The testimony of Bishop Leonard Wilson
Leonard Wilson, who was born in Gateshead in County Durham, responded to the Call of God and was trained for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. On the eve of his ordination he is supposed to have prayed to God a prayer of (slightly conditional) commitment.
‘Lord, I will serve you anywhere – except the Equator, the North Pole and Birmingham!’
Whether true or not, part of his ministry was in Singapore, not far from the equator, and later he was ordained Bishop of Birmingham and is reported to have said, ‘as an old man of 70, I am waiting for my call to the Arctic!’ Whatever conditions he gave to the Almighty, he became, in fact a dedicated priest and ultimately bishop.
In 1941, during the Second World War, he was ordained Bishop of Singapore. Along with others he was arrested and interned in Changi gaol. In October 1943, the Japanese ‘Gestapo’ raided the prison and took 57 prisoners, including Leonard Wilson. He was accused of being a spy and endured days of torture. Bound to a table he was beaten with knotted ropes by relays of soldiers.
His daughter The Revd Canon Susan Cole-King, addressing the Lambeth Conference in 1998, spoke of this:
‘Often he had to be carried back to the crowded, dark and filthy cell, almost unconscious from his wounds. On one occasion, when seven men were taking it in turns to flog him, they asked him why he didn’t curse them. He told them it was because he was a follower of Jesus who taught us to love one another.
He asked himself then how he could possibly love these men with their hard, cruel faces, who were obviously enjoying the torture they were inflicting. As he prayed he had a picture of them as they might have been as little children, and it’s hard to hate little children.’
When asked by his torturers how he could still believe in God, he replied,
‘God does not save me by freeing me from pain or punishment. But he saves me by giving me the Spirit to bear it.’’
Part of that strengthening came to him, as he was being beaten. He called to mind the words of the hymn:
‘Look Father, look on his anointed face,
and only look on us as found in him.’
His daughter said: ‘In that moment he was given a vision of those men not as they were then, but as they were capable of becoming, transformed by the love of Christ. He said he saw them completely changed, their cruelty becoming kindness, their sadistic instincts changed to gentleness.’
Even in the face of his own suffering he ministered to his fellow prisoners and, in his biography, he spoke movingly of celebrating the Eucharist for his camp-mates. They had no consecrated bread so he used grains of rice and water instead of wine. He used a tin mug for chalice, on which he scratched a cross. Jesus did the rest. It was this that sustained Christian faith in the camp.
After the war he returned to Singapore as Bishop and had the great joy of confirming one of his torturers. This is how he described the moment:
‘One of these men who was allowed to march up from the prison to the cathedral, as a prisoner, to come for baptism, was one of those who had stood with a rope in his hand, threatening and sadistic. I have seldom seen so great a change in a man. He looked gentle and peaceful. His face was completely changed by the power of Christ.’
That change by Christ Jesus was a direct result of the testimony of Bishop Wilson – a living testimony preached not in words but through love.
The hymn that sustained Leonard Wilson:
And now, O Father, mindful of the love
that bought us, once for all, on Calvary’s tree,
and having with us him that pleads above,
we here present, we here spread forth to thee
that only offering perfect in thine eyes,
the one true, pure, immortal sacrifice.
Look, Father, look on his anointed face,
and only look on us as found in him;
look not on our misusings of thy grace,
our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim:
for lo, between our sins and their reward
we set the Passion of thy Son our Lord.
And then for those, our dearest and our best,
by this prevailing presence we appeal:
O fold them closer to thy mercy’s breast,
O do thine utmost for their souls’ true weal;
from tainting mischief keep them white and clear,
and crown thy gifts with strength to persevere.
And so we come: O draw us to thy feet,
most patient Saviour, who canst love us still;
and by this food, so aweful and so sweet,
deliver us from every touch of ill:
in thine own service make us glad and free,
and grant us never more to part with thee.
Words | William Bright