Jon Boyall died in August 2021, and the Presbyterian Church lost one to whom it owes a great debt. Jon was the son of a missionary father with the promising […]
Jon Boyall died in August 2021, and the Presbyterian Church lost one to whom it owes a great debt. Jon was the son of a missionary father with the promising name of Rev. Charles Spurgeon Boyall (1893-1987). The father served for a time in the Sudan, but blackwater fever forced his return to Australia. He then turned his attention to India, which he reached in 1929 as a lay missionary. In tow was young Jon who had been born in Albury on 6th July of the previous year.
Tragically, Boyall senior fell under the influence of Professor Samuel Angus, and his gospel-denying theology of liberal idealism. Boyall junior was raised in a world which included the snakes and scorpions of Pallipat in South India and later the rigours of Knox Grammar School where he was a day student during the war years.
Married to Irene Harriss in 1953, Jon was ordained in 1955. At this stage, both bride and groom were committed to liberal theology but Jon was soon challenged as to whether he believed in the resurrection, and was confronted by the Westminster Confession of Faith – which, so one story goes, was given to him by a Methodist colleague. This was the crossing of the theological Rubicon, and later James Mullan was to portray Jon Boyall as ‘the arch-conservative’.
Jon was a methodical man, quiet and rather reserved, but armed with a wry smile, piercing blue eyes, and a dry sense of humour. After serving in Urana (where the footballer Norm Provan was born), the family moved to nearby Deniliquin. After that came a long stint at Bondi where in 1970 he completed his Bachelor of Divinity degree at the University of Sydney, graduating with honours.
This was the time when the Presbyterian Church was moving towards union with the Methodist Church and the Congregational Union, which was achieved in 1977. As one who was not going into the Uniting Church, Jon became involved in the state Presbyterian Church’s Theological Education Committee. The late Rev. Stuart Clements convened of the sub-committee that planned for the continuance of theological education for the post-union Church, and then became convener of the Theological Education Committee. Throughout this time of transition, Jon was his right-hand man as the secretary for theological education. To facilitate this work, on 1977 Jon began working in half-time in the parish of Bondi and half-time as Co-ordinator of Studies for the remnant Theological Hall.
Jon may have been introduced to the Reformed faith by a Methodist, but he came to accuse the Uniting Church of being a ‘pagan institution’. He was renowned amongst his family for his unfailing good nature, so the accusation cannot be dismissed as the result of ill-temper. In the meantime he gave lectures in the Old Testament, Hebrew, and Theology. At one stage he was hoping to write up a Master’s thesis on the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, but time seems to have precluded his finishing that.
The heyday of theological liberalism in the Presbyterian Church was passing. Rev. Bruce Christian remembers Jon as one who helped him to navigate the dissonance between his evangelical upbringing at Hurstville and the rampant liberalism he was taught at the Bachelor of Divinity course. Bruce wrote:
When I began my theological studies in 1972 I was faced with a whole lot of ideas that were quite foreign to what I had learnt through Bible Study at Sunday School and PFA at St. Giles Presbyterian Church, and it was so refreshing and encouraging to find in Jon Boyall someone who was on the same wavelength as me, and who had the maturity and depth of theological understanding and background in the Church to help me negotiate all the challenges of the ‘strange teaching’ I was then up against.
In the pre-union Assembly, Jon Boyall was in a small minority, and his position seemed so perilous that Bruce Christian sometimes wondered if the ‘J’ of ‘J. F. Boyall’ stood for ‘Jeremiah’!
With Rev. (later Dr) John Davies taking over as the full-time Dean of the continuing college at the beginning of 1987, Jon thought it time to move on. He finished his ministry working the South West Patrol, centred on Balranald. After retiring in 1993, he moved to the Blue Mountains to minister to those he fondly called the ‘Blackheathens’ (from Blackheath). His booming tenor voice may have lost something, but he was still preaching even at the age of 87. Ageing, he moved rather begrudgingly to the Anglican Goodhew Gardens in Taren Point.
Jon Boyall was thus a man of many worlds – of Western culture and Indian culture; of Reformed orthodoxy and theological liberalism; and of urban academia and of rural outreach. Ultimately, he was a man in Christ, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
Perhaps the most wonderful story recounted about Jon Boyall comes from his son Jonathan who, when a teenager in Bondi, was put ill at ease by a stranger who kept looking at him. Finally, the stranger asked young Jonathan if he was the son of the Rev. J. F. Boyall. Somewhat hesitantly, Jonathan replied that yes, he was. The stranger then said: ‘Your father is a beautiful man.’ And with that he walked off. One could come up with no greater tribute.
– Peter Barnes