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Episode 41
Godfrey Birtill: The Unforced Rhythms of Grace

[Music] Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted podcast. This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity and purpose. I'm your host, Catherine Cowell. [Music] 


I'm really, really delighted to be joined for this episode by Godfrey Birtill. So thank you very much Godfrey and greetings.

G: It's a pleasure.

C: Do you want to tell us a little bit about where you are just now and what you get up to?

G: Well, I've entered an interesting time in my life. I've just turned 70. I've slowed down on the travelling. I used to do a lot. I was constantly on the road and flying abroad. But a couple of years ago, actually, it was around the time of the start of the pandemic, 2020, we moved to Cornwall, we were right on the coast, on the coastal pathway. We sensed the days of travelling constantly were drawing to an end and to take an easier pace. So the pandemic in a strange way, although a terrible thing, it sort of helped me get used to not travelling. Because to be honest, I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed the whole buzz of travelling. My wife and myself, we agreed it was time. I still do some things just for friends, you know, so I'll do the odd sort of thing for them. But I'm still writing. I still write all the time. I'm doing an album, a live album on March the first in Wales, St. David's Day. And I've done an album almost every year that I've been travelling. Each album is a year's songs, you know.

C: So it's almost like your equivalent of a photo album.

G: You could say that. Yeah, that's something I've often aligned my life as a press photographer, which I was for 20 odd years. I've often aligned my songwriting with taking photographs. There's a real similarity. So with a photograph, you get an eye for a picture, whereas other people might miss it because they're not looking for it, or they're not necessarily looking for it. And I think, wow, that would make a great picture, you know, but say my wife, Jill, and anyone with me wouldn't have seen it. But yet I'd go away and develop it. This is the old days – and show them the picture and they go, oh, wow. And I think that's a similar thing that happens with songwriting for me personally. It's not everybody's way of doing it, but I kind of catch a snapshot. So it may be over conversation, it may be reading something. Like at the moment, I'm reading the hymns of Saint Ephraim of the Syrian, you know, which is kind of out there, you know, hymns from the 1200s and things. And I may just read something and it goes bang, and this actually did spark up a new song when I was reading through it. And so that become a snapshot for me to go and develop in the dark room as it were. And then bring forth a song out of it sort of thing.

C: So for people who've not heard of you, you're a Christian singer, songwriter. I think one of the things that might be worth saying is that your songs are fairly unique, your style is quite unique. So if people have got a kind of an image of worship music and they haven't heard yours, then they probably haven't got the right image of it. Spotify made me laugh the other day. It offered me more like Godfrey Bertil. And I have to say, I thought “you are lying to me. I don't think there is more like Godfrey Bertil”. I had remembered quite a lot of years ago, we'd sung some of your songs in church, and then I'd not really engaged with your music for quite a long time. And then we host a Saturday morning, what we call the Soul Space, which is really room for people to come and be and to have a bit of silence in God's presence and to share some stuff on a theme. And a dear friend of ours, Charli, Charli Brough was part of our group and something of a fan. And so if there was a theme where she could possibly bring along one of your songs, then she would. And I was sort of reintroduced to your work through that. And as I said, when I emailed you, Charli incredibly sadly died; very, very suddenly on Boxing Day this year just gone. And part of the joy that she brought, there was a sort of a real bounciness. And I think there's something about the bounciness of your music and the joy that really resonated with her. And it just struck me that she would be delighted if I was to do a podcast with you. So I reached out and you very kindly agreed to do it. I did a podcast with Charli back in November talking about her spiritual journey and things, which was really blessed. So my entry drug, if you like, to listening to more of your music was something that she brought when we were talking about grace a few months ago. And it's a song I found hugely helpful. So if I read a couple of the words, it starts off, "There is no need to press in when I'm already here. No point in wearing yourself out on a treadmill of prayer. Be still, be still. Just be still and know that your efforts aren't necessary." I was hugely touched by that. And if people aren't familiar with that kind of Christianese language about pressing in, I have been in lots of situations where there's been huge amounts of encouragement to work very hard at praying and to work very hard at drawing close to God. And just that assertion that we don't need to do that. Yeah, it really touched me. It really touched me.

G My wife and myself, we were heavily involved in the very, you know, sort of pressing in kind of movement, you know, the intercession movement, which is great, you know, the intercession movement. But I think we'd kind of hit a wing of it that got slightly maybe out of hand, you know, even the Lord wondered what we're up to, I think, you know, got a bit crazy doing that. And then we came to a place of just simplicity, of a real simplicity. And just realizing the presence of the Lord Christ in us, the hope of glory, you know. And coming to a place, you know, the scripture really hit me where Paul said, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Christ and him crucified." And both my wife and myself came to a place of almost like a rebooting in our lives. And it was almost like the camel going through the eye of the needle, where we'd learned a lot of stuff over the years, you know, of Charismania, if you like. We'd learned a lot of things. But coming back to this simplicity, it was like the Lord was saying, just come through, like the camel coming through the eye of the needle and leave some of this stuff behind, you know, in fact, leave the camel behind. You know, it was like the camel represented what we'd built up, ministry-wise, what we'd built up, you know. And so it was like, leave that, let go of that. And some of the very complicated stuff we got involved in, you know, on the whole intercession prophetic movement, it was ever so complicated and ever so very cerebral and all the rest of it. And it was like the Lord was saying, “come back to the cross, come back to Christ and Him crucified. Let this be the message”. So my songs changed radically from there. A lot of my songs, my older songs, they were like part of my past now, you know, and I felt the Lord was showing me to write a new song, new songs flowing in me, through me. And I remember a friend of mine at the time said to me, “I feel the Lord's causing you to write songs, and they're going to be gospel songs. Your new songs are going to be gospel songs.” And that actually is what's happened, you know, and I know we tend to think gospel songs as a certain genre of music, but there's almost a new genre of gospel songs, if you know what I mean, which is basically finished work songs, songs from the place of the finished work and the cross that Christ has done it, you know. So where some of my old songs would have been begging and pleading, that kind of fell off me and just feeling, knowing I'm secure in Christ, knowing who I am in Christ. And so that changed. 

C: So did that change that's been in your songs from kind of, we need to work hard for God to actually God's done it all? Did that come along with an inner change for you, an inner shift in your awareness of who God is or how God sees you?

G Yeah, it did really. I mean, it doesn't mean that there's nothing to do, you know, it's not just, yeah, I mean, there's a work to do. I believe in the gospel and it's his life in our life, knowing who we are in Christ is what makes a difference though, that takes us beyond working to get somewhere or to, as the song says, trying to please God, whereas being in the place of knowing he's pleased with us and receiving that and walking in that. So that we're not walking in guilt constantly, you know, and always thinking, “oh dear, what a mess I am”, sort of thing. I don't know if that makes sense. 

C: Yeah, it does. I'm supposed to be simplistic about it. It's the difference between giving your wife flowers in order to make her love you, in order to please her, and already knowing that that's the case and kind of buying flowers just because you're celebrating the love that you're already sure you've got.

G And so it was just a radical change. I mean, everything was fine before this particular moment, you know, because it was actually a moment, you know, it was like suddenly getting the revelation of Christ's finished work of what actually happened at the cross. It was like a moment, my wife Jill and myself together, we both sort of suddenly thought, oh my goodness, what have we been doing? You know, we thought about all the crazy things we've done over the years, you know, you know, that we focus on numbers or focus on this and focus on that. And it was like, we always show to focus us in on Christ and knowing who we are in Christ. That's the big deal. You don't have to come up with a prophecy every year and stuff like that. You know, it's knowing who you are, resting in me, knowing who you are in Christ. It doesn't mean that we're lazy, doesn't mean we don't do anything. We love, you know, that's, we love, we love people. And I think the big change was, you know, whereas before, I think really it was quite judgmental, you know, to some people, you know, and particularly say people in bars or things like that, or people that were doing crazy things or whatever. But a switch went off and something switched on to see people. It's like my eyes, I started seeing people, I guess how Christ would see them and not rejecting them. So I could go in a pub and see people through the love of the Lord, you know, and knowing Christ's love for just ordinary people, you know, just going about their life, you know.

C: That really comes through in some of your lyrics. Something I've listened to quite a few times recently is your song, which begins, "Do you believe what I believe about you?" Yeah. It's just a love song. Just a love song. "Do you know what I know to be true? I put eternity into your heart. I've been madly in love from the very start and forever we belong together." And just beautiful, really beautiful.

G That came about through reading scripture and realizing how a lot of people you read about in scripture, it's like they've got that revelation of knowing who they are, knowing what God believes about them. It's like the Lord was saying to me, you know, "Do you believe what I believe about you, not what you believe about yourself?" I think it was Abraham who believed what God believed about him, you know. He says Abraham believed God and that was accredited to him as righteousness. And when I remember seeing the commentary on that where it said Abraham believed what God believed about him. And there's such a key in that, you know, believing what God believes about you. So many of us believe, and I've done it myself, believed what other people believed about me, you know. Even what I believed about myself was wrong. But believing what God believes and hearing what God has to say to you about your life. You may just find the Lord is very encouraging. Encourage yourself in the Lord, yeah?

C Well, you have another song which is entitled "I'm Not Disappointed in You".

G Yeah, yeah. Well, that comes about because I played quite a lot at psychiatric wards because I had my own issues in my youth when I was a teenager and stuff. I ended up through the drug scene mainly, you know, ended up in a ward for a while. So years later, I wanted to go back in when I'd got a hold of the gospel. But it wasn't until I'd actually written that song "Do You Believe What I Believe" that the door opened to go in to play that song. Psychiatric nurse had heard it and one of the patients was playing the song and it was really helping them. So they asked me if I'd go in, you know. So I did that. While I was there and I played in a youth ward, you know, an adolescent ward, which should be the same age that I was when I was in a ward, I just felt in the wall such a heavy disappointment. And I remember to my own experience of being a teenager, I felt I'd let my family down and I just felt disappointed. I was weighed down with disappointment and I felt that same disappointment among these young people. It reminded me of when I was in there myself and just sensed in my spirit the Lord wanting to say to them, "I'm not disappointed in you and I'm not disappointed in you." And that's how the song really came about, for me to take that into the psychiatric ward and say to them, "I'm not disappointed. I never have been. I never will be." I felt a lot of saying, "I don't even do disappoint. I know you. I knew you before you were born." And then in the middle of the song, a strange thing came about, but it was like the tune "Jingle Bells" just flowed out in the middle of the song, you know. I remember playing it to my wife, the song, when I'd first written it. She always gets the first hearing and I said, "Yeah, I love the song, but that Jingle Bells is dead weird." You know, that's just crazy. I said, "Well, I really feel I have to keep it in." And sure enough, I kept it in. I very seldom go across what she says, but I kept it in. And the number of people who've said that Jingle Bells has song helped me. And there was one woman in particular who hadn't been able to celebrate Christmas for like 30 years. And she said when she heard that song and she heard the Jingle Bells, she just felt the weight of that lift off and she could celebrate Christmas again. And there were a number of people who said to me that where that little Jingle Bells thing really did something. So you just never know sometimes, do you? 

C Is there a bit about dancing in that song?

G Yeah, where the Lord's saying, "I love to dance with you." Yeah. Of course, the dance of the Trinity.  

C I've noticed that as a bit of a theme, which is... 

G A friend of mine, Baxter Kruger, he's a theologian. Yeah, he's written a book on the dance of the Trinity. Yeah, he's pretty hot on that. I think he's Episcopalian, he's American, but he's slightly Anglican. It's good to be connected with people of all different parts of the body, I believe.

C Yes, yeah, definitely. Including 12th century hymn writers.
G Yeah. They fascinate me.

C So that idea of the dance of the Trinity, how would you describe that?

G The beauty of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, their relationship and through Christ, in Christ, we're welcomed into that relationship, into that kind of dance, you know, is a great way of describing it. So I wrote this song, "It's a Wonderful Dance," and it's Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we're included in this wonderful dance. We're included in it, like, come on, come on in the dance. Participating in this worship that's already happening. It's not started by a worship leader. It's already there. We just join in. In fact, I stopped calling myself a worship leader a long time ago when I saw that, actually, when I realized that. I just call myself a gospel singer, a singer of good news. 

C Yes. Yeah. I love that image of the Trinity as a dance that we are invited to join in with. And there was a bit listening to you singing the wonderful dance song where there's a kind of repeated, "We're in, we're in, we're in, we're in, we're in, Christ Jesus." And the joyful exuberance of that invitation and that assurance that we're in, we're in the dance. I think it's beautiful.

G Also leading to sing "I'm In." Because I've sung that in bars, you know, I've done quite a few bars, like, playing these songs. So I remember there was one pub that was in Lincoln. It's called the Wild Life, this pub. And the landlady behind the bar, she didn't really want it in there, but she just did it. You know, she led us in. And anyway, by the end of the, she's behind the bar going like, "I'm in, I'm in, I'm in." It makes it all worth it. 

C Absolutely. Absolutely. It's funny because yesterday I was reading from Matthew's Gospel and the fact that the Pharisees were kind of trying to keep up with Jesus and trying to check out that what he was doing was all right. It's the bit where somebody breaks down the ceiling of a house in order to lower their friends through the floor and Jesus heals their mate. And then in Matthew's Gospel, immediately after that, Jesus meets Matthew, the tax collector, and he leaves all this stuff and then throws a big party, a banquet for Jesus and his followers. But just that kind of flow of energy and the different things that Jesus was doing and the fact that Jesus is responding to the dance steps that the people around him are making and the gifts that they were bringing. So the people lowering their mate through the ceiling and Levi, Matthew wanting to throw a banquet for Jesus with all the ‘wrong’ people in inverted commas. And the fact that Jesus was very happy when the woman brought the perfume to pour on his feet, that kind of welcoming of all of those gifts, whether people wanted to dance closely or not quite so closely, there's a sort of a real invitation into that, which also in my head tangentially kind of connected with when you were talking about all of the sort of stuff that you used to do, the hard work stuff for the fairly intensive intercession. And it did occur to me that God doesn't reject any of that, just like the woman with the perfume. You know, the gifts that we bring with the love that we're able to do it, there's a real welcome of that. But yeah, the dancing, I think, is just, it's great, isn't it?

G Absolutely, yeah. I'm doing a thing in Wales in April or May, you know, and it's called Joyfest. And they'll ask me because they know I like to lead a party or anything, you know, sort of a gospel party, you know, which I do enjoy. I do enjoy. It's great fun. I have some sort of party song, you know. Someone once said I'm like an adult Sishmail, you know.

C Sishmail, if anybody doesn't know, is a kid’s singer.

G I guess I'm a kid singer, really. In fact, some mums have said to me, like, kids love your albums, you play them in the car and stuff like that. And then I said, “oh, maybe I should do a children's album”. And they said, “no, no, no, they like them as they are”. You know, if you made them into kids' albums, they wouldn’t have liked them. They're naturally childlike, you know. I do keep them simple, not cool to care for. 

C There's a power to that. And I really appreciate the lack of cliche for me anyway. It means that quite often something that you've written helps me to see something from a different angle or touches something in me in a way that I hadn't spotted before. I like all kinds of songs. I'm not criticising any of the songs. But there is something about not using the cliches and sticking stuff in that doesn't normally find its way into kind of Christian songs, I think, opens something up, which is really rather cool.

G Yeah, I'm certainly doing it without trying. But one thing that does happen, though, is that when I've written a song, as I said before, I play them to Jill, my wife. She's the first to hear them. And anything that's sung before somewhere, she immediately roots it out. “You've got to take that out. Take that out.” So she won't allow anything that's almost anything that's already been sung. She keeps me on that. But also, it's funny, I was listening to David Bowie the other day, and he was talking about writing songs. He said, you mustn't write songs for people. It's not exactly his quote, but what he was putting across. He said, you must be almost like a little dangerous, you know, in your songwriting. We're pushing the edge and it's almost like your feet aren't quite touching the floor. So that's just the right place to be. If you're in control of it all, and it's all like the same. It's good to be where you are pushing the edge. You don't have to try to push the edge. But there's a sense, I think sometimes I put words in that wouldn't be acceptable for Christian radio. I was thinking that the other day, you know, be a good album, that band on Christian radio. Unsuitable for Christian radio. A little sticker.

C I'm curious as to what words you've used that you think wouldn't fit on Christian radio.

G Oh my goodness. Right. Well, I have one that's going to be on the back end of the next album. It was done live. It's currently on YouTube. I did it while I was in America in Seattle and the song's called "Are You One Shabba Short Of A Breakthrough". If you could search for it. When you've heard it, you might understand why it would be banned. It's got lines in it "are your prophetic warnings getting boring? Did a donut ruin your 40 day fast?" It's a bit of a tongue in cheek kind of.

C It sounds like quite good fun.
G Yeah, it is fun. It's not serious. One of the things of humility is being able to laugh at ourselves, not take ourselves too seriously. Because all the stuff I mentioned in these songs, I've done them all. I suppose in a little way, it's a little pop at it because I feel that it's overdone sometimes, you know. Every time the house is here, I'll be like "are you sure?" Yes, and I have been at those things where the article starts off fairly specific and becomes broader and broader. I did this song where I give it prophetic words. “There's somebody here. I just feel there's somebody here” and one of the lines was "there's somebody here with a yellow car". And I was actually in a meeting where that actually happened and nobody responded. And there was about a thousand people. “There's somebody here with a yellow car” and the guy's like "no, no, they must be on their way". And he was serious, you know. So that's what sparked the song, there's somebody here.

C That was your picture moment, your prejudice moment.

G Exactly, yeah. To go develop a song called "there's somebody here".

C And what's your heart behind it?

G I think exactly what I said. It's a form of humility being able to laugh at ourselves, you know. Because I think when we take things like that too seriously, we're kidding ourselves. You cannot be serious. We've got to laugh. I'm sure the Lord laughed his head off, you know. “Somebody here with a yellow car,” "nope, they must be on their way". I'm sure the Lord must have laughed at that, you know. And would suggest we did too, you know. Not laughing at the guy, laughing at the situation and things we get into, you know. Plenty of things where I'm sure God laughs. I think sometimes we're over serious. There are serious times, of course, but there are times where, come on, lighten up, you know.

C I remember years and years and years ago now, I went to Spring Harvest, which is sort of Christian conferencey thing. And you go and listen to lots of people talking and you do lots of singing to God and lots of praying and stuff. And it was in a time when people were expecting the Holy Spirit to come and things would happen. And quite often, lots of people would sort of fall over whilst they were praying. And that was sort of seen as a sign of God's presence. All of those things happening. I was in my twenties and going and praying really kind of earnestly. Lots and lots of earnestness. And I'd kind of, I think I've got myself into a bit of an earnest fizz really. I was desperate to meet with God but it was all very, very sincere and all very effortful. And I was in danger of imploding, I think. And then I went to listen to Adrian Plass, who is just a Christian humorist. And that broke the whole thing open for me. It was just, he made me laugh in gentle and gracious ways. And it just broke that kind of tension and I think allowed some space for the Holy Spirit to get in. But not in the kind of intense way that I'd been sort of praying for. And it was really helpful.

G Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

C It is needed.

G Another guy can do that is Jeff Lucas. He's gotten along. And it can be very helpful to people who really have taken it all too seriously. But like I say, there are serious aspects, of course, you know, but you've got to laugh sometimes. I think his books did that, didn't he, Adrian Plass? He wrote books that sort of…

C Books that we could sort of relate to. I mean, I was recalling with somebody the other day. There's that bit where Jesus says, “if you've got enough faith, you'll be able to say to this mountain, 'throw yourself into the sea’ and it will”, which is obviously a metaphor for something. And Adrian Plass, in one of his books decides that he needs to have more faith. And if it takes the faith of a mustard seed to move a mountain, maybe he should start with a paperclip. And so there's all this bits where he spends an awful lot of time praying for the paperclip to move and it doesn't. And then his wife wants to know why he's been shouting at a paperclip. And then very wisely says, why would God want you to move a paperclip? But I think for some of us who have deep and sincere and enthusiastic faith, that shouting at the paperclip moment is not that far from the truth sometimes.

G Yeah. Very true. I've been there. 

C Yes. Did your paperclip move? 

G I didn't actually try that. But yeah, crazy days. But it's been an adventure, you know, with many ups and downs along the way. But through it all, to me, it's important to keep that humility, not take ourselves too seriously, and to enjoy the adventure and always be teachable. Well, hopefully, the further along the road we get, we're developing discernment as well as to what is absolute mumbo jumbo, you know, and what is real. And I think what has helped me most more than anything else is coming back to the simplicity of the gospel. That is my base, you know, knowing who I am in Christ. The rest of it, I'm not that bothered about different stances and denominations. This is what we believe. This is what we believe. To me, we can meet at the gospel. We meet at the cross. We can meet there. And that's good. It's coming back to the simple gospel, the good news. “Stay there”, you know. And here we are. It's an international problem. People don't know who they are. The reason they do crazy things is because they don't know who they are. That's why it's absolutely key to present the gospel, whether it be in song and just in our lives throughout our lives. People discovering who they are in Christ, so they know they're loved. Because when we know we're loved, we love. When we know we're loved, we carry love. So it's impossible going doing evangelism if you feel you hate it or you’re disappointed in yourself because you carry disappointment. Or if you carry guilt, you know, people can smell it. You can tell if someone feels guilty. It's so important if people want to call themselves evangelists that they know they are loved, that they're not carrying guilt and condemnation.

C What you bring is that message that the people you are speaking with are loved too.

G Yeah, exactly. That's it. Well, that is exactly it. That's what you carry. It's very hard to put that across if you don't feel it yourself, if you don't know it yourself.

C And then the evangelism becomes a displacement activity that kind of protects you from your own. 

G Yeah, but there's a lot of people in the church like that. You're just going through the motion, just doing the stuff. I did it myself, you know. That's why I know. The big revolution is when you discover actually who you are in Christ and that you are loved, you're lovable. 

C Yeah, not out of some sort of duty. I think sometimes it's... 

G No, well, it's warts and all. Even me, you know, I wrote my song 'Have You Seen Who He Hangs Out?' because there was something, I got some bad things said about it once, so I won't go into it. But the person who was saying these things, 'Well, have you seen who he hangs out with?' meaning me. When I heard this, it inspired me to write a song, 'Have You Seen Who He Hangs Out With?' Jesus, you know, 'Have You Seen Who He Hangs Out With?' He even hangs out with me.
C Yeah, and me. Yeah, and we're all invited into the dance. 

G Absolutely.

C So you're at the beginning of a quieter adventure or in the midst of a quieter adventure?

G Well, yeah, I think the big difference is that I'm not travelling constantly. So I'm probably writing more maybe, although I wrote while I was on the road a lot of the time. So I think the writing is just the flow. Like I say, the snapshots keep coming. So I write as a journalist, in a way, in what I see, what I hear. That's where the snapshots are. I still enjoy it. I love writing songs and then doing a demo of them and stuff. I still get a buzz out of it. And I feel the Lord's pleasure, what's his name said in 'Chariots of Fire'? You know, when I wrote 'The Feeling's Pleasure', I feel the Lord's pleasure when I'm writing songs and singing them and stuff.

C Yeah, that's brilliant. Thank you so much for your time, Godfrey.

G Absolute pleasure.


[Music] Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you'd like to get in touch, you can email You can find a transcript of this podcast at And that's also the place to go if you're interested in the Loved Called Gifted course, or if you'd like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching. Thank you for listening. [Music]

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