Photograph © Toby York, 2011
Sermon for a Solemn Requiem for the Revd Prebendary Gerard Irvine (1920-2011). Preached on Saturday 1st October 2011 at St Matthew’s Westminster
‘You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.’
Little Gidding I. 45-46, by T. S. Eliot
You will not be surprised, I’m sure, if I tell you that this sermon has been for me the source of, not inconsiderable, anguish. And that anguish is still there today, in spite of the sense of pride and privilege that I feel in the knowledge that Gerard himself, albeit posthumously, has requested that I preach it.
Photograph © Toby York, 2011
Firstly, my anguish stems from the fact that I am quite certain that I have already preached Gerard’s funeral sermon: at the Solemn celebration of his sixty years of priestly ministry five years ago, with the added advantage, on that great occasion, that he was sitting in the sanctuary to hear it. What more, I think, with a metaphorical wringing of the hands, can I possibly say?
But more importantly, having read the obituaries in the national press, I have felt a certain frustration that they did not capture the Gerard Irvine I have known and loved for more than thirty years. Though I am grateful, I should say, to the writer of the one in The Times, for imparting the helpful and illuminating detail – unknown to me until I read it – that Gerard’s first language was, in fact, Urdu.
So, if the obituaries, by others who have known Gerard probably for considerably longer than I have, do not for me reflect the essence of who he was and is, there is a high probability that many of you will say the same of what I attempt this morning.
Well enough self-indulgence and on with the task!
What, ultimately, is this esse of Father Gerard Irvine of which I speak and from which all else flows?
We have the answer to that, I think, in the phrase ‘Gerard Irvine, priest’ which is how he will be described from now on in this church, and – I’m sure – in many others, when his name is included in the prayer for the departed every 13th January and on All Souls’ Day.
More than anyone else I have ever known, Gerard was, as we say, ‘fully a priest’. Stories of his celebrating crypto-masses from about the age of two onwards apart, priesthood seems to have come naturally to him, so that its consecration through the sacrament of holy orders must always have seemed a foregone conclusion. These days, many clergy slip out that piece of white plastic from their black shirts before they get on a bus or a train, and we carefully side-step the ‘what do you do?’ question in the company of strangers because we would rather they did not pigeon-hole us before they get to know us. Gerard showed absolutely no diffidence with regard to his priesthood. It’s not that he always wore clerical dress: he didn’t. But it really made no difference. He was – is – a priest wherever he went and whatever he said and did.
It is because he is ‘fully a priest’ – which in Gerard’s case is completely coterminous with the phrase ‘fully a human being’ – that we all know and love him. It was as a priest that his friendships and ministry stretched so far and wide. And it is his way of being so fully a priest that explains not, as some obituaries seemed to suggest, why he knew so many famous people (even, in one case, putting pictures of some of them in what was supposed to be Gerard’s obituary), but rather why so many famous people came to know Gerard and to treasure his friendship and priestly ministry.
So what was so special about Gerard Irvine, priest?
I am going to use that text, and indeed the lines which come immediately before it, from the last of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, as a sort of peg on which to hang what I have to say. These are the words which Rosemary has chosen for the memorial marking the place in this building where Gerard’s mortal remains have been placed.
She couldn’t have picked a more appropriate poem. Gerard loved and admired Eliot’s work and knew him from his ministry in Soho, where both were prominent in the St Anne’s Society. And ‘fire’ and ‘dust and ashes’ are such major images in the Four Quartets, that it is especially fitting that they should be quoted in a building which has itself been ‘baptized with fire’ and in which Gerard’s ashes have been interred.
But Rosemary was wise not to have included the words immediately before ‘you are here to kneel’. Firstly, because there would have been too many for his friends and family to remember and quote accurately, but secondly, because I think Gerard wouldn’t have quite approved.
Gerard ‘didn’t quite approve’ of being required in Tom Driberg’s testamentary wishes to preach, not a eulogy, but an exposition of the seven deadly sins at his funeral mass at St Mary’s, Bourne Street. So he didn’t: instead he turned each sin around – having, first given it a ‘Tom rating’ – and preached on its corresponding virtue.
Which is what I am going to do with the words immediately before my text, because thus treated, they help me, at least, to say a little about Gerard’s priestly ministry.
‘You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.’ (Little Gidding, I. 43-46)
‘You are not here’, Eliot says – and by ‘here’, he probably means both the actual time and place of his visit to Little Gidding, and ‘here’ in an existential sense – ‘to verify’ or ‘to instruct yourself.’
Gerard couldn’t possibly have agreed with that, at least not in the wider sense. He was a thoroughly Anglican priest and knew that intellectual rigour was intended to be one the pillars of our particular tradition.
Concern that the Catholic religion should appeal to the intellect as well as to the heart was one of the reasons why Fr Patrick McCloughlin (the Vicar of St Thomas', Regent Street – another church ‘burned with fire’) and Fr Gilbert Shaw (the Vicar of St Anne’s, Soho) founded the St Anne’s Society, and it was in this world that Gerard began his London ministry. Its members included Eliot, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, Agatha Christie and Rose Macaulay as well as Dorothy Sayers who was Churchwarden of St Thomas’s. John Betjeman, Iris Murdoch, David Cecil and others all contributed at one time or another and Gerard Irvine, priest, became lifelong friends with them all.
Indeed, according to the scholar Barbara Reynolds, Fr Chantry-Pigg in Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond is a combination of those three Soho clergy, for such a character must, surely, be bigger than any one priest? In Take away the camel and all is revealed, she quotes an animated theological discussion in Gerard’s rooms, at which Dorothy Sayers and Gerard’s brother James were also present, in support of her claim that Aunt Dot was, in fact Sayers herself.
All this Gerard took with him throughout his later ministry. It didn’t matter whether the setting was a post-war housing estate near London airport in the nineteen-fifties or the Bohemian café culture of Earl’s Court in the sixties or the social mix of this parish in the seventies and eighties or Brighton in his retirement. Those Cranford teenagers found themselves listening to Iris Murdoch and being taken to the theatre in the West End: Irma La Douce was their first outing, followed by the then completely novel experience for them of a meal in a restaurant. And Gerard was still bringing groups of teenagers up to London from St Michael’s, Brighton forty years later.
The magazine at St Cuthbert’s, Philbeach Gardens was more like a literary and social review than a parish magazine. It could – and did – contain a new poem by John Betjeman or Stevie Smith and there were positive, balanced reviews by Gerard himself of John Robinson’s Honest to God, the same author’s The New Reformation and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City. Entire issues were devoted to T. S. Eliot (to mark his death), Earl’s Court artists and the drug L.S.D. It all sounds more like St James’s, Piccadilly twenty years later, except that, where Gerard was Vicar, people also queued to make their confessions, and the discussion of social and theological issues at open house Sunday tea concluded with Solemn Evensong and Benediction.
We are here to instruct ourselves and to verify, if we are to take seriously our intellectual capacities, and Gerard knew more than anyone that that means facing up to our doubts and also to the sometimes incoherent, if not downright absurd, elements of our faith. Sitting next to him at an induction in a neighbouring parish, I remember his rendering of the hymn Sweet Sacrament Divine. ‘There in thine ear all trustfully, we tell our tale of misery’ he sang heartily, and then found time to squeeze in the remark, ‘this is ridiculous, the Blessed Sacrament hasn’t got an ear!’ before continuing, nevertheless, to bellow out the rest of the hymn.
‘You are not here to inform curiosity or carry report’.
Photograph © Toby York, 2011
Gerard took infinite delight in both. And the curiouser, as Alice would say, the better. Actually, I can tell you that he didn’t much care for Little Gidding, at least not in its nineteen-eighties reincarnation. We went there on pilgrimage once and it all seemed rather humourless and austere. But then we continued to Olney where John Newton and the inspired, but completely mad, poet William Cowper wrote their eighteenth century hymns. That was much more to our liking: ‘Can a woman’s tender care, cease towards the child she bare?’ we sang, and Gerard loved it.
Gerard loved ‘curiosity’ for itself alone. Once, when we were talking about those problematic questions we’d jolly well like answered if we got to heaven, he came up with ‘Who was the man in the iron mask?’ He had a special penchant for the dotty and the weird, precisely because he didn’t take himself too seriously.
And he loved to share it all with others. Though I don’t remember him at all as someone who ‘dropped names’, if he did ‘carry report’ or mention people he knew, it was usually because there was a funny story attached and he wanted to tell it. And it was just as likely to be about a member of the Upper House who was a couple of jewels short of a coronet than about a well-known artist or literary or political figure.
I have, perhaps, been unfair on Eliot, given the words that follow and which are the ones on Gerard’s memorial. Eliot was certainly not the sort of Christian who had no doubts, or who thought wrestling with the intellectual integrity of the Catholic faith did not matter. So, when he says, ‘you are here to kneel where prayer has been valid’ he is really talking in the sense of ‘when all is said and done.’ And in this he is surely right, just as it is equally right that these words should form Gerard’s memorial in this church: for they perfectly illustrate his ministry here.
Gerard spent more than forty percent of his full-time work as a priest as Vicar of this parish, and the rebuilding of the church after the fire crowned his ministry. When he arrived here, he will have recognised it as a place where, indeed, prayer has been valid. Prayer permeates the walls of St Matthew’s, just like the incense which hangs about in it after services. And Gerard was faithful to that tradition, while also gently opening the eyes and hearts of the congregation to contemporary liturgical renewal.
He was faithful indeed, ‘repeating’ those ‘acts of faith and love’ Charles Wesley talks about in the hymn we have just sung. Listen to these words from Father Richard Buckingham’s address at Gerard’s Funeral Mass:
‘I remember once, going through a common curate’s moan about what I believed and how much, and what about doubts and the rest. Gerard, with a simplicity distilled from years in the confessional and at the altar, said “Just remember, the true mark of faith is simple faithfulness.”’
And that is the Gerard most of us here remember with infinite gratitude. Wherever he was a priest when he first crossed your path – whether it was outside the sometimes rarefied word of London religion in Knowle or the Potteries, or in and around any of the places I have already mentioned – he will have remained faithful to you as a priest and a friend. He will have enriched your life because he was so life-affirming in the broadest sense; he will have assured you of God’s unfailing faithfulness to you; and he will have encouraged you, in your halting faith, to remain faithful to Him in your own particular way.
But, of course, in his own faithfulness to God here, to that great treasury of offered prayer he added his own. I don’t know how many masses he said or sang (sort of) here, or how many Offices, including those of the Roman Breviary which he said in addition to Matins and Evensong, he recited upstairs in the Comper Chapel, but over more than seventeen years it must have been many thousands. I’m not saying he spent hours at it: Sunday Matins at 9.30am – which Gerard insisted on as a statutory public service – was always well over by a quarter to ten, even using the Prayer Book psalms for the day, because he always got in the whole of his verse of the psalm or canticle while you were taking a breath at the end of yours, with the result that God was incessantly bombarded with a garbled duet by Cranmer and Coverdale.
But prayer, as Eliot says, is ‘more than an order of words’ and Gerard understood that the Holy Spirit transforms all our efforts, however feeble, into powerful intercession ‘in sighs too deep for words.’ (cf Romans 8. 26). Likewise, countless holy places throughout the world can be ‘Little Gidding.’ More particularly, this building can be ‘the still point of the turning world’ if we will let it. For, as he, for many years, knelt faithfully here where others had prayed before him, we too can now kneel where his prayer has been valid.
© Martin Draper, 2011