Friday, 6 February 2015

In Memoriam Michael Perry: a funeral sermon

I only knew Michael Perry in his retirement. I first met him after evening prayer one night in the Cathedral. I had been installed just a few days. The choir was away so the service was said, not sung. There were only a few of us in the quire stalls. I had noticed an elegant white-haired man further along on my side, decani. He was reciting the psalms with vigour – and fast as if trying to arouse us slow clergy out of our languor. In the crossing afterwards, he headed in my direction. He made as if to walk past, but stopped by my right ear. An arm curled round; a hand took mine and held it very firmly. A voice said something like this. We haven’t met, but I am Michael Perry. In days of yore I used to be a member of the Cathedral Chapter. I have retired now, but they are very good at bearing with me while I go on coming to evensong because I can’t bear not to. You will come to love this Cathedral as I do: there is nowhere in the world like Durham. I shall never meddle or give advice as yesterday’s man, but if you ever need help, I am there. I am so glad you have come. God be with you. 

This was Michael: modest, courteous, immensely kind, a shrewd man of few words and wry humour, wickedly so at times. He was a highly intelligent man who, you sensed, could see through your fancy speeches: when you were talking rot, he knew it and could say so. He was not one for lingering: his attitude to the psalms was true of his whole life until illness forced a change of pace. There was work to do, things to get on with: new lamps to be lit, new tasks begun. When he came to rely on oxygen to survive, life went on. He would come to evensong carrying his cylinder in a large plastic bag. I expect he reckoned that it was good for all us to be reminded every day of our mortality.

Michael was ordained in 1958. In 1970 Bishop Ian Ramsey, a man whom Michael revered, appointed him Archdeacon of Durham. It came with membership of Durham Cathedral’s Chapter, its governing body. There is a photograph of a Chapter meeting in the Deanery in a 1970s guide book. By then it was led by Dean Eric Heaton. Michael is there at his right hand, the youthful canon who was said to be the youngest archdeacon in the Church of England. A forward-looking man, he approved of Heaton’s reforming views and once said to me, apropos of developments in the Cathedral today that they were exactly in line with what the Chapter was beginning to do in his day. At the same time, as Archdeacon and later, as the Bishop of Durham’s Senior Chaplain, he earned a respect and affection in the diocese that lasted. He knew and cared deeply for his parishes and clergy, an outstanding listener in hard times, a wise counsellor and a pastor who was trusted completely. His sermons were, and still are, remembered.  He did not believe in the charm school doctrine of niceness for its own sake: he could be astringent sometimes. Like Ian Ramsey, he valued ‘disclosure’ because it was part of the pursuit of truth, and this called for honesty in personal and professional relationships. This is all part of understanding why Durham was lucky in its senior clergy. He contributed much to a leadership that was enterprising, visionary and theologically intelligent and that lived out the Anglican ethos and values he cherished. 



Michael’s long interest was in parapsychology, the investigation and study of paranormal and psychic phenomena. He believed that it was important to shape a proper Christian understanding of it and not banish it to half-crazed practitioners with bizarre and even dangerous opinions and practices. He became editor of The Christian Parapsychologist in 1978 and president of the Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies in 1998. Asked what had most influenced him, he quoted a writer who had explained how poltergeist phenomena were usually caused, not by external spirits, but by inter-personal tensions amongst the people at the scene of the disturbances. ‘That revolutionized the way I dealt with poltergeist cases, and has proved enormously helpful.’ He applied these insights into his practice of what we now call deliverance ministry. He did not believe we should make a song-and-dance about strange psychic events but draw on the insights of theologians and mental health practitioners (of whom Margaret his wife is of course one). When he was honoured with a Lambeth DD in 2003, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke about ‘understanding questions of faith without devaluing spiritual experience, and most of all by studying Christian writings through prayer, meditation, and regular worship’. Michael valued this honour: it gave recognition to an aspect of pastoral theology and ministry that he believed was badly neglected.

In our best moments, our faith and our humanity are one. You can’t separate a person’s Christian identity from their human character and personality. Michael lived this in both his personal and professional life. His generosity and warmth, his intelligence and humour, his zest for living, his curiosity about God and about life, his love of music especially Beethoven, these were all part of the rich hinterland out of which he worked as a priest. His family, of course, were at the heart of this human flourishing in the life of God. He and Margaret were married for 51 years. She and Michael, Andrew, David and Gillian made for a lively family where a great love abounded, though Michael did not wear his heart on his sleeve. He was convivial but also valued solitude. You sense that he knew himself, was comfortable in his skin. ´Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. says St Paul in our reading, but when they are truly alive and wholesome they bear witness to it. Michael did.

In that great chapter from 1 Corinthians, Paul is speaking about the resurrection of the dead. How many have had hope restored, found the darkness lifting at those words ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory: where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?’. They transfigure life’s lesser deaths, and finally this last enemy we all have to face, as Michael did with sturdy equanimity, as Margaret and their children must do, with their families and all  who loved him. When Jesus wept with Mary and Martha at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, it must have helped him face his own death too, and to understand what lay beyond it. 

Michael had made the resurrection his special study. His first book was called The Easter Enigma: an essay on the resurrection. He knew better than anyone that a funeral is an Easter liturgy, especially when it is a Requiem. Here at this altar, the risen Christ comes among us to keep us thankful and expectant, to set in a larger context the loss of God's gift in the man he loves whom he has now taken back to himself.  We see him held within the memory of God’s own son, lost in death, found again in resurrection. It is the heart of our eucharistia, our thankfulness. It changes everything, gives us back our lives, renews our solidarity with all whom we love, living and departed in the Lord Jesus. ‘Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ says Paul. 

Here are some words of Michael that celebrate Easter as the truth by which he lived and died. He was speaking about the church and parapsychology, and how important it is to deal wisely and lovingly with departed souls. Our service here is, in a similar way, work we do both for and with a beloved departed soul. ‘Christians know that the resurrection of Jesus turned the whole world upside down. The Resurrection showed us that God is the God of earth and hell and heaven, and his rule knows no bounds. The communion of saints is not bounded by earthly, physical, parameters.’ Here at this eucharist, living and departed are one in Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. Even at the grave, we sing alleluia.

St Oswald’s Durham. 
At the funeral of Michael Perry, 6 February 2015

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