A funeral homily by Kim Fabricius
After surgery in May 2008, followed by chemotherapy and a promising prognosis, a scan disclosed that Gwyn’s bowel cancer had spread, incurably. Early in 2009 his decline accelerated, and by March Gwyn was confined to bed. He died at home, just after Easter. For the homily (given after tributes from Gwyn’s two sons), the names have been changed.
Several times a week earlier this month I shared in a rare and poignant experience: the dying of Gwyn James. But while T. S. Eliot called April “the cruellest month,” this year it was also an inspiring one.
Rare and poignant, because nowadays personally nursing the dying is the exception, usually we wait for the phone call from the hospital or care home; while preparing the dying for death – well, our modern obsession with youth and health has turned that venerable ministry into an embarrassing oddity, thanks but no thanks.
A rare and poignant experience, then, but also an inspiring one, because though Gwyn knew that he was dying, he approached his earthly end only with gratitude for what had been and serenity for what will be; and indeed an awesome experience, because in the puny presence of death, the immense presence of God, the room silent and still, as if the world were pausing, paying its respects, and angels were holding their breath, waiting… And the bond between us: reading scripture – psalms, and, latterly, Holy Week and Easter narratives; shared prayers of loss, of letting go, and, as we held hands, of embracing the promise of life, not just beyond death, but in the very midst of dying. No fear, total trust, and the peace of Christ. Around noon on the day Gwyn died, Rachel [Gwyn’s wife] joined us. It was a holy moment. In the verse of Rainer Maria Rilke:
O Lord, grant each his own, his death indeed,
the dying which out of that same life evolves
in which he once had meaning, love, and need.
These were especially precious times for me as Gwyn’s minister. Gwyn always denied that he was a “spiritual” person. Well, so much the worse for “spirituality”, with its now fashionable veneer of enchantment. All at chapel knew Gwyn, quite simply, as a Christian, a man of a simple, (if you like) flat-cap faith, one on whom the only spirit that matters – the Holy Spirit – rested: a person of scrupulous integrity, straight yet not stern (he relished a good French vintage!), whose Yes was Yes and No was No, who took both his promise as a church member “to live in the fellowship of the church and to share in its work”, and also his promise as an elder “to perform [his] duties … faithfully”, with the utmost seriousness, and who deployed his considerable practical gifts on behalf of the Synod as well as the local church.
But the incident that I will never forget, and that for me captures the measure of the man, was a visit I paid to Gwyn almost twelve years ago during the URC’s discussions on human sexuality. Gwyn had very strong views on the matter, and it was more than just a disappointment to him that after a thorough debate the URC in general, and Bethel in particular, took an inclusive view. Indeed he searched his conscience as to whether he could remain an elder, or even a church member. So I went to see Gwyn for what I hoped would be a conversation but what I feared would be an impasse issuing in a resignation. We talked frankly, but amiably; we disagreed implacably, but respectfully. And the result? Unlike other church members that I’ve lost, for demonstrably insupportable theological reasons, Gwyn, with tradition on his side, yet saw that the local church is bigger than the minister, or even its present membership; but even more, and most significantly, (as Rowan Williams puts it) he saw that we must “turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided … in the trust that … the confronting of wounds is part of opening ourselves to healing.” It was like, Wow! This is what being members of the body of Christ is all about – speaking the truth to each other in love, seeking the truth with each other in love, and, despite dispute, continuing to recognise each other as friends of Jesus whose divine grace is stronger than human disagreement.
That incident remains, for me, a parable that helps to sustain my ministry. But I’m sure you could all write your own personal parables, which begin: “The kingdom of God is like this: there once was a man named Gwyn James…”
Thursday, 30 April 2009
A funeral homily by Kim Fabricius