Following a Divine Order

First published on: 17th November 2018

The Rt Revd Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford, celebrates the centenary of a calling to missionary service

At 9.30 am on Saturday, 10 November 2019, my wife and I took a walk on Tynemouths Longsands beach, followed by a short time of prayer at Holy Saviours at 11am. It was our first visit to Tynemouth, but a significant one, because, at 9.30am on 10 November 1918 — exactly 100 years earlier — my grandfather, Alec Watson, took a walk on Longsands that was to change his life.

Alecs story provides an unusual perspective on the Armistice Centenary celebrations that took place that weekend. Brought up in Front Street, Tynemouth as the son of a retired sea captain, he was physically frail as a child and young man, and was declared medically unfit to serve in the 1914-18 War, a humiliating blow that led to feelings of isolation, guilt and inadequacy. Having trained as a pharmacist, Alec continued his work for a firm of chemists in Newcastle (and his Boys Bible Class at St. Saviours) before taking that walk on the beach on the day before the Armistice was signed. It was there that he received what he later described as a Divine Order to train as a doctor and offer himself for service with the Church Missionary Society.

Obeying that Order proved to be fraught with difficulty. For one thing, it depended on the ability of Alec to leave a secure job and income, on which both he and his widowed mother were reliant. For another it was contingent on CMS accepting Alec as medically fit, effectively reversing the decision of the Army medical board four years earlier. The first problem was solved when one of Alecs brothers offered to support their mother out of the blue; the second was complicated further when Alec started his medical training at the Royal Victoria Infirmary and fell in love with a certain Mary Griffiths.

Mary had herself received a clear call to missionary service in China at the age of eight, when her father, a vicar, had invited a CMS missionary to preach at his church in Norfolk. She had trained as a doctor at the Newcastle Infirmary (which, along with the Royal Free in London, was one of only two medical courses open to women at that time); and a positive first encounter with Alec blossomed into love on her side as well. Marys application to CMS was straight forward, but Alecs much less so, with the mission agency proving just as sceptical as the Army about his fitness to serve. With no apparent question in either of their minds that Marys missionary calling must override all thoughts of marriage, she duly set off for China without him, and any hope of a life together was, at best, put on hold.

In the event, a senior orthopaedic surgeon was talking to Alec one day and remarked, Watson, why dont you have your knee straightened?, offering to perform the complex operation himself. (In retrospect, my very existence, and those of dozens of my wider family, depended on the success of those hours in the operating theatre!).All went well, and Alec duly set off for China, before meeting with Mary in Hong Kong, where they were married in the Bishops private chapel.

There followed 15 years of remarkable ministry in Kunming, the capital of the South-Western province of Yunnan, heading up the Hui Tien Hospital, with a particular emphasis on work among leprosy patients - a passion of Alecs, perhaps stoked by his own feelings of shame and isolation during the Great War. Then in 1938, the couple and their two younger children were called back to England, where they were reunited with the two older boys, who had been sent to be educated in England at an alarmingly early age. Sixteen years ensued as Superintendent of the Mildmay Mission Hospital in Bethnal Green, which he steered through the Blitz, the creation of the NHS, and beyond; and then a quiet retirement in Oxfordshire, where he ministered as a lay reader, having successfully evaded various episcopal attempts to ordain him!

My personal memory of Dr Alec is of a sweet old man with Parkinsons, who used to sit me on his lap, and who died when I was seven. But his story and that of Dr Mary, who outlived him by decades has always been a huge inspiration to me in my own journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

In 2002 that sense of indebtedness led me to travel in their footsteps and in the company of Tony Lambert, an experienced researcher and China specialist employed by one of the mission agencies. We visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, but spent most of our time in Yunnan province, in and around Kunming, where a new hospital had been built on the site of the old, and the churches both official and underground were thriving.

We were back in Beijing on the last day of the visit, walking through a historic part of the city, when I asked Tony whether he knew anyone nearby. Yes, he responded, he knew a lady who ran a house church in her home. Calling on the lady, I got talking to her elderly mother, a Dr Esther Li, who knew a little English; and little by little it emerged that Dr Li had been born in Yunnan province, had been educated in Kunming, and… had worked as my grandfathers deputy in Hui Tien Hospital between 1935 and 1938, where, she told me, Alec had become fondly known as Dr Jesus by staff and patients alike! An almost unbelievable coincidence, given that we were meeting two thousand miles from Kunming and 64 years after my grandparents returned to England, in a country with a population of 1.4 billion! Or else just the normal activity of the Living God, whos divine order on a Tynemouth beach we have looked forward to celebrating 100 years on.

Dr Alec Watson
Dr Alec Watson
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