I should have made Cliff a friend, but I couldn’t and I didn’t...
When Clifford Sellors arrived at Newbold in 1985, I was two-thirds of the way through my pastoral training. What I immediately remember of Cliff is that he was a quiet, friendly, gentle young English person with a warm East Midlands accent who wanted to do something good for God – Indeed, this was his reason for attending Newbold.
Before he became an Adventist, Cliff had been a professional footballer. Whatever the nature of his previous lifestyle, it was clear that his new life involved rigid spiritual discipline. He was very enthusiastic about the writings of Ellen White, and his peculiar reading of her seemed to provide just the framework he felt he needed.
In the few conversations I had with him in the college cafeteria, it wasn’t long before he would express disappointment about the college environment. He wondered why we played five-a-side football in the college gym when Ellen White (in his opinion) condemned competitive sports. He suggested that some of the teachers were not as fervent as he was about proclaiming the Adventist message, the perilous condition of the world, end-time events, and the very soon return of Christ. He was questioning why some of the theology staff seemed to be teaching a ‘new theology’ of salvation, one that emphasised the love, grace, and mercy of God; this was in stark contrast to how he understood things. In his opinion, it was judgment time, a time when our actions, both personal and corporate, would demonstrate whether or not we were ready for Christ’s soon return.
I need to note that in my conversations with him, I did not pick up even the slightest hint of anger in his concerns. Rather, the tone was one of disappointment, as if the college and mainstream Adventism had let him down. Cliff was not the only one on campus during the 1980s who challenged the theological perspective of the lecturers. He was one of about ten to fifteen (possibly more) vocal students who, at the time, were on a mission to reform the college of its so-called ‘new theology’ leanings; this dynamic reflected similar turbulence within the wider British Union Conference (BUC) at the time, as various self-appointed reformers of Adventism – from the US and Australia in particular – determined that the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland required "cleansing".
I should have made Cliff a friend, but I couldn’t and I didn’t.¹ Back then, I was at a critical juncture in my faith development: I was on a search to discover the nature of salvation, and for me, there was just one question that needed to be settled: is salvation the gift of God, through faith, or do my works contribute credit for this; it is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8, NLT).
My conclusion was in distinct contrast to Cliff’s worldview of perfectionism – one I was moving away from without regret. At the time I wasn’t looking for an austere counter-cultural experience such as the one Cliff was offering, nor did I want my faith experience to be one of existential angst where I would have to continually look over my shoulder and wonder whether God was angry with me or not.
I would love to think that if I had attempted to develop a friendship with Cliff then I could have convinced him of the liberating power, joy, and freedom of the Gospel; however, I can’t help but wonder if at the time, he was in a position to hear such good news, or whether he would have dismissed it as ‘new theology’.²
¹Others did make huge efforts to befriend Cliff and help him on his spiritual journey. A Newbold lecturer at the time, Albert Waite, records his experience with Cliff in Spectrum Magazine. In addition, Tihomir Kukolja talks about his friendship with Cliff in his online blog, and the many extensive conversations they had with each other at Newbold, and the atmosphere on campus in 1988.
²Clifford Sellors commenced his education at Newbold College of Higher Education (then known as Newbold College) in the autumn of 1985. It was around or after 1988 that Cliff became connected with Steve Schneider when he visited the campus to recruit Seventh-day Adventists to join the Branch Davidians, and who was one of 24 British people who died in the Waco siege and resulting inferno on 19 April 1993.
*This article originally appeared on The Messenger, the official journal of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland.