The Revd Norman Leslie Harris: 1927-2017
Baptist minister with a desire to nurture faith and commitment to Christ
Born in the Bedfordshire village of Houghton Conquest in 1927, Norman was one of three children to Edith Mary (née Brightman) and Walter Frank Harris (a fitter’s mate). The family moved to the nearby village of Cotton End just outside Bedford where he attended the local school and was nurtured in the faith at the Cotton End Baptist church. It was here that he and his future wife, Jessie (née Goodship), were baptised as young people and later married.
During the years 1944-45, Norman opted, as a conscientious objector, to work in the coal mines and was placed at the Wellbeck Colliery (much later in life finally being given a medal in recognition of his service as one of the ‘Bevan boys’). This was a very difficult, if not formative period, of his young adult life. Having survived that experience, he returned to Cotton End and worked for a while as a clerk in the local air ministry offices, and at an early age began to preach, becoming known as the ‘boy preacher’ who cycled far and wide in the locality. Encouraged by his Pastor, the Revd J P Pugh, and the congregation, he eventually responded to a call to ministry. Assisted by his minister he prepared for the then educational entrance requirements (including a basic competency in New Testament Greek) and entered Spurgeon’s College, London in 1948. This was a happy time for him and he made firm and deep friendships with the other men (the ‘Bugden Batch’) with whom he trained between 1948-1951.
Norman was ordained and inducted into the ministry at West Park Baptist Church, Chatteris, in January 1952. He served there for five years before moving on to the pastorate in Breachwood Green, Herts. During these early days of ministry, he developed his particular gift of strong pastoral ministry. He was always ready to help people in all kinds of situations and was aided in this ‘roving work’ by the acquisition of a motorbike!
His last pastorate was in a very different context to rural Hertfordshire. In September 1962, he responded to a call to serve the Stoke Green Baptist Church located on what was at the time the new Maidenhall estate in Ipswich. While at Ipswich, he oversaw the extension of the Stoke Green church in a new development of the premises on the chapel site and he also took on the pastoral oversight of the village church at Witnesham and found much joy in sharing in with the folk in that rural setting. He served (in the late 1960s) as President of the Suffolk Baptist Union and was involved for many years on the ministerial recognition committee of the eastern area of the British Baptist Union. While he was an avowed Baptist with a warm evangelical faith, he appreciated the broader Christian tradition and enjoyed good ecumenical links with local churches.
Norman was a stalwart for trained and equipped ministry, and exemplified that by his own dedication to the ministry of word and sacrament. A man with a genuine pastor’s heart, he always tried to encourage others in the life of faith. He shared in various evangelistic initiatives in the nation down the decades, as well as, by reaching out to people in situations of personal crisis. At heart he had a desire to nurture faith and commitment to Christ. Through it all, including the many joys and pains of leading in congregational life, he had his soul-mate, Jessie, at his side as his erstwhile confidant and partner in the work of the Gospel of Christ.
In active ministry, he tried to keep every Monday as ‘a sabbath time’ free from most pastoral duties, and this often meant time spent in his vegetable garden. He also enjoyed family holidays, with the Cotswolds being among his favourite places. However, bouts of ill-health down the years and the demands of ministry eventually took their toll on his physical well-being. On the advice of his GP, Norman retired from the pastorate at Stoke Green in 1986, just before his 60th birthday. Kindly assisted and supported by the late Horace Gale, a Baptist businessman and a family friend, they moved to Bedford, settling in a small flat which was happily situated near the town and the river. At the time it was a temporary arrangement, but it would become their home for the next 30 years.
They became active members of the Bunyan Meeting in April 1987. However, as health allowed, and supported by his late sister, Joyce Harris and his wife, Jessie, in retirement Norman, continued to preach in local churches as he was able to do so. His passions in life were reading (especially biographies and autobiographies), writing in his journal and composing devotional reflections. To his last days he retained remarkable powers of recall and loved to share stories from the works of others as well as from his own personal experience of ministry and life. Many a (now hilarious) tale was told about exploits in bringing up the family, his misfortune with unreliable cars, his personal ‘scrapes’ in certain risky situations, and his involvement in things like Boys’ Brigade camps. In later years, poor health prevented him from attending public worship services. However, he became adept at using a tablet and often tuned in via the internet to services from churches he knew well.
Norman was a dear husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather, always interested in the life of his three sons (David, Paul and Timothy) and their families. Despite increasing infirmity in his latter years he enjoyed keeping in touch with a wide circle of colleagues through phone calls and face-time chats, as well as visits from family and friends. He and Jessie celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary in July 2016 and Norman was able to enjoy his 90th birthday in January 2017. After a marked deterioration of his health in recent months, including periods in hospital, he was lovingly cared for at the Airedale nursing home in Bedford for his final weeks. Then, as he had prayed for, he was peacefully delivered from increasing weakness and infirmity, on 11th May 2017. In words which meant much to Norman and Jessie over the years: Thanks be to God who ‘led them on safely’. (Psalm 78.53).
David, Paul and Timothy Harris