A voice that wins and warms believers

Simon Manchester has an unusual voice – one that’s easily recognised by anyone who has listened to him on Hope 103.2 radio over the past 15 years.

The recently retired senior minister of St Thomas’s Anglican Church, North Sydney, speaks with a slightly hoarse but warm and even-toned voice.

It’s so distinctive that when Manchester walked with his wife Kathy into a shop in Chatswood to have a belt he’d been given for Christmas shortened, the shopkeeper was moved to give him a bargain.

“The guy said to me ‘I recognise your voice; I listen to you every Sunday on the radio’ – and what should have been a $25 or $30 job, he said ‘that’ll be $5’ – so it has its perks!” he says, with the hint of a smile.

“I think I can say wherever I go, people come up to me and say, ‘We listen to you.’ And that is amazing. If it helps people believe, praise God. If it helps believers go forward, praise God.”

Ironically, as much as Manchester is known as a gifted and eloquent speaker whose pulpit ministry at St Thomas’s benefited many over 30 years, he can’t stand the sound of his own voice.

“I personally, like many preachers, wouldn’t cross the road to hear myself. You know, if I hear my voice on a recording, I immediately want to run over a cliff,” he tells Eternity in his typical self-deprecatory style as we sit in the lounge-room of his comfortable home in Artarmon on Sydney’s lower north shore.

In fact, Manchester has never listened to a single one of the 500 to 600 talks that have been broadcast to a devoted audience on Hope 103.2 each Sunday for the past 15 or 16 years.

“I’ve just talked to my congregation. Somebody records it, somebody sends it – I never listen, I never hear it,” he confesses.

An esteemed preacher

Manchester is speaking to Eternity not only about his 30 years of ministry at St Thomas’s but also about his new role at Moore College, where he will be helping to equip and shape future preachers of God’s word.

The fact this new position as senior mentor of the John Chapman Preaching Initiative was created especially for him – thanks to donations, primarily from St Thomas’s North Sydney – reveals the high regard in which he is held as a richly biblical and pastoral preacher.

He has kindly made time to reflect on his ministry while in the thick of preparing a series of seven talks on the book of 1 Timothy being delivered at the Church Missionary Society Summer School in Katoomba from January 4-10. As someone who generally preaches for no more than 25 minutes, he confesses to some difficulty in preparing seven 45-minute talks.

“Like many people, the talk gets longer when the notes get smaller.”

“I don’t find it easy to speak for a long time and, like many people, the talk gets longer when the notes get smaller. In other words, if I wrote four words on a piece of paper, and began to rave, I could go for a long time. But if I put some proper notes together, it gets harder to go on and on and on because you stay with the notes.”

Manchester, who came to faith as an 18-year-old at a Crusader Camp and made an early decision to go into Christian ministry, says he always likes to preach simply.

“I’ve always tried to preach simply, because I’m convinced that if I can get the plumber who’s come with his girlfriend, that I’ll probably engage everybody else. Whereas if I pretend that I could preach for the professor, and throw in some long words – if I knew some long words – I could probably leave people just looking around the room having missed what was read.”

Learning to dive for treasures in the text

Manchester credits his simple preaching style to his mentor Dick Lucas, who trained him during an important, defining period while serving as curate at St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London from 1982 to 1984. He was involved in Lucas’s pioneering lunchtime Bible teaching program to serve the City of London’s business community.

This was the most formative part of his training, he says, because, with Lucas’s help and challenge, he learnt to “listen carefully to the text and get the point and then work out how to say it so that everybody got it, and if possible stayed with me for the whole 25 minutes.”

Manchester says Lucas, who turns 95 next year, is a very strong personality whose preaching seminars were hilarious.

“He’ll say to you, ‘Anne, here’s John 3:16, tell us what it’s all about, you’ve got five minutes,’ and then you’ll give your five minutes and he’ll say to you, ‘Anne, that was absolutely lovely, you missed the point completely.’

“And then he’ll show you what the point was, and you’ll say, ‘Of course, why didn’t I see that?’. He did great demolition which forced you back to the text to think more carefully.

“He didn’t give me a magic gold key to the Scriptures… he tried to stop me from being a water beetle…”

“I remember once bumping into him and he said – in his lovely British accent – ‘Well, dear brother, what are you preaching on tomorrow?’ And I told him and he said, ‘What have you learned?’ and I gave him a sort of 30-second summary and he yawned in my face – the biggest, Luna Park, massive yawn – which was basically saying, ‘You haven’t come up with anything.’

“So, he didn’t give me a magic gold key to the Scriptures. What he did was – in his famous words – he tried to stop me from being a water beetle… a little insect that runs over the film of the water and never actually gets in. That’s probably the greatest thing I learnt: Don’t be a water beetle.”

This is the type of text-driven teaching that Manchester aims to pass on in his new role at Moore College – encouraging students to dive deep for the treasures in the text.

“That’s what I want to say to all the young people who work with me: ‘Please don’t think that you have to improve the Bible with your personality or your clever stories or your jokes or your illustrations. They may serve but, in the end, the treasures are in the text, so just dive into the ocean of the Scriptures, bring up the pearls – whatever you bring to the ocean is going to be secondary.

“Why would Jesus tell this parable to a guy who was a cynic, self-justifying, proud person?”

“If you’re preaching on the Good Samaritan, it’s not enough for you to see the passage and think, ‘I’m going to talk about crossing the road and being kind to somebody.’

“You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Why did Jesus tell that parable to a pagan who had asked him about eternal life?’ Because it’s obvious that crossing the road and helping somebody is not going to win you eternal life. And why would Jesus tell this parable to a guy who was a cynic, self-justifying, proud person?

“You realise that he’s telling the parable because he’s setting a standard of love which should have caused this quite pompous man to despair and say, ‘I could never do that! I couldn’t love my neighbour, let alone the Lord, and therefore I am a desperately needy person’.

“There is some hope for that person because, if he gets a new life and a new heart, he may begin to go somewhere in loving people and knowing the Lord.

“In other words, before you springboard off your passage and say what you want to say, you’ve got to work out what it really says.”

Moving on from full-time ministry

For the towering figure at St Thomas’s for 30 years – he stands 6ft, 4in – the past 16 months since he announced his retirement from full-time ministry have been pretty tough.

“The kind of conversation for the last 16 months has been, ‘When do you go? What will you do? How fast can you leave us?  Why are you leaving us?’” he explains.

“There’s been some grief. I mean, 30 years of lovely friendships – I can’t think of anybody in the whole congregation who we wouldn’t count as a friend.”

“And it’s a great place to minister. The church is a beautiful, sandstone building and we just spent 2019 fixing it up so it’s in perfect condition. The congregation is happy and healthy. Staff is good. So saying goodbye to the people, the place, which we love, and the pulpit ministry has been tricky.”

A ‘scandalous’ friendship

Manchester says he and Kathy haven’t yet worked out yet where they will go to worship. One thing that will continue in retirement, though, is his controversial friendship with Bronson Blessington, who was jailed for life in 1987 for the murder of Janine Balding.

“We talk every week on the phone. He went in at 14, I think he was converted at 16, he’s now 46, so he’s been a Christian for 30 years, and only two days ago he rang me and he had put a dinner on for other inmates for Christmas, so he spent his own money to buy a dinner for 10 guys so that he could give them a good feed and tell them about Jesus.

“Why should I condemn him if the Lord has not condemned him?”

“And I said to him, ‘How do you afford that?’ and he said, ‘Oh the Lord is good.’ I said, ‘Do you need any more money?’ and he said, ‘No’ – he never is wanting anything from me, but he rings me every week to encourage me.”

Manchester agrees that the case points to the scandal of grace – that a murderer could be forgiven on the last day when who knows what his victim believed.

“He says that there isn’t a day goes by where he doesn’t wish he could turn the clock back. I mean, that family paid a terrible, terrible price … I’m honestly not sure what part Bronson had in the actual killing … I think he’s utterly complicit in the idea and the whole event and I wouldn’t to pretend for a second that he doesn’t deserve to be in jail, if not for life.

“But the Lord, in his wisdom and mercy, has seen fit to save him and to begin to use him, so I have to bow my head at that point and say, ‘Well, you know, why should I condemn him if the Lord has not condemned him?”

Highlights of decades-long ministry

Asked to give the highlights of his decades-long ministry, Manchester says:

“The big picture of 30 years is either: [a picture of] landing in a little boat and taking the wheel of the pulpit and watching the boat go in the direction of God’s word and benefit people and bring honour to him; or it’s a picture of a small tree being planted over the 30 years the roots just going down deeper and the shoots going out.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the people who have come to faith in Jesus who should be the greatest joy, you know, whether it’s the children who have come through or the youth or the adults.

“The other [highlight] is seeing whole families get clear under the influence of the Scriptures, and it translating into peace and joy in their home, gratitude to God… and the spilling out of that into their marriage and their raising of children. Not everybody gets to watch a generation or two go past them. All of that’s been very wonderful.”