DONALD SOPER was the last of those nonconformist princes of the pulpit whose eminence derived not from any ecclesiastical position or title but from force of personality and prophetic authority.
For decades, he was one of the best-known churchmen in Britain, firing off pithy comments on any topical issue the press cared to raise with him, a broadcaster’s dream long before the term “soundbite” was coined.
Methodism, socialism and pacifism were the three pillars of Soper’s thought and life, and he lived to see each in danger: Methodism in numerical decline; socialism not to be spoken of amongst New Labour; and pacifism still a rejected dimension of the Gospel. He died in the aftermath of the bombing of Iraq, his grief tinged with bitterness that it should be a Labour government which had unleashed the dogs of war.
Soper was well-blessed by nature – outstandingly handsome even in old age, elegant in dress and manner, quick-witted and genuinely charming. In appearance, he was more Olivier than Isaiah. It was his speech that gave a clue to the power of his mind; his fluency was phenomenal.
His sentences were perfectly balanced, his vocabulary prodigious but never flowery or cluttered, and his resonant, perfectly modulated voice had both beauty and power.
He could make a routine sentence sound like the Gettysburg Address, and until a few weeks before his death, his voice effortlessly reached the farthest fringes of the crowds who came to hear him at Tower Hill and at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.
He embodied all the great traditions of Methodism; no faction or pressure group within it could claim him as its own. He was an unapologetic evangelical whose Gospel could be summarised as a faith in Jesus which leads by way of personal conversion to political radicalism.
But he had no time for any evangelism based on the uncritical use of the Bible. He found all forms of fundamentalism abhorrent because he believed in loving God with the whole of his mind. It was, he affirmed, the Christian’s duty to bring not just fervour but also hard thinking to bear on the life of our time.
He also inherited from Hugh Price Hughes, the great turn-of-the-century Methodist preacher and social reformer, a fierce concern for the poor and down-trodden, which fed him to central mission work where popular preaching was combined with social outreach through centres for the homeless, unmarried mothers and alcoholics.
Then, later in his ministry, he developed a high Wesleyan sacramentalism which became the linchpin of his faith. He exchanged his smart grey suit and red tie for a simple black cassock and made the regular celebration of Holy Communion his chief duty.
Most typically, he followed John Wesley into the open air and became one of the great Christian apologists of our time. Just as Wesley, the founder of Methodism, finding pulpits barred to him, took to the market place, the crossroads and the street corner, so Donald Soper, finding the pulpit restricting, went to Tower Hill and Speakers’ Corner where the public gathered to argue and interrogate. What G.K. Chesterton did for the faith in print, and C.S. Lewis on the radio, Soper achieved by soapbox oratory.
Soper practised what he called the “fellowship of controversy”, delighting to argue the Christian case against all comers. His way with hecklers became the stuff of legend. He never stooped to score cheap points, but demolished their arguments with amiable wit and often made them his friends.
It was one of the sadnesses of his later years that the traditional Speakers’ Corner hecklers had given place to humourless fundamentalists who hurled Biblical texts like missiles at him and hooligans trying to break up his meetings.
Soper’s critics claimed that he made the classical liberal error of believing that the Kingdom of God could be dissolved without remainder into a socialist state with a pacifist foreign policy; that his theology was superficial.
But the open-air speaker must of necessity oversimplify complex ideas or risk losing the crowd. Soper believed that any doctrine which is so abstruse that it cannot be used in public discourse is as near irrelevant as makes no odds.
Theology’s main task is to make it easier for the Gospel to be heard, anything else it does is just academic business. His old university, Cambridge, obviously had no complaint with his swashbuckling way of treating theology, for in 1988 they made him an honorary Doctor of Divinity.
Soper was born in 1903, precisely two centuries after Methodism’s founder, and he outlived Wesley by half a dozen years. He shared not only longevity with John Wesley but also that dogged, almost wilful determination to keep going to the very end, contemptuously shrugging off age and infirmity. As with Wesley, there was no left-over life unspent when he died; God had had all there was of him.
He grew up in a comfortable home in Streatham, south-east London, his mother a headmistress and suffragette, his father a marine claims adjuster, a classical nonconformist, puritan in his principles, Liberal in politics and a preacher with a gift for open-air speaking.
At Aske’s School, Hatcham, Soper’s love for music was nurtured and he developed a virtuosity with the tin whistle which later was to entertain generations of children. He was an all-round sportsman, excelling at soccer, cricket, swimming and, more surprising in an incipient pacifist, boxing. It was at school too, that he first put into words his desire to be a Methodist minister.
He read History at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and then, in 1924, he was one of the first generation of graduate candidates for the Methodist ministry to be selected for Wesley House, a newly built theological college in Jesus Lane. He left with a First, a membership card for the Labour Party in his pocket and a reputation for being independent-minded to the point of awkwardness.
He spent 10 years in various churches around London, during which time he began his open-air ministry and rapidly became one of the best-known ministers in Methodism, in increasing demand as a preacher, though he often had the pews buzzing with disapproval. His sceptical views on doctrines such as the Virgin Birth, his fierce attacks on capitalism and the arms trade all caused outrage.
Decades before they became fashionable causes, he argued for the ordination of women, championed homosexual rights and attacked cruelty to animals. He was one of the earliest religious broadcasters, heard on air regularly from 1935 until the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was banned because of his pacifist views.
In 1929 he married Marie Dean, a beautiful and spirited lady who was no mere appendage to her husband; she made it clear from the outset that she had no intention of being an unpaid curate. She held the family together during his long absences, kept his feet firmly on the ground and delighted him by her wit and independence – she did not share his almost fanatical teetotalism and had doubts about his pacifism.
Soper’s family life was a matter for animated discussion in theological college circles in the 1950s. He and Marie had four stunning daughters, and Soper would acknowledge with a twinkle that his following amongst unmarried ministerial students was not entirely explained by his great gifts of leadership.
He was, in 1936, appointed Superintendent of the West London Mission, based at the Kingsway Hall, at that time one of the great London pulpits.
His friend and fellow Methodist preacher Leslie Weatherhead was already packing in the crowds at the City Temple and when Edwin Sangster arrived at the Central Hall, Westminster, a famous Methodist triumvirate was in place – identified by irreverent theological students as: Sangster loves God, Weatherhead loves the people and Soper loves an argument.
In 1937, Soper became a supporter of the Peace Pledge Union at the urging of the charismatic Dick Sheppard, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, whom he came to venerate. A galaxy of prominent pacifists rallied to a cause lent urgency by the sound of distant gunfire in Europe – Bertrand Russell, Vera Brittain, George Lansbury, Aldous Huxley, Charles Raven, Siegfried Sassoon and George MacLeod.
Soper was elected Vice-Chairman of the union and argued the case for pacifism right up to and during the Second World War. It took a special kind of courage to get up at Speakers’ Corner during the Blitz and tell his audience they had a Christian duty to love the enemies who were laying waste to British cities every night. He and his family lived in a shelter under the Kingsway Hall and ran a rest and feeding centre for those bombed out.
During the darkest days of war, Soper launched one of the initiatives of which he was proudest, the Kingsway Preachers, afterwards renamed the Order of Christian Witness (OCW) – teams of young people who under his leadership conducted missions in towns up and down the country, bringing a message which combined evangelism with social concern. It was through the OCW that a number of young Christians who were later to become outstanding leaders of the Church got their early training.
Throughout his ministry, Soper attracted countless disciples, preeminent amongst whom was Harry Morton, later President of the Methodist Conference and General Secretary of the British Council of Churches. If anyone was likely to inherit Soper’s mantle it was Harry Morton, who in his youth was so influenced by Soper that he spoke and dressed like him.
He gradually found his own distinctive voice as a prophetic figure on the religious landscape, only to be felled by a series of strokes at the height of his powers.
In 1953 Soper was elected President of the Methodist Conference, a minister who for one year becomes the chief officer of the Methodist Church before being reduced smartly to the ranks again – as Soper, never lost for a bon mot, put it, “One year It, the next, Ex-it.”
The President is expected to be a focus of unity and encouragement for the Methodist people, but Soper exploited his temporary pre-eminence to attract press coverage for views which were anything but unifying. When a reporter, probing his pacifist convictions in the light of the Cold War, asked him what he would do if the Russians invaded Britain, he replied, “Welcome them with a cup of tea.”
He caused uproar and a certain degree of schizophrenia amongst Methodists when he criticised the Royal Family for their addiction to horse racing. They were, after all, loyal subjects of the Queen but also traditionally opposed to all forms of betting, which, said Soper, “involved collecting money on a socialist basis and distributing it on a capital basis”, plainly the wrong way round.
But the comment of their President which upset Methodists most was made in the context of the growing debate about the possibility of Anglican- Methodist union. He said that, much as he loved Methodism, he feared only slow but certain extinction lay ahead for an isolated denomination.
He did not believe the Methodist tradition had the capacity to renew itself in isolation from the Church of England which was the source of its original inspiration.
He went on to hope that he would end his days as a priest in the Church of England, within which, he believed, it was Methodism’s destiny to be a preaching order. The collapse of formal union talks between the two churches in 1968 grievously disappointed him and he became a more isolated and detached figure in the denominational landscape, though still a familiar name and face in national life.
The churches were emptying and the Kingsway Hall closed down. Soper still had Tower Hill and Speakers’ Corner, he served on the GLC and became an alderman, and then in 1965 the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, offered Britain’s most prominent Christian socialist a new platform, in the House of Lords.
Donald Soper became Baron Soper. Some of his friends were bewildered; he had long advocated the abolition of the second chamber and claimed that class divisions were at the root of many of Britain’s problems and frequently expressed republican sympathies.
His justifications were tortuous and the simplest explanation is the most likely – he was never one to refuse the offer of a new and influential platform from which to argue the Christian case, and, if the price was a certain amount of lordly flummery, so be it.
His last years were punctuated by celebrations to mark various anniversaries. On his 90th birthday, the BBC transmitted a special Songs of Praise programme from Hinde Street Methodist Church. Though he had admirers all over the world and a constant stream of visitors found their way to Soper’s north London home to pay their respects, the great public performer was, in fact, a very private man who had outlived his few close friends.
Marie’s death in 1994 devastated him, and exposed a deep well of loneliness, though he was sustained by generations of a loving family.
Rendered increasingly infirm with a form of arthritis, he finally became quite immobile, his mind as sharp as ever but his body a dead weight. Yet twice a week, regardless of the weather, he was manhandled out of his house into a car and lifted by main force on to his soapbox at Tower Hill and Hyde Park. It was a majestic demonstration of sheer indomitable Christian will.
If his determination to carry on his open-air ministry right to the end was one example of his awesome single-mindedness, the massive consistency of his pacifist witness was another.
Over 70 years he never deviated from the belief that the use of force could not in any circumstances be reconciled with the spirit of Christ. Wars and conflicts came and went, and at Speakers’ Corner, they were analysed, chewed over and argued about.
Soper’s attempts to spell out a better way seemed to his critics naive or hopelessly idealistic, but for him, pacifism was a testimony to the perfect law of the Kingdom. It was what Jesus commanded, and that was that.
He was a prophet, not a strategist, and it is the prophet’s job to call down the wrath of God on a disobedient society, not to propose detailed programmes of action.
Confronted on television by concentration-camp survivors who asked him what other than massive force could have smashed the Nazi tyranny which destroyed them in millions, he had no convincing answers.
But his belief in pacifism was not shaken; the critics might berate him but he would not budge.
Donald Soper was a holy man but not a solemn one. Arguably the most influential Methodist leader of the 20th century, his unique ministry touched the life of church and nation at many points, and he discharged his ordination vows not just with utter faithfulness but with that indefinable quality, style.
His was a gallant, debonair faith, yet under all the layers of sophistication he was at heart a simple believer. Jesus was his master and friend right up to the end.ism
Donald Oliver Soper, minister of the church: born London 31 January 1903; Superintendent, West London Mission, Kingsway Hall 1936-78; President, Methodist Conference 1953; created 1965 Baron Soper; Chairman, Shelter 1974-78; married 1929 Marie Dean (died 1994; four daughters); died London 22 December 1998.