Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Weeping o'er the grave we make our song

On Palm Sunday, not expecting an answer, I sent an email to my beloved Bishop Michael, whose faith, wisdom, and kindness supported me among countless others from the first day I met him, just a few weeks before he ordained me as deacon. He had newly arrived as Bishop of Gloucester and amid all the busyness of those early days, set aside time to see each one of us. I had been supporting a friend through some very hard times, and when he asked me how I was feeling about my approaching ordination, exhausted by the dramas of moving house, uprooting children and walking with my friend, I burst into tears.
The half hour I had been allotted somehow became an hour and by the time I left, comforted and reassured that "ordination works" I knew that I, and the whole diocese, was hugely blessed by his appointment.

He ALWAYS made time.

He really loved his clergy and was at great pains to make sure that we knew this - and of course we loved him in return. I so valued the emails that arrived whenever your parish was due to be prayed for in the diocesan cycle, asking if there was anything that we might want him to pray about, either in ministry or personal life, and I valued even more the postcards that confirmed that he had prayed, and sent a word of encouragement or comfort for the needs that had been shared. Building bricks for the kind of relationship that was surely imagined when the phrase "Father in God" was first conceived.

He lived what he taught and he taught with more clarity and wisdom than practically anyone - continuing that teaching through adversity and through illness just by being himself.
Always a teaching bishop, he even transformed this final journey towards death into a lesson in faith and hope and love. I've just opened the most remarkable letter I am ever likely to receive, his thoughts shared with his wife, so that she might share them with us too.
He prayed as one who expected prayer to change things - which it generally did.

So many memories to give thanks for...
of inspiring sermons, from the pulpit in Gloucester Cathedral, and in our parishes, where he was present for celebrations great and small;
of the way he washed our feet on our priesting retreat, with such loving attention that they seemed to be the only feet in the world: this Maundy Thursday the Dean and I commented that we always carried that picture with us as we kneel, jug and basin at the ready;
of his quietly arriving in the chapel at Glenfall House the night before we were priested...when I had prostrated myself before the altar and then, somehow, fallen asleep. He didn't break the profound silence but signalled, head on hands, that I should go to bed. He'd be up praying for us.
of the way he KNEW us...knew our pleasures and struggles...our longings and our fears.

Early in my time at Cainscross he came for a Confirmation on our Patronal Festival.
He'd not been convinced this was the right post for me (though he later said I'd done well there, which meant so much to me) - but once I was in, he was utterly supportive and came to at least one service every single year that I served that parish.
That first time, I'd worked really hard to pull the liturgical life of the church together and was particularly excited that I'd managed to find a thurifer so that we could have a procession worthy of the name. +M both knew what I was aspiring to and recognised where we actually were
"What a grown-up church..!" he said, teasing gently.
That evening was both wonderful and mad, as our local alcoholic and rough sleeper had newly connected with St Matthew's, and with me in particular, and was not going to let An Event occurr at the church without him. He was most disconcerted by the appearance of someone who appeared to be "out-vicaring" his vicar, and refused to believe that +M was actually the Bishop of Gloucester til I said so. Repeatedly. By this stage both +M and I were almost helpless with suppressed laughter.
As we finally formed up for that much-planned procession he whispered under his breath
"It was your idea to come here..."
He even, bless him, managed a Messy Church for us (about as far outside his comfort zone as it was possible to get. He told one of the children that it wasn't long til his birthday but that he wouldn't be at home for it this year, so wouldn't get a cake. Cue frantic searches of church cupboards and I think he was genuinely pleased with the glitter-covered creation with an indeterminate number of candles that appeared for the feast. Certainly the children believed they had delighted him)..
In parish terms, I think I'll best remember him sitting with about a dozen of us in the Lady Chapel leading Lectio Divina after one of his all-day visitations.
Suddenly, Lectio Divina became my congregation's Very Favourite Thing as he helped them realise that they could engage with Scripture on their terms, and found the confidence to speak of what they found there.

Whenever I put on my red boots I remember how, wearing them for the snowy journey from Gloucester to Coventry for the Dean's Installation, I ran out of time to change - and found myself unexpectedly sitting on the servers' bench beside the choir stalls - with my feet in full view of +M. Those boots got redder and redder as the service continued. Ever the liturgist, he demanded the highest standards of himself and we who loved him wanted, always, to meet them.

When I was dithering over whether to apply for my current post I asked his advice. His retirement had been announced by then, so it was somehow OK to explain that his departure was one of the reasons it felt like time to go - though he would have none of that! The lure of cathedrals, though, was a very different thing. I'd done all that I could to make the liturgy beautiful at St Matthew's (and on a good day, it wasn't bad) but when I confessed that a recent visit by the cathedral choir had reduced me to tears throughout the service, he completely agreed I should move on. "I always thought you'd be a Precentor - but you don't care enough about the commas, do you? - and you'd worry about whether things were "good enough" too much to manage to worship yourself" - again, that extraordinary sense of being totally known.
"Of course it's not too big a job for you. You'd do it well..." persuaded me to submit the papers.

For all of this - and so much more - I will always be thankful.

I'm thankful, too, to Alison and the girls, who allowed us all to take far more than a fair share of their husband and father - and so very very sad that there was not more time for them to enjoy retirement after a costly ministry. It's tempting to be angry with God that they were not granted happy golden years together - but I'm certain that +M would have none of that either.

The email I sent to him last week included the hope and prayer that "walking in the way of the cross it might be none other than the way of life and peace".
Last night that prayer was answered.

I'm weeping today for our loss but trying, too, to live into the truth that he proclaimed in life and in liturgy. After my 1st Mass I shared with him the extraordinary experience of knowing how close my own personal saints had been as I presided at the altar - the way I could practically hear my father's voice in the Sanctus - the way I suddenly and deeply understood the Communion of Saints as never before. That made sense to him - and was at the heart of the wonderful letter that Alison has just emailed to so many many people.
So, I've been in the Gethsemane Chapel, singing the Russian Kontakion and will try to keep the "Alleluia" foremost in my thoughts whenever I remember Bishop Michael.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.


Anne Dowdeswell said...

Thank you Kathryn. A lovely tribute to a wonderful bishop and man.

Wendy D said...

What a privilege to read about the wonderful ministry of this man and bishop and hear of some of the many lives it touched along the way. Thank you so much for sharing this Kathryn. You,+M and his family will remain in my prayers during the coming days.

UKViewer said...

A lovely tribute to Bishop Michael.

I did not know him personally, but my SD knew him well (from some former ministry in a different context) and spoke highly off him.

May he rest in peace and Rise in Glory.

John Witcombe said...

Beautifully put as always Kathryn