+ John and Becky Townley | Photo by Jacob McGarry
The Free Methodist Church in the United Kingdom is led by an experienced church planter and former dairy farmer who understands that serving God includes “the experience of suffering and glory.”
John Townley, the lead member of the U.K. church’s National Leadership Team, and his wife, Becky, spoke with Light + Life Magazine in March when the couple visited the United States for the Multiply Conference in Detroit. John said that although he became a Christian at age 14, he didn’t commit to “simple obedience to Jesus” until age 18. He noted that obedience has not prevented him from experiencing bereavement.
When John was 17, his 18-month-old niece was run over by a bus and died. While he prepared to pursue his call to pastoral ministry, his 10-week-old baby daughter, Abigail, was killed in a car accident. In 2007, his first wife, Caroline, died after a six-year battle with cancer.
“The grief nearly killed me,” John said about Caroline’s death. “I’m a 100 percent person, so I grieved full-on, and I cannot describe how painful that was. It was horrendous.”
Along with the loss of loved ones, John’s ministry efforts did not always succeed. He said he also faced grief when he had to conduct the closing service for a church that he helped plant.
But he has also seen God’s kingdom multiply after giving up his dream “to own the world’s best pedigree Friesian herd” of dairy cattle.
“I’ve seen hundreds of people saved and hundreds of people baptized,” said John, whose ministry focused for two decades on Cornwall, the county at England’s southwestern tip. Attendance at Cornwall’s Free Methodist churches, which use Light & Life in their names, grew from approximately 50 to 900 during his time of ministry there with churches planted in Penzance, Truro, Hayle, St. Austell, Falmouth and Pool.
Rebirth in Bristol
Now the Townleys have moved to another part of southwest England — the city and county of Bristol, where another John planted a church. Two religious societies asked John Wesley in 1739 to help establish a place for them to meet, and a later gathering there led to Methodism’s explosive growth in America.
“It was in Bristol in the first-ever Methodist building in the world, called the New Room, that Francis Asbury was called,” John Townley said. “John Wesley said, ‘Our brethren in America call aloud for our help. Who will go?’ This was in 1771 that Francis Asbury answered the call. He set sail from Pill just down the road from Bristol and came to America — Pennsylvania — and never came back. And when Asbury arrived in America, there were 600 Methodists, and when he died, there were 214,000 Methodists. He also ordained 4,000 preachers, and, by the time of the Civil War, there were more than a half-million Methodists. So you can trace that back to Bristol in the New Room.”
Free Methodism in Bristol began with a “groundbreaking prayer meeting” July 2, 2016, in the New Room with Free Methodist Church – USA Bishop David Roller and his wife, Yvonne, in attendance. The Townleys did not realize at the time that they would become the church planters in Bristol.
Becky noted that although the churches in Cornwall are called Light & Life, the Bristol church plant is named Freedom Church. She said that helps Bristol residents understand the new church is not another plant of the Cornwall congregations, but it’s an effort of all the Free Methodists in the U.K. that includes “rebranding the Free Methodist Church to focus on the freedom that we have.”
Free Methodists in England have always promoted freedom in Christ since forming in 1971, but John said the U.K. conference has decided in recent years to emphasize “set free [souls saved], living free [entire sanctification and holiness], and bringing freedom [evangelism]. … In the U.K. now, our freedom is our identity.”
Bristol played a key role in Methodism spreading to America, and U.S. Free Methodists are now key to supporting U.K. Free Methodists as they revive Wesleyan beliefs in Bristol.
“We have a list of over 100 prayer partners for the Bristol plant, and a good number of them are in America,” Becky said.
Other U.S. support for the Bristol plant has included approximately $130,000 from the Acts 12:24 Churches, a Free Methodist conference on the United States’ East Coast.
Although the United Kingdom is known for the Church of England and the origin of Methodism, the country’s spiritual condition reflects Jesus’ statement that “the harvest is plentiful” (Matthew 9:37).
The Guardian newspaper reported in 2016 that “the number of people who say they have no religion [48.5 percent] is escalating and significantly outweighs the Christian population [43.8 percent] in England and Wales” (fmchr.ch/ukreligion). Church attendance in England has fallen to only 4.7 percent of the population (fmchr.ch/ukchatt).
While the Townleys’ story includes plenty of pain, it also is a love story — both of God’s love for them and their love for each other.
Becky said a mutual friend told her about John while she was living in Salisbury in the mid-south of England — a four-hour drive from Cornwall where John was living.
“I’d never married, and I was at 43 at that stage,” she recalled.
John had mentioned while praying with two other men that he was open to marrying again. The mutual friend said, “I know girls who are available … but Becky’s the one. … I think she’d make a really good pastor’s wife.”
Before pursuing a relationship, John got permission from his four children. Then he and Becky began phone conversations that led to their first date a month later in February 2008. They married in October 2008.
Visit freemethodist.org.uk for more information about the Free Methodist Church in the United Kingdom and wearefreedomchurch.co.uk to learn more about Freedom Church and about how God has worked in the lives of John and Becky Townley.1