Balloons and ashes

We laid +Alan’s ashes to rest this afternoon. It rained.

We talked about balloons and breathing life into them. We talked about how fragile balloons can be, just like people, and how wrinkly and deflated they get when they are old. Then we let 2 helium star balloons off up into the air. Everyone fell silent. The silver one caught up with the gold one and together they drifted off up, up and away over the sea. We watched them float together for what seemed liked miles.

It was a very special moment.


The new church magazine is available here in pdf format. Great to see that more and more people are reading it online and saving the planet a few trees. There is also an insert which gives our thoughts on Bishop Alan Smithson.

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.

The Rt Rev’d Alan Smithson

About four years ago Bishop Alan and his wife Jean settled in nearby Musselburgh and came to St Mark’s.  Quickly they became a valued part of our little flock, quietly befriending people and helping where they could. Bishop Alan provided holiday cover for me, shared preaching and in Holy Week took part in all the services.  He worked well in small groups and I know that nobody found his presence at all intimidating.  What a fund of stories, quotes and anecdotes he held in his memory and I never failed to learn from him, although he never quite managed to convert me to his love of poetry.

Early on in his time at St Mark’s +Alan took over doing some of the home-communions and all very thrilled to be visited by a bishop, no less!  There are many housebound people who will miss his presence greatly.  We made a great team: every extrovert should have an introvert to balance them.

Shortly after they arrived I had the privilege of marrying one of his daughters while +Alan concentrated on being the father of the bride. And I know he loved playing with his grandchildren and always had time for them.

For the past wee while +Alan has not been well and he found it incredibly frustrating that he couldn’t help out more taking services. Despite constant reassurance that his presence and gift of listening and gentle advice was just as valuable, he always wanted to help more.

Yesterday +Alan died suddenly on the day he was going to go off on one of their annual camping holidays. It was a great shock to Jean, the family and all who knew him. I will miss his wise words and caring nature more than I can say.

May he rest in peace.