None of us would have wished to be here today, but all of us had to be here. So, thank you for coming. Then, just as the BBC says ‘In this report there is some flash photography’, I should say that in this address there’s some very gentle bad language!
Jeremy Winston – Father Jeremy to so many, Dean Jeremy for such a cruelly short time, ‘The Winston’ to some of us, Uncle Jeremy to others, but today simply Jeremy – was an outstanding individual in so many ways. He was one of the best friends and colleagues for which anyone could wish, and there is so much in his life that we prize. I will give only a little glimpse of that today – but lest you think I short-change him – let me remind you that an opportunity for a fuller appreciation of Jeremy’s life will come with a Thanksgiving Service at Abergavenny in the New Year.
I am asked to preach about faith in Jesus, the Risen Jesus, who underpins our religion; and in a little while I’ll do as I’m told. But I hope that you will understand me (and forgive me, if you need to) if I begin with humour. It was such an important feature of Jeremy’s life. I can picture him now, at the recent Governing Body of the Church in Wales which he chaired a matter of days before the diagnosis of his illness, clasping his hands together and rocking with laughter as he so often did – not, (your Grace) during the Presidential Address, certainly not (Lord Rowe Beddoe) during the Representative Body report on Membership and Finance! It was over lunch. I can’t remember whether he had taken the mickey out of me or, I out of him – it doesn’t matter.
So many have said and in so many different ways (and we agree) that Jeremy was – and this list is not exhaustive – unfailingly courteous (even to those with whom he disagreed) visionary, profound, inspirational, wise, multi-talented, cultured, hard-working and intelligent leader who could and did both move and motivate others. We agree, of course.
But we also agree that he did love to laugh. Crisp and gently wicked one-liners, often delivered with narrowed eyes and curled lips, were part of Jeremy’s stock-in-trade. And, even when they came from others in his direction, he much enjoyed them.
So, in preparing this address, I had recourse to one of those books which people buy you at certain times in your life. You know the ones I mean, and, as we’re in church, I’ll mention a trinity – three of them; books like:
· “Jokes for (it should, of course, be ‘Jokes about’) the over 40’s”;
· “Wrinklies’ Wit and Wisdom”; and, pardon this next one –
· “Are you a miserable old git?”; (answers on a postcard, please. My family are disqualified from participating).
It was in the second of these that I found something which I think is appropriate to the sad circumstances which bring us together. It will be known to some of you, no doubt, and in a variety of forms. But this is, apparently, the original, taken from, quote, ‘the obituary columns of a Cardiff Newspaper’. I won’t use the name of the deceased, although the book does publish it.
“On Sunday, 5th April 1998, following a courageous fight for life, so-and-so, surrounded by her family, died at home – and she’s bloody annoyed.”
Today we, I guess, are not so much annoyed but devastated. Devastated at a life cut short so swiftly, so aggressively and (without denying so many things already achieved) so wastefully.
That said, we have to be realistic and draw some comfort from the likelihood that death has spared Jeremy lengthy and challenging treatment, the outcome of which could well have been profoundly disappointing. And (perhaps selfishly) we can think of ourselves being spared seeing our friend but a shadow of what he was. Even so, and although he had done so much, there was still so much left to do, not least in this Cathedral, and I imagine that he’s bloody annoyed that he’s not going to be here to do it.
But it’s to faith that I want to now turn our attention and, more particularly and, perhaps, rather oddly to sparrows. Difficult though it is to stretch the imagination and see Jeremy as a sparrow – a tall and commanding eagle seems a more suitable metaphor – he requested that “The Sparrow’s Prayer”, written by the late Lord Hailsham, and found in his memoirs “A Sparrow’s Flight”, be read as part of the address at this service. It requires a little explanation before I read it. So, please, bear with me:
In the poem Hailsham draws first on the Venerable Bede’s “History of the English Church and People” where Bede records King Edwin of Northumbria discussing with his advisers whether to become a Christian and, in particular, what light the Christian faith sheds on the mystery of what follows death. One adviser said:
“The present life of man, O King, seems to be like the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged.”
The suggestion was that the life of a man is the known, short space of fair weather – the time when the sparrow is in the safety of the room. But of what lies beyond, when the sparrow flies out, there is ignorance. And the advisers conclude that, if this new Christian religion could help their understanding, if this Christian God the Father, in Jesus Christ, shines light into the ‘short space’ of present flight, the King should go for it. Which he did.
Secondly, and more familiarly, Hailsham draws upon chapter 10 of the Gospel according to St Matthew where Jesus seeks to encourage his endangered disciples in the face of the challenges and chances which they will face.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father. So do not be afraid: you are of more value than many sparrows.”
From these two sources, and in the light of his personal faith Hailsham wrote ‘The Sparrow’s Prayer’:
Father, before this sparrow’s earthly flight
Ends in the darkness of a winter’s night ;
Father, without whose word no sparrow falls,
Hear this, Thy weary sparrow when he calls.
Mercy, not justice is his contrite prayer,
Cancel his guilt and drive away despair;
Speak but the word, and make his spirit whole,
Cleanse the dark places of his heart and soul,
Speak but the word, and set his spirit free;
Mercy, not justice, still his constant plea.
So shall Thy sparrow, crumpled wings restored.
Soar like a lark, and glorify his Lord.
(The Sparrow’s Prayer)
Hailsham looks in hope and faith beyond being a broken sparrow to becoming a glorious and melodious lark, soaring on high, singing in faith and joy of the love of God.
The faith which King Edwin decided was a bit more hopeful than anything to which he’d previously subscribed, the faith which led Lord Hailsham to write his sparrow’s prayer, is a wonderful gift, and a treasure which the earthen vessel of the church is called to proclaim afresh in every generation.
It’s no fairy tale, trouble-free faith which hides us from the dark things of life and death, and pretends that they’re not there. Rather, it enables us to journey and deal with things like thanks and sorrow, anticipation and anger. It enables us today to grieve, but not without hope.
The readings we have just heard are positive, visionary, forward-looking readings, expressing that faith, first in a certainty about who and what Jesus is – the resurrection and the life; and secondly presenting a vision of an age when, tears ended, the indignity and malevolence of suffering are past. But it’s so vitally important for us to remember that the birth of this faith was in circumstances not of strength, ease and acceptance, but of desolation, opposition and doubt:
“My God, why have you forsaken me?” “The disciples thought it an idle tale and would not believe them.” “Unless I see I will not believe.”
That faith underpins this service. It motivated everything that Jeremy did. It’s a living, loving faith in a living, loving Jesus whose friends thought the game was up when the events of Calvary unfolded with, to return to Bede, the sparrow gone into the dark winter.
But we are here because of what followed. That crumpled sparrow becomes Hailsham’s soaring lark. The broken Christ became the Living Lord and nothing was going to stop his friends talking about it. It’s their experience, their witness that enables us today to let real light shine into Jeremy’s ‘short space’ and into today which, without it, would otherwise be simply a memorial meeting, remembering a friend and colleague, with no future.
I want to end with just a few more quotations which, I hope, are appropriate.
First words written by Jeremy himself which were sung in this Cathedral at his installation on September 10th, and which, if I’ve understood them correctly, move us from desolation to new life.
World of sorrow, deserted, tree-less,
Bound, distorted and maligned.
Grief of hopelessness and anguish,
Time abandoned, fate-designed. (Desolation.)
World of morning, sign-less sorrow,
Empty hollow, Life restored,
Tree-full leaves and watered nations,
Love, but love, is now outpoured. (New life.)
Secondly from the very end of John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress.’
When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the riverside; into which as he went he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over; and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
But thirdly and finally, remembering something of Jeremy which I’ve not yet mentioned, the pleasure which he took in hospitality, in cooking and in dining, let me return to humour and to the second book of the trinity to which I referred earlier, “Wrinklies’ Wit and Wisdom”.
The wisdom of Rowan Williams is often quoted here and elsewhere, but it’s to the wit of Robin Williams, gifted actor and comic talent and much more, that I turn.
“Death,” he said, “is nature’s way of saying ‘Your table is ready.’”
Banquets and feasting form a significant part of the Gospel stories and the Eucharist itself, wherein Christ is present to welcome, nourish and change his friends is, we believe, a foretaste of the Heavenly Wedding Banquet of the Lamb and his Bride, the Church. So a dining table is, it seems to me, to be a good place at which to end.
So, let Jeremy’s table be ready; let this sparrow soar like the lark; let the trumpets sound as he crosses over; and please God, let him rest in peace and rise in Glory, even if he is bloody annoyed at not being here. AMEN