Do you ever have a book hanging around that you guiltily feel you ought to have read?
To some mild extent, that’s how I felt about Darrell Paproth’s book, Failure Is Not Final: A Life of C.H. Nash (Sydney: Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, 1997). Why? Because it is the story of the founder of the theological college where I work, now Melbourne School of Theology (MST), before that Bible College of Victoria (BCV), and originally Melbourne Bible Institute (MBI). I should know about this man, I thought, whose story made my own story in its current form possible. The author, too, spent a number of years from 1986 teaching at BCV, so his ministry life also symbolized the influence of this noteworthy figure of Australian Christianity from the early days of the Commonwealth (post-1901).
Biographies don’t always leap off the shelf at you, but in time I felt ready, and especially on a recent, first-time visit to Papua New Guinea, namely MST’s daughter college, the Christian Leader’s Training College in Banz, near Mt. Hagen, I found Paproth’s book a suitable companion.
So here’s the way MBI began:
On 13 September 1920 Theo Lowther sat opposite Nash in the Prahran Congregational Church. Between them was a trestle table and, on the table, their Bibles and notebooks. For six weeks they continued thus, Nash teaching Lowther on his own (95).
Another three students had joined by the end of term three, and the academic year of 1921 began with 22 students enrolled. Nash, who undertook this role at the age of 54, would eventually personally train one thousand students in the MBI setting. “Who dares despise the day of small things,” as Zech. 4:10 warns?” But it takes courage and humility to start so small.
Nash, I discovered, was Cambridge educated, and potentially destined for great things. But on one occasion, while a curate aged 28 at at country parish in Yorkshire, he was involved in some kind of indiscretion with a young woman while walking her home from a satellite church (41). Paproth reports Nash’s own account, that it was merely a kiss against the girl’s will, while hostile accounts made it more, and perhaps the late Victorian era was particularly sensitive to any impropriety. I suspect it was not serious by present day standards, but the truth was evidently hard to discover even for researcher Paproth.
In any event, this false step ruined his career path in England, and even upon his move (or flight) to Australia, its ghost would haunt him, as Nash’s rivals in the structures of his own Anglican denomination, with which he identified to the end, found it easy to raise suspicions about his past record. His dealings with women raised suspicions on two more occasions (around 1906), again in such a way that little firm detail is available, and writer and reader seem to share a profound uncertainty whether the actions behind the accusations were serious or not (67-75). Nash evidently felt shame, on the one hand, over having overstepped the bounds in some way in perhaps two out of these three incidents, and on the other hand indignantly challenged his opponents to put up firm evidence of the kinds of more profound accusations they were making.
This seemed to happen whenever his star was set to rise most steeply, and the resulting setbacks were serious. Yet Nash grew to be a figure of tremendous stature in the evangelical Christian scene in Melbourne, just one part of which was his founding role in a college that was one of the great missionary sending centres of Australia from that time. There is much more to tell, but I’m trying to avoid having to completely re-read the book. The book itself stems from Paproth’s PhD thesis, and at times you still tell, as that very detailed, slightly dry, researchy feel lingers in places. (Alas, it lingers at times in my own Days of Creation (2014) too.)
But as an insight into the life of a significant man, in fact it is probably fair to say, a great man, who bravely served God with great gifts though he might, humbled by his flaws and failures, have retreated to the shadows. There are not many of us who have not failed in some department. It is in Christ that we can discover the kind of audacity to come out, not without having done the appropriate period of (social, rather than liturgical) penance at times, and pick up the tools of our spiritual trade again, shorn of some of the excess of our ego, and set to work again.
Failure is not final. God is good.