David Watson: a legacy

David Watson: A Legacy

by Thomas Marshall

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Canon David Watson, one-time vicar of St. Michael le Belfrey York; pioneer behind the Renewal movement within the Anglican Church during the 1960s-80s; and much-loved international evangelist. There is so much that the Evangelical Church in Britain today can learn from his life and ministry.

In Chapter 22 of the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord Jesus rounds on the Pharisees, telling them, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God”. In these words, Jesus encapsulates the basic, two-fold requirement of Christian discipleship: to know and love the Word of God; and to live in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. It could be argued that Evangelical leaders through the years have usually stood on one or the other side: they are either remembered for their ability to expound the Scriptures eloquently, or for their advocacy of a Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered Christian life. David Watson is remembered for both. As such, his memory and work should be treasured by so-called ‘conservative’ and ‘charismatic’ Evangelicals alike.

As a resident of York, it is all the more enthralling for me to read about everything that God achieved through him and his wife Anne in this city. Indeed, the still-flourishing St Michael le Belfrey, the church that he helped to build throughout the heyday of his ministry, stands as a living, breathing testimony to him. Looking further afield, it is clear that David also left a lasting impression on the Evangelical Church nationwide. It was he who first urged John Wimber to come and minister in the UK and Wimber’s subsequent visits to Britain in 1981 and 1984 had a meteoric impact on, amongst others, ‘Holy Trinity Brompton’ and ‘St. Andrew’s Chorleywood’1. In view of this, it can even be claimed that Watson is indirectly responsible for the celebrated ‘Soul Survivor’ youth movement, which was in turn birthed out of St. Andrew’s in the early nineties. Worldwide, Watson’s influence spread further still through the frequent and often gruelling international evangelistic missions he led throughout his relatively short ministry. Working with an indispensible team of musicians, dancers and actors, this humble vicar from York proclaimed God’s Gospel all over the world2. It is telling that the visitor’s team on the door at St. Michael le Belfrey still to this day encounters tourists inquiring after Watson3.

But for all this, Watson is largely unsung within the British Evangelical Church today. It is very difficult to find any articles about him on the internet and his books are similarly hard to come by in most Christian book shops. Could this be because Evangelicals are wary of the definite emphasis on the Holy Spirit in his ministry? Could it be because of his controversial penchant for fraternising with the Roman Catholic Church? Or could it be because the Evangelical Church has simply forgotten him, twenty-five years on from his sad and untimely death? Whatever the reason, there is much that we can learn from Watson as Evangelicals living in 21st century Britain.

It is widely agreed that David Watson’s ministry was shaped by three main themes: Reconciliation, Evangelism and Renewal4. This article examines what we can learn from Watson’s approach in these three areas.

Reconciliation: Attitude before Conviction

In 1971, David Watson was asked to speak at the ‘International Fountain Trust Conference’ in Guildford. On his arrival he was shocked to discover that he would be sharing the platform with a popular leader from the Roman Catholic Church5. It is important to realise that Watson had been groomed as a young Christian man at the seminal ‘Iwerne Minster’ camps for public school boys, run by the inimitable Eric Nash6. In such an environment, Roman Catholicism was cast as an aberration to be avoided, a prejudice that Watson naturally inherited as he went on into Christian ministry. He was very much taken aback therefore to discover that he had much in common with his Roman Catholic colleague at the conference in Guildford. Praying about this earnestly later, Watson had the impression that God was telling him to sort out his attitude towards people with other beliefs, rather than revel in his own ‘sound’ theological convictions. This moment of prayer was to have a profound impact on Watson and the shape of his later ministry: he worked hard to build bridges with Roman Catholics who shared his fundamental beliefs about Christ, whilst never compromising his own, deep-felt Evangelical principles.

This predictably got him into hot water with more stringent Evangelicals who saw this as lily-livered compromise; David did not help matters by telling the National Evangelical Anglican Conference in 1977 that, “in many ways, the Reformation was one of the greatest tragedies that ever happened to the Church”7. However, it is important to understand Watson’s point here. He wasn’t arguing for a watering-down of Evangelical theology or identity; he himself preached the harder Evangelical truths unflinchingly, as we’ll see later in this article. Instead, Watson was decrying the messy disunity brought about by the Reformation in general and the subsequently appalling, un-loving attitude of many Evangelicals towards Roman Catholics, many of whom worshipped Christ as Lord and trusted in His death and resurrection for their salvation. Christian comedian and writer Adrian Plass worked with David Watson in the early 1980s and observed Watson’s renewed attitude first-hand.

Through Watson’s example of ‘enthusiastic respect’ for a Roman Catholic acquaintance, Plass ‘learned something quite new...about meeting people where they are, and not dragging them crudely into the arena of my own beliefs in order to club theirs to death’8. Within British society at large, Evangelical Christians have an unfortunate and sometimes deserved reputation as bigots and bullies. I think we could all learn from David Watson, who was well known for both his Evangelical convictions and his loving, accommodating attitude towards those with whom he differed.

Evangelism: A note of God’s judgment

When asked to recall David Watson’s strengths as an evangelist, Andrew Cornes, his first curate at St. Michael le Belfrey, remembered that, ‘there was...a note of God’s judgment – a theme many contemporary evangelists shy away from’9. Indeed, for all his personal charm and excellent communications skills, Watson was no mere people-pleaser and he was never afraid to present his listeners with the unpalatable truth of God’s wrath over a sinful and rebellious world. Shortly before he died, he preached movingly on Psalm 91 at St. Michael’s, Chester Square in London, describing Christ as like a “cleft in the rock” in which we can hide from God’s “awesome judgment”10. Watson’s willingness to teach the harder truths reminds us that wooing the world with God’s love and warning the world about God’s wrath need not be mutually exclusive.

Watson managed to build a reputation as a man of grace, humility and warmth whilst remaining committed to God’s whole truth and God was pleased to bring scores of people to faith through his ministry. Let’s learn from David Watson and resolve to tell the world around us about the ‘wrath to come’11, whilst of course keeping God’s love for the lost as our primary focus and motivation.

Renewal: to know God’s love

When the ‘Charismatic Renewal’ movement, of which David was a champion and figurehead, burst excitedly onto the scene in the 1960-70s, many Evangelical leaders within the British Church were understandably very wary. David inevitably copped some flak from some of his more conservative brethren who were deeply distrustful of his new convictions, and particularly his use of the ‘gifts of the Spirit’: his relationship with former mentor, Eric Nash was arguably never the same from then on.

However, along with his advocacy of the spiritual gifts, David Watson’s original vision for renewal was primarily based around people coming to know God’s love for them more deeply, that they might love and serve Him in return. David’s own ministry was transformed when, as a young curate serving in Cambridge, he received a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit and, in his own words, ’had a quiet but overwhelming sense of being embraced by the love of God’12. From then on, David sought to share this new experience of God’s love with those inside and outside the church, believing passionately that ‘the authority of the preacher, evangelist or witness lies not only in the God-given message that is being proclaimed but also in the personal experience of the message’13. Fittingly, when David was invited to outline the very heart of his message in a television interview shortly before his death, he replied, ‘“The most important thing is that people really need to know that God loves them. An awful lot of people are hurting for one reason or another. Down at the roots you find that they are not sure they are loved and accepted – by anyone. To know that God loves them, that is the important thing”’14.

Evangelical Christianity rightly prides itself on its orthodox theology, its courage in upholding the Gospel and on its traditionally sound, expository preaching. But have we become so concerned with defending God’s truth, that we have forgotten His love? The Apostle Paul prayed for the Christians in Ephesus, that they would be ‘come to know (Christ’s) love in all its fullness, although it can never fully be known, and so be completely filled with the very nature of God’15. Let’s learn from David Watson, a man who really knew he was loved by the Lord.


In Britain today it is increasingly difficult to define what constitutes an ‘Evangelical Christian’. There are ‘conservative’, ‘open’, ‘charismatic’, ‘classical’, ‘liberal’ and ‘post’ Evangelicals and, in the resultant confusion, the Evangelical Church is strongly in need of role models to provide much-needed direction and focus. I would argue that we need to re-discover David Watson. We need to re-read his immensely practical and visionary books; we need to learn from his experiences, out-lined so honestly in his two autobiographies; and we need to follow his example in seeking to present Jesus Christ relevantly to a needy and sinful world.

Famously, Watson used to go to bed very late and rise extremely early in order to fit his writing commitments into an already-packed day. When challenged on this manic schedule, Watson would reply that God hadn’t given him long to live on this earth so he had to make the most of his time. Whether or not David really knew he would die young, we should honour his immense commitment to the Church by listening again to what he had to say.


1 When Wimber visited St. Michael le Belfrey with a ministry team in 1981, he dropped in to St Andrew’s Chorleywood on his way up to York at the request of vicar, David Pytches. In October 1984, he then staged a conference in Central Hall, Westminster, fulfilling a promise he’d made to David Watson, to hold a big-scale event for the edification of British churches.

2 Between 1978 and 1983, David and his team conducted fifty-eight missions on five continents, ministering in such far-flung locations as South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

3 Recounted in a personal conversation with a member of the Visitor’s Team at ‘St Michael le Belfrey’.

4 See Matthew Porter’s timely and excellent study, David Watson: Evangelism, Renewal, Reconciliation (2003), Grove Books Limited.

5 Kevin Ranaghan (1940-), pioneer in the ‘Catholic Pentecostal’ movement.

6 Eric John Hewitson Nash (1898-1982), known affectionately as ‘Bash’ to his friends. At Iwerne Minster, Nash nurtured such Evangelical luminaries as John Stott, Timothy Dudley-Smith, Michael Green, David Sheppard, Dick Lucas and latterly, Nicky Gumbel.

7 Saunders and Sansom, (1992), p. 186

8 Plass, (1991), p. 142

9 Saunders and Sansom, (1992), p.179

10 From tape cassette AG.659: ‘He is my refuge’, Anchor recordings. Watson was making a reference to Toplady’s famous hymn, Rock of Ages.

111 Thessalonians 1:10.

12 Watson, (1983), p. 54

13 Watson, (1986), p. 75

14 Plass, (1991), p. 143

15 Ephesians 3:19 (Good News Version).

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