Homily for Bishop Alan Smithson

Without love the world would be a very bleak place indeed. So we should not be surprised to find that love occupies the central place in the Gospel and in Bishop Alan’s chosen reading today.

To those who are sensitive to the needs of others, life offers innumerable opportunities to practise the commandment of love. It is not a question of doing big things. Nor is it a question of giving things. Rather, it is a question of giving of oneself in little ways – giving of one’s time, energy and love.

Real love requires hard work and patience, and often goes unseen and unrecognised. It is not a sporadic thing – it is a way of life. It was Bishop Alan’s way of life.

Today I am not going to list the career highlights of Bishop Alan. There will be time for that later at his memorial service. Today I am going to talk about love. About Bishop Alan’s loves and about how he showed his love and Christ’s love to others.

Alan was born and brought up in Bradford with his brother John. John and his family are here today showing their love. He met Jean (his ‘twinnie’) at Oxford University at the SCM and country dancing, and they have four children: Katkin; Tim; Johnny; and Peggy (aka Jo). I asked them to share their memories of their dad with me and what I am about to say is mostly their thoughts.

You will quickly realise that Alan crammed two lives into one – wholeheartedly. For Alan was a priest and a family man, in equal measure. From the age of 11 he knew that he was to be a priest, although I think there was something of the teacher about him too.

Childhood memories of their dad revolve around bedtime stories (and not just out of a book, but made up ones too); chin pies (you’ll need to ask them about that one); smoking his pipe while the children took the steering wheel of the car; and holidays. Ah! the holidays!

Camping holidays in the beloved camper van which seemed to me to be the bane of any driver’s life, but what fun they had tearing round hair-pin bends, regular breakdowns and jump starts and often having to leave it on a hill just in case…

And there doesn’t seem to be a sport which Alan didn’t have a go at: sailing, fly fishing and just last year he tried snorkling.

He loved the sea, and the Sea Cadets at Musselburgh will miss his quiet and assuring presence.

Personally, I only wish I had found out earlier that we shared a love of James Bond films. What joyous conversations we could have shared.

Conversations were another of Alan’s gifts. He was wise and insightful and on Sunday our children here at St Mark’s all remembered how special they felt that he knew them all by name and how kind he was.

Alan ‘saw’ people. And each one was made to feel special. Gentle, a good listener, an okay joke teller, and a great philosopher. Every extrovert should have an introvert colleague to calm and assure and listen – and Alan did that for me. I don’t think he ever knew how grateful I was and am, for his supportive presence throughout my ministry here.

Alan helped people see their faith afresh with new eyes. His gift for remembering quotes and poetry made him a great preacher and teacher. And he was meticulous in his preparation. I am still finding little scrawled notes and messages about groups we were leading together.

And what an optimist – ‘good, good, very good’ he’d say. His love of all people was something to which we can only aspire. He was always defending the underdog and always able to see things from their perspective. This was especially evident in his prison work, as I’ve learned this week.

Interfaith matters were also incredibly important to Alan and he hit the headlines a few years ago when he decided to read the Koran during Lent. To Alan, it was about understanding his neighbour better – to some it was scandalous. To Alan, it was about love, for love was what Alan was all about. And when he left Durham there were four speakers from different faiths at his final service, a testimony to his work with them.

To relax Alan played the cello and painted in oil and watercolours. Latterly, it was with his grandchildren Jamie and Joe that he found great joy. Wee Joe’s first name was ‘Papa’ and they too were learning to love listening to his stories.

Alan has shown us how love and joy can be practised in ordinary, everyday ways. He was one of those generous people who find their deepest satisfaction in life in devoting themselves to the welfare of others. He was truly a witness to Christ’s love. The flood of cards, messages and emails that have come pouring in since his death are testimony to that.

Alan was a man who devoted his life to helping others. A faithful man who served others and his church with great devotion. That kind of service is really love made visible. And a reflection of God’s love for each one of us.

We are all God’s children. We are all loved. At times like this we may need to be reminded of God’s love, for us and for Alan. For God does not abandon us at death. God’s love enables us to cast off from this earth, and set sail for the other world, buoyed up with hope. God’s love, which Alan showed so well during his life to his children, to his little flocks and to all he met, is surrounding us now, upholding us in our grief.

As music was so important to Alan, I like to think there is a theme-tune playing somewhere as an accompaniment to that love. It may be the Trout Quintet, a little Bach or Messiaen perhaps? But hark! I think I hear a James Bond theme tune in there somewhere too.

4 thoughts on “Homily for Bishop Alan Smithson

  1. How well you describe Bishop Alan’s way of life in the giving of his time,energy and love.We experienced this first hand during his time in Durham as our beloved Bishop of Jarrow in his counselling, guidance and hospitality : he was inded a modern day St Francis.Many a time he would take the time to engage with others when his diary dictated otherwise and he should have been somewhwere else [I write as a former occasional chauffeur]
    His promotion of inclusiveness was a marked characteristic advocating interfaith dialogue well ahead of its time and his support of lay ministry as Chairman of the Durham Diocesan Readers’ Council to which I was Secretary. At his cathedral induction he insisted that clergy and Readers [lay ministers] should process together.
    A chance enquiry about Bishop Alan to a former Carlisle colleague this week revealed the very sad news. Our immediate response was ” He was such a lovely man”
    May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

  2. Ralph and Mary, thank you for your comments. He was indeed a lovely man – one of the saints. We will miss him dearly. I shall pass on your comments to Jean.

  3. So sorry to hear [only now] of your loss….Dave has the opportunity to visit England this weekend on his way back from an unexpected trip to Amsterdam [We still live in Ca!]….We were thinking of special people he could maybe find and say “Hi” to….My mother in Wokingham, a close couple that we lived with as newly weds….And the Smithson family came up…From our crazy young lives in Bracknell…….. And so we read of your lives after we moved to California…….And of your loss…We’re so sorry…….. Our love to Jean, Catkin, Timmy [I guess you go by “Tim” now….. Johnny and Peggy [“Jo”]
    As are your children, ours are also grown….Glyn is engaged to be married this coming April, and he lives with his brother Jon [8 months old when you saw him last!] We have a third son, now 27, Evan Joel. He was born needing unexpected emergency surgery and had a very difficult first few years…..Sadly, he is now diagnosed with severe autism and lives with us pretty much dependent on us for most of his needs…..
    God is good, and I’m sure you find room for much laughter still, despite your great loss…

    • I passed on your message to Jean and she was delighted to hear your news and may be in touch. I don’t think she really ‘does’ computers but one of the girls might help her!

      I always think of +Alan on Christmas Day when he used to take the service at St Mark’s with all his family – and sometimes not many others at all! He is still missed.

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