Watching the William Wilberforce/John Newton film Amazing Grace at a home group around the day the church remembers William Wilberforce (30 July) encouraged Michael Berry, then vicar at St Philip’s in St Heliers, Auckland, New Zealand, to use some of the themes in the Sunday sermon at church on Sunday 2 August 2009.
Hearing him prompted me to look back at some ‘John Newton’ photos I took a while back.
Robin Meredith-Jones, actor & friend, has for many years been doing a show base on John Newton, also (inevitably) called ‘Amazing Grace’. On the 200 anniversary of John Newton’s ‘promotion to glory’ on 21 December 1807, Robin and his wife Christine Way did a version of the show in the London City church of St Mary’s Woolnoth, where John Newton was vicar for 28 years.
Most people know that Newton was involved in the slave trade – though not all are aware that Newton was himself a white slave briefly early on, after an altercation with a the captain of a slave ship he was crewing on.
What is well documented is John Newton’s conversion to the Christian faith, and his penning of the famous hymn Amazing Grace.
His ‘seeing the light’ could not have been more graphically portrayed on the bicentenary of his death. There are some high circular windows in St Mary’s. The low winter sun pushed it’s way through the clouds, occasionally making a spot-light on the wall, as Robin re-told the story in the Newton’s original words. Just as we got to the part of the story of his conversion, the light from the sun hit Newton’s pulpit, making the story glow in a way more powerful than could have been pre-planned. It was truly Amazing.
Robin is preparing to take Amazing Grace on tour in Bermuda in October 2009, after doing a warm-up in Copthorne on 20 September 2009; but is always keen for other opportunities to perform it.
[December 2020 update:
Since writing this post, Robin and Christine got to visit West Africa, and see some of the places Newton also saw, and they were delighted and humbled to perform Amazing Grace there. Sadly, Robin died in November 2020, a few years after Christine. Amazing Grace formed a key theme at each of their funerals.
Michael Berry has been an Archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of Auckland since 2016.]