No Bloody Bishops (UG)

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"And one other thing, I want no bloody bishops at my funeral!"

The three months before my father died were strange and difficult ones, and ones which it was an immense privilege to live through. My brother came from Australia, and my sisters came from London and the West Indies, and we sorted and dismantled my parents' house. Dad had decided that the best thing to do was move himself and Mum into a nursing home, where he could die and she could live. So we did all the sorting with both of them still around.

Let me recommend this. It means you can ask him who was the pretty blonde standing next to his brother in the photos taken one summer's day in 1932. You can tell her how grateful you were for the letters she wrote, even though you hardly ever replied. You can actually ask them who they want to give their things to. ("Give my clerical vestments to Celia Carter." Unexpectedly, perhaps, he was a fan of the ordination of women. I wonder sometimes whether a gay bishop would have come into the category of "bloody").

I adored my father. He died in 1995 some six weeks short of his 80th birthday. He was an unusual clergyman, ordained after much soul-searching when he was 55. In some ways he could seem at first sight to be something of a caricature, but he was as far from the stock clergyman-out-of-a-box, nervous and timidly sipping sherry, as it is possible to be. My grandfather had been a doctor, and my grandmother wanted her sons to follow in those medical footsteps, but instead my father decided to join the army. He went to Sandhurst in the early '30s, and by 1935 he was in the Indian Army, a subaltern in what was still then Kipling's India. The caricature that he so nearly was, was that of the Major in Fawlty Towers, or Powell and Pressburger's Colonel Blimp.

In theory he was very right wing; in practice he was interested in people whoever they were. He used the phrase "the Labour government which gave our Empire away after the War" with no consciousness of political incorrectness. (The thought of political incorrectness would have made him snort with cynical amusement). But he supported the ordination of women, and supported the women who wanted to be ordained. He had the strongest sense of loyalty of any man I have ever known. He disliked Tony Benn, not because of Benn's radical socialism, but because he had renounced his peerage and betrayed the aristocracy. (I am not sure if he ever knew that Benn's father, Lord Stansgate, had been a Labour Peer). I suspect that this sense of loyalty was because, if he had not had a wife and family to consider, he would have become a Buddhist at some time in the 1950s or 1960s. The church of England is a broad church, and it stretched itself to its limits when it included him.

His dislike of bishops was the objection of a practical man to academics and theorists. He respected bishops who had been parish priests; the ones he abhorred were the ones who had spent their careers scoring academic points by slicing and dicing points of theology. He was an immensely practical man. He was efficient around the house long before there were DIY stores. (He once built a bookshelf and attached it to a door, and that hidden room behind the disguised door says much about him. There was more to him than met the eye.) He saw himself as a minister, and was at pains to stress that the original meaning of the word was 'servant'. He served his parishioners in many practical ways, taking in battered women before the Social Services acknowledged domestic abuse as an issue, or spending entire days to drive round-trips of one or two hundred miles to take elderly ladies to visit their husbands in hospital. He was brusque in theory and immensely gentle in practice.

He enjoyed shocking people, and in the 1950s he would stand at parties, gin in one hand, cigarette in the other, and launch a story with the phrase "when I was in jail..." It was only when the anecdote unfolded that his middle-class middle-England listeners realised that the jail in question was Changi. He had spent 3 years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese. He knew how railways are built. It is impossible to tell how this experience changed him. He was in his late 20s at the time, and responsible for a group of British, Australians and Dutch. I do not know what had happened to the Nepalese soldiers he had led through Burma and Malaya. Unusually, he had a high degree of respect for the Japanese. His years in India had given him an understanding that the European world-view was not the only one, and he saw the brutality of the Japanese in its cultural context. He was repulsed by it, but he respected it. He was not the racist of Imperial stereotype.

He learned at that time to respect bravery, endurance and the taking of difficult decisions, and although he had immensely high personal standards and demanded a great deal of himself and of others, he was deeply compassionate when life just became too much for other people to deal with. He would provide good malt whisky, and robust yet oddly gentle help. He was a practitioner of tough love long before the phrase became common.

And so, in the spring of 1995, I had to ensure that there were no bloody bishops at his funeral. This is not as easy as it might seem. Bishops turn up at the funerals or memorial services of the clergymen in their diocese as a matter of course, and for various reasons his memorial service was two or three weeks after he died.

I looked up "Church House" in the phone book and asked to be put through to the Bishop's office, assuming that he would have underlings to manage his diary and answer his calls. The man I spoke with had known my father of old and remembered him fondly because 25 years before, while studying to become a clergyman, my father had managed the Cathedral appeal. Which is why that particular building still has a roof.

After a quiet and gentle conversation about those times, I said: "One thing my father asked me to do was to contact the Bishop's office. Given the short notice, he wanted me to say that there is no need for the Bishop to rearrange his diary to attend the memorial service".

There was a short pause on the other end of the phone, a barely audible intake of breath, and his former colleague said, "That is very kind of you and your father. I quite understand".

And it was clear that he did.

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