The Revd Ronald Messenger: 1923–2019
'Many of us owe the deepening of faith, and the encouragement of ministerial calling to Ron’s ministry; and still others, their healing and ability to establish a life for themselves beyond psychiatric illness and social or emotional breakdown'
Ron was born and brought up in the Barnsbury area of Islington, one of a family of six children. He went to Highbury School, just up the road from the Arsenal stadium, where his dad took him on Saturday afternoons from an early age. Ron sang in the local Anglican church choir – including a solo on the BBC in the 1930s.
At the outbreak of war, he and his youngest brother were evacuated to Huntingdonshire and then Somerset. Leaving school in late 1940, Ron worked for a time at India House in Aldwych, at the same time studying for a degree at Birkbeck College. In early 1942 he joined the Fleet Air Arm. After training in Trinidad and the USA, and qualifying as Navigator/Observer, he travelled widely on various combat missions, including action in support of the D-Day landings and with the British Pacific Fleet, ending up in Australia in 1945. He recorded his war-time experiences in a wonderful book Pathway through War which he dictated in his 80s. By this time he was completely blind and his dictation was recorded and transcribed by his faithful amanuensis, Lyn Bracci.
When Ron returned from the war he trained for ministry at St Luke’s College, London, was ordained in 1948, and married Xenia in 1949. Ron worked with the Revd Stephen Winward at Highams Park Baptist Church, before moving to Claybury Park Baptist Church in Ilford, where he also took up the post of Free Church Chaplain at the nearby Claybury psychiatric hospital. Here he was influenced by, and worked closely with, the psychiatrist, Dr Denis Martin, who was a leading light in the post-war modernisation of psychiatric care, including the development of group therapy and the move towards care in the community as an alternative to long-term in-patient psychiatric care. Ron told many moving stories of the work there: of the therapeutic effectiveness of allowing even long-term institutionalised patients to recount their personal experiences and express long held feelings, and of how church members were encouraged to welcome patients into their homes on a regular basis.
In 1965, Ron received a call from West Ham Central Mission, to become the Resident Minister (Director) of Greenwoods, its country centre, in the lovely village of Stock, Essex. Ron accepted this call, with mixed feelings because of his involvement in the developing ministry at Claybury Park Church and the hospital, and together with Xenia and their four sons, moved into Greenwoods. There Ron developed a ground-breaking Christian therapeutic community where staff and guests lived and worked together, supported by Social Services, the NHS and some churches and individuals.
The community was founded on a deep, but unsentimental understanding of the power of the love of God, supported by Ron’s experiences at Claybury Hospital and the dedication of staff including qualified nurses and social workers as well as others who were gaining valuable experience prior to undertaking professional training. There were many joyful, tragic and hair-raising experiences during the nearly 20 years of Ron’s leadership. Ron wrote an account of the work of Greenwoods published as The Greenwoods Years (available from Renew Counselling at firstname.lastname@example.org).
During those years Ron and Xenia’s fifth son was born and the family moved to a newly-built house next to Greenwoods.
Ron’s influence extended beyond the community into the village, and particularly to the Congregational Chapel. There, he and his Greenwoods colleague, the Revd Russell Warden, as joint pastors challenged the church to live out the gospel, to engage with the needs of some of the Greenwoods guests, and to modernise its approach to its buildings and worship style. It became Christ Church, the Free Church in Stock, affiliated to the then Essex Baptist Association. Ron forged long-lasting relationships with the Anglican Church (All Saints’) and with the Roman Catholic Church in the village.
Ron’s initiative extended to the formation of a counselling service which began in a Greenwoods outbuilding, and developed into the centres in Chelmsford, Basildon and Witham known subsequently as WHCM, and then Renew Counselling, which is still in existence and highly esteemed (https://www.renew-us.org).
In 1989, Ron and Xenia ‘retired’ to Saffron Walden, where they joined the Baptist church – Xenia, now 99, remains a member to this day. Ron was still preaching and leading church conferences, and was involved in the setting up of a counselling agency at St. Andrew’s Street Baptist Church in Cambridge. This agency is still working effectively as ‘Cogwheel’. His sight was beginning to fail through macular degeneration when he took up the temporary pastorship of Ashdon Baptist Church, then without a minister. When he had become totally blind he led services and preached without notes, and continued to provide 1:1 counselling from his home. He learnt to touch type and use JAWS software for the blind so that he could write and email.
Ron’s life and ministry was infused with the love of Christ and expressed in an ability to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep’. Many of us owe the deepening of faith, and the encouragement of ministerial calling to Ron’s ministry; and still others, their healing and ability to establish a life for themselves beyond psychiatric illness and social or emotional breakdown. Ron walked alongside many people in the strength and love of Christ. He himself was supported and upheld by the faithful love of his wife of 70 years, Xenia, and their five sons and their wives, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Ron’s final years were spent in a care home in Saffron Walden where he, Xenia, his family and friends bore his blindness, immobility and often total deafness, with enormous love and courage.
Ron’s funeral, at Saffron Walden Baptist Church, was attended by over 250 folk and the final blessing was given by Rt. Revd Thomas McMahon, R.C. Bishop of Brentwood, formerly the parish priest in Stock. It was a service of Thanksgiving and Celebration involving folk from every part of Ron’s life and ministry, and ending with the hymn:
‘Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son, endless is the vict’try, thou o’er death hast won.’
This obituary cannot do justice to such an exceptional man of God.
The Revd Tricia Troughton