‘Goodwill on Fire’: Remembering Donald Soper

Donald Soper at Hyde ParkIt was a great honour for me to be asked to preach the Annual ‘Soper Sermon’ at Hinde Street Methodist Church which remembers the life and ministry of Lord Donald Soper, who was Superintendent of the West London Mission (WLM) for over 40 years between 1936-1978.

I never met Donald Soper but I have worked for WLM for the last 2 and a half years as Director of the Social Work (and I have his old office!)  I have found him a fascinating and inspiring person to know more about – and not just because he was brought up in my home town of Streatham and loved cricket!  As well as those key issues, these are the three other reasons his life inspires me:

His public speaking

Soper was probably most famous for his devotion to outdoor preaching – for almost his whole life he would speak at Hyde Park Corner on a Sunday afternoon and at Tower Hill on a Wednesday lunchtime.  Over the course of his life it is estimated that he preached 10,000 sermons, and even more impressively, that he answered more than 250,000 questions.

He was fiercely committed to taking the Christian faith out of the church ghetto and talking to ordinary people what it meant to follow Jesus in the real world.  He sought to use straightforward, simple language but not fall into the trap of being simplistic.  He regularly appeared on panels, TV and radio shows to explain his views and he relished the controversy of debate around the relevance of faith.

His political activism

Soper was a committed pacifist and preached his anti-war views right throughout the Second World War.  Although a regular contributor to the BBC before the war, he was placed on a banned list during wartime and was not allowed to be broadcast.  Often, intelligence officers would attend his outdoor speeches to check on what he was saying.  Inevitably his views drew angry responses from some and he was frequently jostled and threatened as being unpatriotic.

Soper helped form the homeless campaigning charity Shelter and was Chairman for many years and he was heavily involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).  He was a leading figure in the formation of the Christian Socialist Movement and was the first Chairman of the new organisation in 1960.   I am sure that I would not have agreed with him on many areas of his politics – I bet he would not have liked the article I wrote about the Christian Socialist Movement needing a new name! But what strikes me is his willingness to put faith to work on the key issues of the day: poverty, homelessness, war.  In recognition of this work, he was the first Methodist Minister to be offered a seat in the House of Lords and in 1965 he became Lord Soper.

His practical care

As well as engaging in the big issues of the day, Soper poured his energy into establishing ground-breaking care projects for those on the margins.  As well as the politics, this was intensely practical work which made a difference on the ground.

Under his leadership, West London Mission ran homes for unmarried women who were pregnant and women who had just left prison.  In the 1940s the London County Council asked WLM to run one of the first specialist projects for rough sleepers by the Hungerford Bridge on London’s Embankment.  In addition he set up other hostels for offenders and for men with alcohol problems.  These are the projects which are still at the heart of what WLM does today.

Goodwill on Fire 

Soper was never far from controversy.  In comparing his approach to two other eminent contemporary Methodist minsters, William Sangster and Leslie Weatherhead, someone said:

‘Sangster loves God; Weatherhead loves people and Soper loves an argument.’

In some ways, the contemporary figure who is most similar to Donald Soper is Steve Chalke: both are church leaders, both brilliant communicators, both committed to social activism and political relevance.  And both are very familiar with creating controversy.

But whatever the controversies, and perhaps because of many of them, I will always be inspired by so much of Soper did.  There is no doubt that through his public speaking, his political activism and his practical care, he put his faith into action and touched the lives of millions of people.

I’ll end with my favourite Soper quote which I have on the wall of my office:

‘Goodwill on fire, goodwill lit by the love of God, and its glow maintained by fellowship with Jesus.  I know of no better description of the Christian Life.’

Click here for the full text of the sermon which focusses on the relationship between WLM’s professional social work and the Christian faith.

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