Thursday, 22 June 2017

At a Service of Thanksgiving for Bob and Ruth Jeffery

I can hear Bob’s advice to me as his curate ordained just a few weeks. “At funerals and memorials, don’t preach about the person who’s died. Preach about God.” He was right of course. And yet…. Isnt a person’s life – yours, mine, Ruth’s, Bob’s - the primary place where we read the traces of love’s work, where we discern God to have been present in the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of being a woman, a man, where we learn how to speak about God out of our own lived experience?

I think Bob would say so. It was how he had been formed as a Christian and how he had learned the art and the craft of Christian ministry. You could call it “being real” though Bob would have hated the cliché like he hated all the easy speeches and hackneyed phrases that fall unexamined off too many tongues. Being authentic as a priest, a Christian and as a human being was Bob’s life task right up to the moment he died. His faith and the language with which he spoke about it were characteristically his own. They owed a great deal to the people who had inspired him and he never tired of acknowledging the debt. But the experience was his, and the words were his. He wouldn’t perhaps have owned the word artistry to describe this. Yet I believe that under God we are called to be artists, or co-artists, of our own lives and to do this means living in a state not only of awareness but of being true to who we are in God.

Being present, paying attention, living reflectively, truth-seeking were basic to Bob’s way of understanding the world and God’s involvement in it. He didn’t have much time for theological speculation and none at all for simpliste slogans and what they usually gave birth to, well-meaning but ill-considered strategies and programmes that would sort out the church’s problems. One of his great spiritual guides, the eighteenth century French Jesuit writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade, taught him to be humble before the providence of God and not claim to know too much about the divine plan for the world. Bob conscientiously refused to speak of things he did not know about, things none of us can know about. What mattered was the offering of life to God. To him, reticence was a virtue that went with the modesty proper to a created being. And the complexity of life, and the unknowability of so much of it, was part of its glory that God embraced in the incarnation. He insisted that it had to be understood “from below”, inside the experience of being living and sentient with mind and conscience and the capacity to be aware and articulate the wonder of our own being. He believed with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and that in this respect, religious faith, the God-given “examination” of life should make us more human, not less.

As David Thomas says in his tribute in today’s service sheet, metaphor and poetry were everything in this quest to interpret the human condition from the perspective of the divine. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant” said Emily Dickinson. Faced with the task of finding words to express the inexpressible, there is no alternative. I once preached a sermon at Headington, mercifully long-forgotten, that Bob felt did not quite capture the spirit of the text. “The trouble is” he said in the nicest possible way “there’s too much prose in your preaching, not enough poetry and not enough paradox”. It was one of those moments that made me stop and change course, not just as a preacher but as a theologian too. It’s among many insights for which I have to thank a tolerant, cherished and wise mentor.

But if he valued reticence when it came to speaking about God, his practice of faith was confident, joyful and large-hearted. He liked Bishop Ian Ramsey’s saying about being “tentative in theology but sure in religion”. He proclaimed a God who in Jesus, as the Fourth Gospel puts it, “loves us to the end”. In the words of our reading from St Paul, God’s is a love from which nothing can ever separate us, not height nor depth, not evil or disaster, not anything in all creation. I guess there were times when that faith had to be fought for, most of all here at Worcester that terrible morning when he found that his beloved Ruth had died suddenly. Bob had always believed that if religion has nothing to say about suffering and loss, then it has nothing to say. Such circumstances are the severest test not only of the human being but of whether the faith he or she professes can carry such a burden. Bob found that it could, because the bridge to which he entrusted himself to carry him across the abyss was scaffolded with love. That is what it means to be “sure in religion.

To Bob, the capacity to hold belief and doubt together, to explore, probe, debate, ask questions was all part of having a mature faith. He reckoned that religion that infantilised grown-ups into tribal submission and uncritical obedience was not worthy of the name. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith had taught him, as had Bonhoeffer before him, that faith must “come of age” and it is the responsibility of a Christian leader to help people discover religious adulthood for themselves. It takes courage to do that. On the last page of his book Anima Christi he wrote: “Our pilgrimage is itself an act of faith and an act of worship. We are moving towards the greater mystery of God which envelops us all. Pilgrims live only by the mercy and grace of God. This means that we can let go of security and certainties because we realise that God is in control. We need nothing but to offer everything to God with willingness.” His children say that even in his last illness, there was a curiosity about what he called the “end game”, how to die as authentically as he had tried to live. His favourite Psalm 139 was sung at his funeral: “O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me”. He wanted to be as alert and present to the truth of this in dying as much as in living, and to discover how God would be “about his path and about his bed” in his last Nunc Dimittis.

We are here today to honour Bob and Ruth’s memory cherished not only in Worcester but also in Sunderland, Barnes, Oxford and Tong, not to mention the British Council of Churches and the General Synod. As Dean here, he worked tirelessly to save the tower and conserve this great building. He and Ruth made their Deanery a place not only of hospitality and welcome, but of jollity, stimulus, good conversation about books and theology, church politics and the state of the world.  But he would have wanted these tangible memories to be a metaphor of a lifelong investment as priest and pastor whose generous vision of life touched the fabric of so many people. If I learned one thing from Bob in the forty years I knew him, it was how to try to understand and live just such a Christianity that is capable of reaching out to the lives of others and of making a real difference in the world.

So what is Bob and Ruth’s lasting memorial? I think we can see it in the faces of all of us who are here today, and many more who are not,  whom they loved and cared for because they prized the most precious gifts life can bestow: integrity, generosity, community, a sense of place, kindness, laughter and the knowledge of God. What unites us today is that our lives were touched by Bob and Ruth in the name of the One who in Christ has himself touched us, searched us out and known us. In his death and resurrection we are given back our lives once more, strengthened by the promise that our hope was not in vain. For love was his meaning, and always will be in both this world and the next.

Worcester Cathedral, 21 June 2017
At the memorial service for The Very Reverend Robert Martin Colquhoun Jeffery
Romans 8.31-39

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