Veteran worship leader Godfrey Birtill was quizzed by Tony Cummings.
Godfrey Birtill flies in the face of all those who believed that you had to be a good looking teenager with Soul Survivor connections to become a nationally known worship leader and songwriter. This one time press photographer didn't even enter full time music ministry until the age of 43 and since then a stream of live, independently recorded albums have brought his powerfully prophetic songs to the British Church. Now though, with the release by Kingsway of You're Still God', an album Godfrey recorded in studios in Nashville, the writer of such classics as "Outrageous Grace" and "Can You Hear The Roar", has finally delivered an album which will not only sell well in UK retail but has the potential to circulate Godfrey's songs around the worldwide Church.
I began by asking Godfrey how he found the recording experience. "Very different! It's a lot easier to be focused and sense the Holy Spirit's flow in a corporate gathering - studios can be pretty dry places and if you're not a performer, which I'm not - then it can all feel a little clinical. But in saying that, I'm told it's the best way to get 'radio friendly' versions of the songs. I really enjoyed the experience of recording in Nashville. The musicians at the studio were excellent. John Hartley who produced the CD is a great guy and it was good to get to know him a bit. I spent some time hanging out in coffee bars - everybody seems to know everybody there. There is a real sense of community among musicians. Part of my time in Nashville was spent making a number of attempts to catch a massive mirror carp that was in a lake at the back of John's house - a few near misses, but no joy! Also got in a round of golf with Steve Doherty."
During the '80s Godfrey and his wife Gill had moved to South Wales from Lancashire. A keen photographer, he landed a job as a professional taker of pictures. He once told journalist Clive Price, "I went into this time of learning about people - from golden weddings through to sport, plane crashes, all sorts. I saw life." Back in the north of England Godfrey was even assigned to take a photo of Prince Charles. He said, "As I was clicking away I was praying for him too. I remember looking through the lens and praying, 'Please Lord, bless Prince Charles.'"
In the late '90s massive changes hit the newspaper industry and Godfrey found himself out of favour with the new technology. He saw that his time as a professional photographer was drawing to a close. Godfrey attended revival meetings at Marsham Street in Westminster, hosted by Gerald Coates. At one of these meetings Texan preacher Dale Gentry was speaking. Remembered Godfrey, "Dale was speaking on Breakout...going beyond ourselves...an acceleration by faith. I remember he spoke on Psalm 18, 'With my God I can leap over a wall' and as Dale explained, the wall is often the point we get to and then disqualify ourselves from going any further, through age or circumstance. We'll come up with some excuse as to why we should stay the side of the wall within our own limitations, whereas God is calling us to move in the supernatural. I believed it was time I got over the wall and God was there to give me a leg up."
Following the Marsham Street meetings, Martin Scott, a writer and speaker from within the Pioneer movement, launched a prayer initiative called Sowing Seeds For Revival. Said Godfrey, "I went out on a few teams and it seemed to explode from that." He wrote songs "on the hoof" while accompanying the prayer teams to such strategic places as Leeds or in the Welsh valleys. "Songs were written on the road, listening to the prophet, listening to the heart-cry." Some people encouraged Godfrey to record his songs. A financial gift was gladly received and Dan Bowater, son of worship leader Chris Bowater, became involved. A live album called 'Is This The Beginning?' was born. An astonishing nine live albums were recorded in total: 'Is This The Beginning?' (1998); 'If My People' (1999); 'A Call To Pray' (2000); 'Outrageous Grace' (2001); 'Fertile Ground' (2001); 'Hold Me In' (2002); 'Stand Up! Shake Yourself From The Dust' (2003); 'Dread God: The Faith & The Fear' (2004); and 'God Help Us!' (2005). One of the most memorable was 'If My People' which included on it the sounds of a lady screaming! Remembered Godfrey, "Martin Scott gave a prophesy about Wild Fire coming to Wales and I wrote a song from the prophecy, and yes, a lady screamed all the way through. A number of people said that I should record the song again but although I felt it was very disturbing it went with the song and so left it as it was. Some of my recent live CDs with Betel Of Britain like 'Dread God' and 'God Help Us' go some way in capturing the passion and energy of the football terraces. We record the next one, 'Live In Lincoln', on Tuesday 4th July."
One of the extraordinary facts about Godfrey is that he is related to James Montgomery, the Victorian composer of such classics as "Angels From The Realms Of Glory". Explained Godfrey, "One of my relatives was Moravian Bishop Geoffrey Birtill. He died a year or so back. He was showing a team with Martin Scott and myself around the Moravian settlement in Pudsey, Leeds. It was there he pointed out this old chair and he said it belonged to one of our ancestors, hymnwriter James Montgomery. He wrote a lot of hymns including 'Angels From The Realms Of Glory' and he also compiled the Moravian hymnbook. I checked my family tree and was amazed to find him on there and took it as a blessing and so I call him Uncle Jim now. I've worked on a number of his hymns, giving them new tunes and updating some of the words including 'Lift Up Your Heads You Gates Of Brass'. It's been a blessing to discover my Moravian roots, finding out about the 100 year prayer meeting at Hernhutt and how the Moravians impacted John Wesley. I'm looking forward to going to Hernhutt in June."
I asked Godfrey of all the songs he'd written, which one had made the greatest impact on the Church? "I would probably say 'Outrageous Grace'. The song was born during a really difficult time and through intense spiritual battle. It was when I was starting out and I would say I had a full on encounter with the spirit of Jezebel. I came to realise it was a spirit (not a person) that was very keen to snuff me out almost as soon as I'd got over the wall. I remember waking up one morning with pain in my chest that was due to the stress of the battle, and I heard the Lord say, 'There's a lot of pain but a lot more healing,' then the other words followed. Around that time I remember hearing Jeff Lucas round off a meeting saying, 'Lord, thank you for your outrageous grace to us,' and the phrase went with the other words completing the song."
Very much an international ministry troubadour Godfrey seems constantly on the road. "I travel quite a lot mainly in the UK and Ireland and also USA and South Africa and Europe two or three times a year. My home base is in Lincoln with Stuart Bell at New Life Church. Although my diary looks busy there is some order to it and I have space at home to rest. I don't just go anywhere and fill up the diary. I go where I have a relational connection. A lot of the places I go are revisits leading worship and intercession with a city focus and encouraging the indigenous song in workshops. Also my wife Gill and my youngest son Jacob (14) who plays bass travel with me quite a lot."
I asked Godfrey whether people still used the phrase "prayer minstrel" when referring to him? "I was dubbed a prayer minstrel about 10 years ago. Someone once said, 'Is this the new thing God's doing?' and I replied, 'No, it's an ancient thing being recovered - playing the strings while there is a release of prophetic song worship and intercession.'"
I concluded our q and a session by asking the worship veteran whether he thought Britain was close to revival? He replied, "I think the nation is in a state of emergency. We are in ruins, but I believe we are getting to a place of being desperate enough to call on the Lord to transform the heart of the nation."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.