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.

Death and books and rows and laughter

It has been a strange week. Sometimes in ministry we get these weeks where your emotions are up and down like a roller coaster. This has been such a week of extremes. In fact it has been an Advent week which just goes to reinforce what I preached about last Sunday – keep Advent in Advent. There will be time enough to celebrate Christmass.  (Although somebody fell out with me over that one again.)

Here’s a taster of this past week as I look back …

  • gathering stories for Helen’s funeral and looking back at an incredible woman
  • lunch with old friends and lots of jokes (none suitable for sermons!)
  • photocopying and folding
  • seeing the sadness of Borders Books as shelves were in chaos but popping in 3 times all the same, a guilty pleasure
  • another funeral and hearing more stories about love and a beauty queen
  • more Christmass cards bringing messages and laughter (thank you Grahame!)
  • designing service sheets and photocopying and folding and stapling
  • searching and searching for unbleached candles and finding the last two just in time
  • listening to stories and forgetting the Bishop’s Christmas party
  • prayers in the morning with just the coffin for company
  • snatched phone calls offering support and love
  • photocopying and praying
  • escaping for two hours to watch The Princess Bride and finding it was just what I needed (thank you Mother K!)
  • feeling useless
  • having to be the baddy again and knowing that things still won’t change
  • facing the rawness of grief
  • inhaling the delicious smell of new books
  • reaching my day off and coming to the conclusion that I will actually take it
  • just wait till I get this photocopying done…

Helen Muirhead RIP

Helen sadly died in the early hours of this morning.  Her body will be received into church on Tuesday 15 December at 4.30pm and her funeral will be on Wednesday at 1pm and thereafter at Seafield Crematorium at 2pm.

Rest eternal grant unto her, O Lord,
and let light perpetual shine upon her.

Funeral music

Forget hymns like “Abide With Me”, “Amazing Grace” and “Jerusalem” the next time you attend a funeral, because you’re more likely to hear Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” or the theme song from the Benny Hill television show.

A survey of 30,000 funerals conducted last year found that hymns were now the most popular requests at only 35% of services. “My Way” by Frank Sinatra was the most popular, followed by “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler and “Time To Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman.

“You Raise Me Up” by Westlife and “Angels” by Robbie Williams made the top 10, while X Factor winner Alexandra Burke’s “Hallelujah” was at number 26 only months after topping the Christmas chart.

Lorinda Sheasby, of Co-operative Funeralcare, said the findings indicated that tastes are changing, with television programs and chart hits influencing people’s choices.

“Today’s tear-jerking chart topper is extremely unlikely to be tomorrow’s funeral classic but it’s quite possible it will figure highly in the months or even years to come.”

On the downside, priests reject one in 10 requests, including those for AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” and “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen. Even further on the downside is that some requests are for theme songs from soap operas.

People must be awfully dull round here because I hardly ever get asked for anything like the above. My biggest problem just now is that Dad is requesting Courage Brother, Do Not Stumble. Quite. Have you ever heard it?

Big Bulky Anglican is laid to rest

Just back from Tom Allen’s funeral (aka Big Bulky Anglican to you bloggers out there). Tom, like most clergy, had a little black book of funeral liturgies, poems, prayers etc and it was Tom’s own funeral that we heard today. although I’m sure Fr Pip added his own wee touches here and there. Bishop David gave a wonderful homily which gave those of us who had never met Tom a real taste of the man who was Big Bulky Anglican.

One of Tom’s favourite songs was Hill of Angels by Steve Butler. What a joy to have Steve play it live. (You can find it on Sticky Music’s website on the CD Love Come Down and others.)

Lots of clergy there and many, many bishops too. In fact, it was black and purple as far as the eye could see. With splash of joyful colour from the family.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

That was the week that was

It got even busier last week and even more emotional.

Prayers for Lou’s family and friends after a glorious funeral and purvey. She would have loved it!

Prayers for Helen as she prepares to go into hospital. A wonderful warm woman, much loved by all who know her. Let us pray that all shall be well.

The Children’s Mission day on Fair Trade was a resounding success. Not as many kids as we would have hoped for but it all worked out well in the end. The church looks resplendent with palm trees, spices, bananas and chocolate. We even got some folk to dress up on Sunday in costumes from around the world. And you’ll never believe it but I taught and sang the Peruvian Gloria. Yes, I sang!  On my own! And nobody left. A miracle!

Then last night was our Healing Service for St Lukestide. Not a great turn out but the Holy Spirit was there for sure. An emotional evening.

Off now to the Borders for a couple of days R&R.

How much does it cost to dig a grave?

St M’s has its own graveyard. It is quite lovely and if I didn’t have a family plot to go into when that time comes, I wouldn’t mind settling there for eternity. Lovely tree-lined avenue, well kept grass and some interesting headstones. Tomorrow, for the first time, I shall be interring someone in said graveyard. It occurred to me that I had no idea who dug the hole. I do my own for ashes, but who does it for full size coffins?

Turns out it is the local Council graveyard who come along with their digging machine to do it. And guess how much they charge? £950!!! Now if I thought some nice muscly gravediggers were getting some of that I wouldn’t mind. But I bet the man with the scoop ain’t getting £950, that’s for sure. Blimey, I’d dig it myself for that.

Prepare your own funeral

A fun night last night when we gathered to tell stories of disastrous funerals (Breaker Betty and Tam the Bam featured heavily). We spoke about the kind of funerals we would like.

What would you like people to say about you once you’re gone?

What hymns do you want? Chances are that the folk who sit next to you in church know what your favourite hymns are but your children don’t. Do you want to be like all the others who end up with Morning has Broken and All Things Bright and Beautiful because those are the only hymns your children know?

So they have all gone home with their forms to fill in with all the information a priest would ever need when doing a funeral. My life is going to be so much easier now!