A rally for his forthcoming crusade draws what may be the largest gathering of churchmen in British history.

Someone has said that England is a nice country—it only needs a roof. This January, the dampness came with cutting cold temperatures. The weather caused the organizers of Mission England to scale back their estimate of the number of pastors and laymen expected in Birmingham for a preparatory rally.

Mission England is a mammoth spring and summer evangelistic outreach featuring Billy Graham. At the January meeting, the churchmen were to hear Graham explain the nature of revival and encourage them to take part in the six-city crusade, which will run from May 12 through July 27.

With the atrocious winter weather, estimates of attendance at the January rally were low. Perhaps as few as 400 would come, or as many as 2,000. As the meeting day approached, however, it was clear there would be many more than that. In all, some 11,800 clergymen and lay leaders jammed into the new National Exhibition Center to hear Graham. Some speculated that it might be the largest gathering of churchmen in British history.

The electricity in the huge crowd, and the triumphal attitude of so many in even having made it to Birmingham (some boarded chartered trains at 4:15 A.M.), were an apt conclusion to Graham’s 12-day midwinter visit to England. It was a publicity-building, rally-the-troops tour, and it was successful beyond imagination. British interest in Graham and his message is higher than at any time since his first London crusade 30 years ago, when crowds overflowed Harringay Arena and forced him to move into the city’s largest stadium, Wembley.

Graham’s forthcoming Mission England crusade received the public imprimatur of the queen—the highest endorsement any function in Britain could have. Graham was invited to preach to the royal family on January 15 at the fourteenth-century Church of Saint Mary Magdalene on the royal family’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk. He spoke for 25 minutes on Psalm 23, and, following the service, the queen made an unprecedented request. She asked for a “photo call,” permitting the British news media to photograph herself and others with Billy and Ruth Graham. Until then, guest preaching at the Sandringham church had been a private affair.

With their voracious interest in the royal family, the British press suddenly made Graham front-page news across England. He was beseiged with requests for more than 50 interviews. In one day alone, he conducted 13 group and individual press conferences. He was interviewed by Britain’s top three television talk-show hosts, Russell Harty, Michael Parkinson, and David Frost. In addition, he was interviewed live in London for a segment of “Good Morning America.” He spent 40 minutes with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, conferred with U.S. Ambassador Charles Price, and preached to the largest crowd ever to cram into London’s noted All Souls Church.

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The British press, generally a raffish lot, surprised the Graham team by its friendliness. Several papers called his Sandringham sermon, “powerful,” although they noted that the 2,000 people gathered outside to hear via loudspeaker were a smaller crowd than predicted, apparently due to the weather.

“His message came over loud and clear. There is a future for the human race if we turn to God,” reported the Glasgow Daily Record. “Many who did hear Dr. Graham were clearly impressed,” said the Eastern Daily Press of Norwich. “Now 65, he has lost none of the personal charisma and energy that drew Wembley’s biggest-ever crowd to his first British crusade 30 years ago,” wrote the Glasgow Sunday Post. John Knight, a columnist for the London Sunday Mirror, wrote, “It is good to have Billy Graham around. For things start happening much for the better in many ordinary people’s lives.”

What pleased the Graham team most, however, was that the press was picking up the essence of his gospel message. The London Times quoted Graham as saying, “Yes, there is hope. As Jesus Christ said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ No one has ever made a statement like that. No one has ever made a claim like that. The question that comes to me is, Was he who he claimed to be, the Son of God?”

The day after Graham’s Sandringham sermon, Robert Runcie, the archbishop of Canterbury and primate of the Anglican church, hosted a reception for Graham so church leaders of all denominations could meet the evangelist. Runcie spoke warmly of Graham’s work—an important endorsement. The majority of Anglican bishops in the crusade regions are openly backing Mission England and are encouraging their parishioners to participate. “There is great respect for Billy” in the Anglican hierarchy, said Gavin Reid, an Anglican church journalist and one of the crusade organizers.

Mission England runs from 1982 through 1985. The first year was spent preparing churches for evangelism. The emphasis on prayer has been heavy. Many thousands of “prayer triplets” have been formed, in which a group of three people in a church each agrees to pray for three more people. Another thrust was called “Prepare the Way,” carried out in conjunction with Youth for Christ. Touring groups, employing drama, music, and preaching, toured the five regions in which the crusades will be held. Speakers included Anthony Campolo, an American; Graham associate Leighton Ford; and several Britons. In addition, some 10,000 people have been trained in church-growth techniques, including the nurturing of new Christians. “Some of these churches haven’t had new converts in years,” said Graham associate Walter Smyth.

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The emphasis on preparation carried right on through Graham’s address to the 11,800 churchmen gathered in Birmingham on that cold day in January. Graham defined his view of evangelism. In its “narrow sense,” he said, it must include the conversion of sinners to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. A logical conclusion of the process is the addition of new members to churches, he said, an unfamiliar prospect for many British churches. Graham carefully explained the elements in his own preaching: making sure people know they have sinned; explaining the work Christ accomplished on the cross; reinforcing the need to repent; and explaining the cost of following Christ in discipleship.

Graham asked the ministers to prepare for the Mission England crusade by making sure no personal sin separates them from God, and by concentrating on prayer. He said he has seen poorly organized crusades become successful because of a strong prayer emphasis. He concluded his message to them by saying, “I will come here on my knees as your servant, not as a great preacher or evangelist, but as a servant in Christ’s name, to serve you.”

Starting with Harringay in 1954, Graham has preached five major British crusades, all but one in London. Partially for that reason, he will not preach there during this crusade. Luis Palau launched a London crusade last fall and will return to the city in June (CT, Feb. 17, 1984, p. 35). Graham will be touring six cities (Bristol, Sunderland, Norwich, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Ipswich). Three of those areas have been hard pressed by unemployment, a topic the crusade’s British organizers have asked Graham to be particularly sensitive to. There are other sensitivities as well. In Birmingham’s large Moslem community, the word “crusade” has an unsettling connotation.

Graham’s 12 days in London were among the most intensive of his long career. The strenuous schedule left him ill and exhausted. He checked into the Mayo Clinic upon his return to the United States, and was treated for an acute infection of the sinuses and left inner ear.

Six days later, he was well enough to check out and leave the country once again. He headed for an undisclosed location where he planned to rest and start work on the 40 sermons he will deliver during the coming crusade.

After Graham’s departure from England, crusade momentum kept building. Some 18,000 were expected at counseling classes in February, but the actual number of students was nearer 50,000.

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