recognition or status.  His tall figure features in my own  (twenty-plus) ordination photo,  November 1959,  but I cannot recall any subsequent attendances or pronouncements that singled him out as a person of special distinction.   Evan was never one to grab the headlines,  but his unique and individual contribution to the task of ministry in the parishes to which he was appointed  identified him as having qualities many times greater than many who do. It is our singular good fortune that Evan and Ciss,  whether by circumstance or choice,  have spent the greater part of their married life in Dunedin.
          Self-effacing almost to a fault;  extraordinarily well read in  progressive biblical scholarship;  a worship-reformer of radical perceptions;  and the possessor of unshakeable convictions on a range of justice issues,  Evan has shaped the evolving course of this local  church community  in a manner probably unparalleled anywhere within the Methodist community.   And this he achieved with a style of leadership so quiet and unobtrusive that undiscerning members of the congregation could easily have been unaware of his influence.
          There is ample evidence of a presbyter well ahead of his time.
          A passion to reform worship in such a way as to be more relevant in contemporary New Zealand.    To this end he
developed in the early 70’s what soon became known as the Red Folder,  an anthology of hymns and songs from a wide range of sources,  including some of C.A.Gibson’s earliest hymns,  and incorporating 20 psalms in contemporary idiom,  coupled with melodies to suit.  Until the publication of Alleluia Aotearoa,  the red folder,  and its more recent revision,  had a profound influence on the worship of this Parish, Mornington, Glenaven and Broad Bay in particular.  At the same time,  he produced liturgies for the Christian year that dared to address God in  ways avoiding sexism,  jingoism,  prejudice and heresy.  He also took the radical step of introducing the evocative use of story into worship   - sometimes the sufi stories from the Moslem world  -  and developing to our current acceptance of the place of a wide range of contemporary stories to enhance worship for all ages.
          Evan founded the group now known as Explorers.  More through patience and perseverance than up-front inspiration,  Evan has encouraged a monthly group to think, read and discuss emerging concepts of God,  understanding the Bible in context,  and to make a more credible witness of Christian faith in the secular community.   Explorers has encouraged a committed agnosticism that has helped a significant number of us to make more sense of faith.
          A technologically competent person in his own right, Evan made a towering contribution to the founding of our Parish website,  The Practical Dreamers’ Drop-In Centre,  publishing a little of his own biblical exegesis,  and encouraging a wide range of contributions from original writers,  preachers  hymn writers and poets.  The site has long been recognised as the best of its kind in New Zealand, and has been praised and appreciated by people of liberal persuasion in many parts of the world.
          So how to sum up such a servant of the living God, one who will remain firm in our affections long after his natural span has run its course?    Perhaps in words culled from an anthology he edited some few years ago  “Ninety-nine Quotes collected by ERL.”    With typical modesty he included only one of his own, characteristically provocative.   “We say ‘God’ to keep the world open.”  


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