Heroes – Wilson Carlile

A recent visit to the Wilson Carlile Centre in Sheffield, home of the Church Army, prompted me to find out more about this remarkable evangelist.  A successful Victorian businessman who suffered a breakdown following financial ruin, he turned to Christ and, heavily influenced by D L Moody, discovered a passion for evangelism.

But unlike others of his day, his passion was for the people on the margins.  London, where he served his curacy, was full of soldiers, working class labourers, sex workers, addicts and the homeless.  Carlile concluded they would not go near a church because the feared they wouldn’t receive a welcome from the respectable Christians in them.  So he began to hold open air meetings to take the gospel out of the church and into the streets, but these got so large that he eventually had to stop them.

Resigning his curacy to devote himself full time to slum ministry, he created the Church Army to focus on outreach to the working class.  Not unlike the already-functioning Salvation Army, but with a crucial distinction that instead of becoming a separate church, Wilson determined to keep the Church Army within the Anglican church, as it still is today.

Carlile set up a school in Oxford to train working-class evangelists to reach their own class, thus avoiding the potential class-barrier that could hinder others in outreach.  Today the Church Army still welcomes and trains evangelists who might not be welcome in other places, but who are adept at forming connections with people on the margins of society.  They have ministries in 20 different countries.

My visit challenged me again with the problem of how to reach out to people who are different to us.  Many churches are monocultural even if they are multiracial, and tend to reproduce (if they do at all) in their own image, rather than adapting themselves to be genuinely accessible to people of other backgrounds – especially those who are already marginalised.

Some years ago, an urban outreach worker who lived in a very deprived area of the city but was attached to a church in the suburbs told me: “I’ve got a problem – a man on my estate just became a Christian”.

“Why’s that a problem?” I asked.

“Because I can’t take him to church.  They’ll reject him.”

Let’s hope things have changed in our churches.