The Revd Ernest M. Forward: 1927-2016
A Personal Memorial by the Revd Professor Paul S. Fiddes
On Sunday, 8 January 2017 a Thanksgiving Service was held at East Sheen Baptist Church for the Revd Ernest Mark Forward, a Baptist minister whose extraordinary range of gifts was matched by a long and active service to Christ and the church, up to the very last week of his life. On the occasion celebrating his ministry, a large congregation heard from a succession of churches (Barnes, Wallington, South Hanwell and East Sheen itself) about his support and encouragement to them and their ministers since his retirement in 1995, expressed in moderating congregations inbetween ministers, preaching, counselling and advising over some twenty years. Testimonies to his kindness, wisdom, equable good humour and devotion to Christ abounded, along with deep appreciation for the partnership in ministry that was exemplified by Ernest and Brenda Forward together. Typically, Ernest Forward preached at East Sheen the week before he went into hospital for the operation which was to result in an infection from which he died unexpectedly on 7 December 2016 at the age of 89.
Before this late, rich harvest of the fruits of his ministry, Ernest had served for 41 years as a local minister in four London churches – at Bushey, Greenford, New Malden and Twickenham. I myself grew up as a Christian young person and was baptised under his ministry at Greenford (1958-67), and six persons from the youth group there at the time were to be ordained as Baptist ministers, largely from the influence of his ministry and personality, as well as many others becoming effective missionary disciples and leaders in congregations throughout the UK and further afield. He modelled for us all what a minister of the church of Christ could be. An eager and lively mind, equipping him to be an excellent bible teacher, was combined with a passion for Christ and the gospel. Thoughtful and enthusiastic preaching was allied to a sense of order and dignity in worship, always well prepared, always presented in clerical collar and preaching gown. Ministry in church services was accompanied by generous hospitality in which the manse was invaded by a Sunday school group in the afternoon and the youth group following the evening service until late at night. The kitchen was full of chattering young people and the ‘front room’ besieged by piles of chairs which were also used by a women’s group during the week. Ernest sustained two services, Sunday by Sunday, serving a growing congregation, while his and Brenda’s home was occupied by others virtually every hour of that key day.
Ernest was always open for conversation, and church members knew that he listened attentively to them, an encouraging (sometimes quizzical) smile on his face, before speaking himself, a trait that persisted right to the end, as those who spoke on January 8. witnessed. Evidence that it was possible to have a thoughtful, reflective and yet also fervent faith was a gift Ernest gave to many, and which kept them in the faith through the years. Mid-week bible studies became a ‘Bible School’, serviced with typed and duplicated notes which summarised his fine exposition of the text; hours were spent in careful preparation, regardless that relatively few of the congregation came, but nurturing a core group of disciples. The other day, one of that group, a Baptist minister for some 45 years, showed me the notes on 1 Peter which he still keeps in the front cover of a commentary on that book. In a richly deserved development later in his ministry, Ernest completed his theology degree at his former college, Spurgeon’s College, gaining the BA (without having to be examined in the Greek which, as he used to relate jokingly, held him back from finishing his earlier studies for the London BD), but he had already been doing the best kind of theology for the church, inspiring others to become theologians, and scholar-pastors like himself.
In a well-rounded personality, love of sport characterised Ernest’s life, from the time when at King’s College School in Wimbledon he and his tennis partner had won the all-England Championship for school-boy tennis doubles. He generally kept his sporting prowess quiet, but I recall its appearing on the occasion of ‘shinty’ (hard-ground hockey) matches at youth weekend retreats, when each team wanted the minister on their side against the opposition. At the Thanksgiving Service his son Stephen recalled his life-long loyalty to Arsenal football team, and related that when in intensive care earlier in December, Ernest had wanted to know the result of the Arsenal match that day. He was glad to be informed by the doctor that it had won.
In 1968 Ernest was called from Greenford to New Malden Baptist Church. While conducting a highly-appreciated ministry there, in 1975-6 he acted as moderator in a much smaller church at Twickenham Green, and when that church failed to find a suitable new minister, he felt called there himself. From that church he retired, some twenty years later in 1995 at the age of 68. Ernest's ministry at both New Malden and Twickenham was marked by a spiritual growth in the lives of members young and old, and this in turn resulted – as at Bushey and Greenford – in numerical growth in the membership. During his time at Twickenham he exercised a wider pastoral ministry to ministers and churches as a District Minister, at one time having as many as eighty churches in his care. He offered particular help to Baptist churches without or awaiting ministerial leadership, a service he continued until his death, and another part of his continuing ministry right to the end was serving as an on-call Chaplain to West Middlesex Hospital. It is testimony to his care of people that many, in his later years, knew him only as ‘Pastor Ernest’.
Opening his memorial service at East Sheen, where he and Brenda were members, the senior minister of the church (Dr. Louise Hearn) referred to him simply as ‘a beautiful human being’, and the murmur of assent that came from the congregation told its own story.
The Revd Professor Paul S. Fiddes is Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Oxford, and Director of Research, Regent's Park College, Oxford