Jim Punton   -   his life and influence

What people say

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From Michael Eastman


Little did I know when I first met Jim Punton we would work together for fifteen eventful years. Jimmy (Boss) Meiklejohn of Scripture Union Scotland wrote to me in the Autumn of 1970. I had been assigned to Boss when first appointed in 1959 to research the way ahead for S.U. England's Inter School Christian Fellowship's work in the then Secondary Modern Schools. He took a keen interest in the fledgling FYT when it became into partnership with S.U. in 1966 and when in 1967 I was asked to transfer to take up the pioneering role of Secretary and Development Officer. Boss heard of our plans to appoint a second staff person to develop F.Y.T.'s growing training programme. He recommended I get in touch with Jim Punton, who was returning to Scotland after a few years on the staff of a Presbyterian Church in New York. Jim had come to faith through S.U. Scotland Camps, led by Boss who had mentored Jim. Boss said Jim was the person for this challenging role. When some years later I told Jim of this he gave a wry smile and muttered something under his breath.

I asked Jean Findlater to invite Jim to the Scottish FYT Conference held on 4th - 6th December 1970 at Carberry Towers. When I talked with Jim there was immediate rapport. I noted in my diary for 6th December that I should invite Jim to apply, sending him the necessary papers. This he did. However he filled in S.U. England's application form in a highly original way. Instead of answering a number of the questions he simply wrote 'Why' !! This far from causing concern to the Interview Panel it gave a strong indication that this was the kind of person we needed - someone who would make waves. Jim did this in spades. He was interviewed on 1st February 1971 and unanimously recommended to the Committee and through them to SU England's Council for appointment as FYT's first and as it turned out only Education and Training Officer. He began on 1st March 1971 and FYI's, SU's and my life were never the same again!

With huge energy he set about developing FYT's training programme taking over from me the regional training programme week-ends, each with their organising committee which had developed from the original central annual FYT Conferences. This included annual week-ends in Scotland, N. Ireland, Northern England, London and the South East., the South West, the Eastern Counties and the Midlands. FYT training took off, with a mixture of these week-ends with day and evening events, tutor training and Unit training for individual Youth Club teams. From 16 events in 1971 the programme tripled in two years to 29 in 1972 and 46 in 1973. He did the lion's share along with myself and local key volunteers. His energy and resilience was astonishing. The work required incessant travel by public transport around the U.K. staying in others homes. He never drove a car.

He researched and applied the latest training methods applying these to the needs of frontier youth workers and work. He built an extensive and comprehensive range of handouts culled from wide and detailed reading and research into the youth work literature covering every aspect of work with young people at risk. In his first two years he worked on a major paper on FYT's training policy again thoroughly researched and carefully typed himself. This set directions in 1973 for FYT's future. When Will Barker and Graham Leavers joined the staff respectively Northern and Southern field officers in England he supported them in their training as he did Jean Findlater in Scotland.

He took on the development role for Scotland and N.Ireland nurturing these areas of the U.K. As the FYT's staff team expanded to take on field officers in these nations plus, eventually seven English regions he became a resource for each in the staff team, who looked to him to provide expertise and advice. The programme of tutor training for key volunteers grew..

He was soon in demand at Youth Work training colleges and became a recognised authority for his wide knowledge and expertise in the field of community youth work. In particular Jim was appointed as adjunct staff member of the YMCA College (now the George Williams YMCA College) with responsibilities for the access course students.

He was also in demand at theological colleges not only in relation to youth work but also for his biblical and theological understanding. He became a visiting tutor at Ridley Hall, Cambridge.

Jim was first rate biblical theologian. His passion was N.T. Greek and he would wrestle into the small hours with the meaning of scripture in it's original context. He had the ability to relate the "then" of his biblical studies to the "now" of contemporary culture and society about which he kept himself informed by wide reading of periodicals and other published material. He encourage and enabled others to get at the meaning of Scripture for themselves and produced D I Y guides for those who hadn't facility in the original languages. He enabled several generations of Christian youth workers to develop the skills of biblical reflection on their own experience and practice which later appeared in books like Pip Wilson's "Gutter Feelings". Having clashed with Roger Dowley on the Committee of the Evangelical Urban Training Project (now 'UNLOCK') Jim set Roger on the course which led to Roger's widely regarded 'The Recovery of a Lost Bequest'. He gave people the references to the biblical material and challenged them to find out for themselves. In this way others became contextual theologians.

Early in his first year I asked Jim what was the foremost issue in theological and biblical studies. Unhesitatingly he replied "The Kingdom" We set ourselves the task of finding out what literature was available and who was doing significant work on this key matter in Scripture. Despite extensive research and consulting widely with academics we came up with very little. This set Jim on a quest to get to grips with a biblical understanding of the reign of God in the world which put FYT ahead of the curve. Throughout the 70s and 80s 'Kingdom Theology' exploded. Some of the fruits Jim's work appeared in FYT booklets "the Community of Shalom God's Radical Alternative'; "Mission"; "Community of the King an exploration of the relationship between The Kingdom, The Church and The World". After his death "The Messiah People" edited by Paul Grant and Raj Patel, was published from taped talks given at the Post Green Community with whom he worked closely. He developed a deep and lasting friendship with Alan and Elie Kreider of the London Mennonite Centre. He introduced us to Mennonite theologians like John Yoder (The Politics of Jesus) and Donald Kraybill (The Upside Kingdom). He read the Latin America Catholic Liberation Theologians when they were first published. Jim Wallis of Sojouners he knew from the early days.

He built up a considerable personal library. Jim didn't let the FYT budget determine what he bought ! He either claimed on expenses or passed the bill on to me. This included one day a complete set of all seven large volumes of Kittel's massive Theological Dictionary of the New Testament at eye watering cost.. He simply said we need the tools for the job. That was that ! Jim used books to have a strenuous and spirited conversation with the author. I have his copy of The Politics of Jesus full of underlining and annotations. Some in agreement, others challenging John Yoder's conclusions. I also have his copy similarly annotated of Jose Miranda's "Marx and the Bible". On his death he bequeathed his own library to FYT which for some years was on loan to the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity. When S.U. moved out of London and The Frontier Centre was set up Jim's library and FYT's library was brought together in the Jim Punton Memorial library. Sadly when in 2000 The Frontier Centre was closed the combined library was broken up. Some of the books were cherry picked by the Cambridge Centre for Youth Ministry. Some went into the joint library of the combined theological colleges in Cambridge as The Punton Bequest ! The rest were boxed and stored at Ridley Hall whose Principal at the time was Graham Cray.

Jim's seemingly effortless ability to conduct an informal seminars on some biblical theme arose from his intensive study and extensive reading which he maintained to the end.

Unsurprisingly Jim was called upon to address larger influential gatherings like the Islington Conference for evangelical Anglican clergy. Bishop David Sheppard, one of the founders of FYT, engaged him to address a conference of all the clergy in the Liverpool Diocese. He was a prime mover and shaper of Greenbelt where he initiated the Seminar Programme. His own seminars influenced successive generations of young people. I still meet people, often in Christian leadership, who when I mention my connection with FYT. say "Jim Punton, I heard him, at Greenbelt his teaching set new directions on my life." I've lost count of the number of people who have said to me either "I heard Jim once" or "I met Jim once". These one off conversations set new directions for their own lives.

Within Scripture Union he was an invigorating, if at times a disturbing influence. There came a parting of the ways with S.U. Scotland over his leadership of the SU Camps he led. He made a key contribution to SU England's Kingdom Theology Think Tank whose report challenged SU's understanding and practice. James Jones who followed David Sheppard as Bishop of Liverpool, pays public tribute to Jim's influence on his own personal theological journey. When Jim led staff prayers, especially Communion, it was a memorable experience. He brought an earthenware chalice wine jug and plate decorated with celtic crosses for use in FYT training events. I've got it and use it with the Home Group I lead. Jim representing FYT was a founding member of the Urban Mission Training Association along with John Vincent, the Methodist founder of the Urban Theology Unit, Bishop Laurie Green then of the Aston Training Scheme and others. He was a member of the original Committee of the Evangelical Urban Training Project (now UNLOCK). He played a key role in the formation of Traidcraft which grew out of Tearfund/Tearcraft. With Duncan White of London City Mission and Patrick Sookhdeo then at Evangelical Alliance, Jim initiated the discussions which led in due time to the formation of Careforce, a year out volunteering programme for Christian young people from evangelical backgrounds. He supported the work of the Evangelical Race Relations Group (later to become Evangelical Christians for Racial Justice). In particular he mentored and encouraged Paul Grant and Raj Patel who became ECRJ's executive staff

In 1974 Jim was a delegate at the first Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization and met with Latin American evangelicals like Orlando Costa, Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar. He got to know Howard Snyder, Ron Sider and Ray Bakke and others from the U.SA. He found himself making common cause with these and Australians like John Smith and David Claydon. Together these drafted the Radical Response to the Lausanne Covenant. I had toured for S.U. Australia in 1973. These links plus those from Australia he met at Lausanne led to the extended time in Australia in 1975 followed up by a further time in 1979.

He spent time in each of the States hosted by S.U. Australia. These visits with mine resulted in many young radical Christians in Australia coming to the U.K. for several weeks, and in some cases months visiting and learning from the U.K. frontier youth work scene. FYT found itself part of an international network of radical evangelical mission theologians. Jim was subsequently asked to head up the mini Consultation on Christian Witness to the Urban Poor in the concurrent series which made up the Lausanne Consultations held in Pattaya, Thailand in June 1980. His exhaustive study on 'The Poor' in Scripture formed the basis for this. It is still used today. The findings are published in Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 22 which Colin Marchant finally compiled from Jim's material.

With then some rigour he compiled a definitive study on the subjects of Hell and e for the Resurrection Fellowship (formerly the Conditional Immortality Mission) he had jointed their committee and when chair effected the name change

He was a stickler for accuracy and completeness in written material and took enormous pains to get things right. He wanted "Hansard" for FYT Committee Minutes, when he took them in my absence they were indeed "a full and accurate record". He had instant recall of lengthy and complex discussions. He didn't like to be edited ! On one occasion he didn't speak to me for two weeks because I had the temerity to cut an article to fit the space available on teenage sexuality which he had written for FYT Review.

I remember his strong affinity for black young people. He missed a key committee meeting through attending Court as a friend on behalf of a young African who had been harassed by the police. He had infinite patience with black students on the YMCA Access Course with poor learning and writing skills whom he coached through exams that set them up to gain diplomas and degrees. He introduced Morris Stuart to FYT and brought Les Isaacs, the founder of Street Pastors into the FYT orbit.

The FYT office saw many, mostly young men, coming in for held and advice. His pastoral and counselling skills were well developed. He helped gay christian workers in their complexities of their relationships. He usually stayed in private homes on his many travels. This made for lasting friendships. He was particularly gifted in helping young men who in their adolescent journies were rebelling against the faith of their parents. At times the office would be taken over by the young men and women from Scotland either team members or participants in the Scottish S.U. Camps he led. His home was open house to them. Their visits and Jim's enthusiasm lit up a dull day.

His resilience and powers of recovery were remarkable, his zest for life infectious. He drew energy from others. At a training week-end in N.Ireland we shared a room. Jim arrived exhausted and drained having just flown in shortly before he was due to lead the first key session on the Friday evening. He collapsed on the bed but when the session began he was all energy, stimulating a whole series of encounter exercises and role plays. The next morning when I was doing some stretches, sit-ups and press ups to get myself going, the sheets twitched and from a red beard came the muffled comment "If it takes all that effort to look like you bro, I wont bother"!

He could stay up all night studying or preparing and be on the go next day. He did so before going to Australia in 1995 packing in a borrowed case for the long trip. He was a formative influence in new frontier projects. He helped the Lindley Lodge Training Centre, which developed courses for young people from industry and business, when the Centre Staff and Council were drawing up their values, aims, and objectives. He provided Consultancy for The Mayflower Family Centre. He helped John and Ann Ellis as they pioneered the Shalom Centre in Grimsby which celebrated 40 years of work with frontier young people in 2012. Young people who were club members in the early days still remember Jim.

He often worked late in the S.U. office and always answered the 'phone after hours. People recall to this day hearing his voice when calling. I remember him bringing a four foot diameter circular marble top to Marylebone Lane offices. He had found two in a skip. He got a taxi to take one to the office, the other home for a table. We had to winch it up to the fourth floor in the lift. It remained unused until we moved to City Road. I can see him now with seemingly miles of paper gushing from an adding machine calculating expenses for his first three years. It flowed across the floor and down the corridor. Jim had mentioned he was finding money tight. I asked him whether he had submitted expenses to S.U. He hadn't ! Thereafter his successive P.A.'s handled all his travel and other outlays.

He could be infuriating and 'impossible' at times. He kept a letter of resignation in his drawer for the first six months of his appointment threatening each week to submit it to the Committee. He never did. He had formidable forensic skills. When the debates got hotter the more articulate he became. He completely ignored copyright laws when compiling and editing the collection of worship material for FYT National Events. He re-wrote or altered material. Added verses to songs without a care. We were nearly sued as a result. Jim didn't believe in copyright ! He called all the women in S.U. office "Darling" to the annoyance of some. When rebuked by one he forthwith stopped this realising it gave offence of which he was unaware.

As a key member of the FYT Team we became a theological and missional community. We acted as catalysts together for the growing network of youth workers and youth clubs across the U.K. He became the public face of FYT. He was unfailingly loyal and supportive. We drew strength from him as did many others. We shared in his long, cruel, unexplained illness which gradually robbed him of his vitality. He apologised he hadn't been able to sort the three foot high stack of photocopied material extracted from journals and magazines which had piled up in the office. Jim's papers make up a section of the FYT archives.

Jim was a passionate, generous, uniquely gifted man, an evangelist through whom others came to faith. He was loyal and supportive and inspired friendship and loyalty in others. He lived life to the full. I still miss him.

Michael Eastman. 0.B.E
May 2013

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