Dr Godfrey Noel Vose has died.
The former President of the Baptist World Alliance, founding principal of the Western Australian Baptist Theological College (now named Vose Seminary), church pastor, gifted orator and Bible teacher, died after a short illness following a fall in his home in the Eastern hills of Perth. He was 93.
That’s the formalities out of the way. Now let me tell you about the Noel so many of us loved. Noel has gone, and that somehow seems unreal today. He’s been such a part of the fabric of so many peoples’ lives that his departure makes things seem a little threadbare.
My memories of him are bookended. As a youngster I remember him preaching in our small Baptist church as a visiting speaker. There he was; all leonine mane, striking voice and ability to grasp our attention.
In the 1970s fundagelical Perth Baptist world of safari suits, weak tea, and Left Behind screenings on Sunday nights, Dr Vose stood out, even if, for a ten year old such as I, it was primarily because of how different he was to the norm: his dark grey polo-neck underneath a navy blazer, grey slacks and smart shoes. But I remember at least one sermon on the Lord’s Prayer. So that says something.
I wasn’t involved in Baptist churches that much from my mid-teens to around thirty, so there’s a huge gap that I am only starting to fill in now, as to how Noel spent that time.
But it’s the Noel of the past two decades, well after his retirement that has made the most impact on me. I first met him when I took up the role as youth pastor at Parkerville Baptist Church in 1999, a church he had planted in the Perth hills after he finished his role as principal at the college. By the time I met him the church was five years old and he was 78.
What struck me was his warmth, his love of Jesus, his genuine interest in others, his keen evangelistic heart, his love of hearing the Old Testament preached well, and his life of prayer.
I’d studied “somewhere else” originally, but that was no barrier. There was no sectarianism in Noel – ever. And here’s a man who predicted, and encouraged the theological voices of the developing world long before that was the sexy thing to do. His time as BWA president saw to that.
It also resulted in a most impressive collection of art from around the world, all of which festooned the walls of his genteel wide-verandahed bushland home overlooking the Perth urban sprawl. I shared many a tea, many a prayer, many an anecdote with Noel in the kitchen of that home, with its homely wallpaper and cast-iron wood burner.
There were always sandwiches, carefully prepared salad, china cups for tea, and a biscuit or two to finish. And that warm glow you feel when someone is serving you with love.
“Bless your heart!” he would say when he opened the door to you.
“Let’s commit you to the Lord,” he would say as you rose to leave, praying to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit with a fervency and intimacy that humbled people. Noel never saw theology as anything less – or more – than a tool to get to know the Lord better.
And then he started coming more often than not when we started the public meetings of our plant, Providence Church, more than three years ago. Just 25-30 of us then, but Noel a regular. And always there early, with his dog-eared Bible in hand, heading off to lead prayer in the back room. He would read a short scripture before praying that God would speak through the preaching that morning.
His encouragement and presence in those formative years was so welcome. Any newcomers he’d hunt out and chat with; not about himself of course, he was never so gauche, but always about them. Where were they from? Were they Christian? What did they do? Did they need any help? And having done that he’d make a bee-line for me to update me. By that stage he was already 90.
My brother knew Sir George Martin, the Beatles producer, who recently died. Reflecting on his passing, he made the remark that Sir George had that knack of making you feel like the important and interesting person in the room. Noel must have swapped notes with Sir George on that one.
His vigour and health had failed over the past year, of that there was no doubt. But the sharp mind was still there, even as age took its toll. And here is a man who had been widowed for nigh on 25 years, since the untimely death of his equally gifted wife Heather.
“I miss her every day,” he would say. And you knew he did. God had granted him long life, but a long life takes its toll too.
But now that grief is over, as is all of Noel’s grief. The God whom he served with gratitude for the salvation won for him by Christ has welcomed him after a race well run. And our own grief is tempered with the hope that Noel’s hope was resurrection hope.
“You can’t kill a weed!” he would always laugh, when I remarked how well he was looking. Noel was no weed. He was of the stock of God, who, though now soon to be sown in the ground, will one day come to life in imperishable, glorious power. And there will be many that day who will thank him for the prayerful, powerful, Jesus-centred life he lived for so many others.