Sunday, 11 August 2002

Geoffrey John Wright, RIP - Funeral Homily by the Revd Canon Beaumont Brandie

Do this in remembrance of me

We gather at the 11th hour of the 11th Day but not the 11th month – so this is not therefore Remembrance Sunday, but everyone here will have things that they will remember about Geoffrey, from the voice print etched into our memories of that counter tenor cadence honed over years of Civil Service phone answering saying – “Geoff Wright”, through the personal or even the bazaar, and I spell that with an “a” for the Church Warden’s Church Fete.

As he would wish, we are doing it in the only way Catholics know how to make remembrance, by which we make present and enter into the saving sacrifice and risen life of Jesus Christ our Saviour, and plead it on Geoff’s behalf.

SSC clergy, who know that they have to prepare their funeral instructions and lodge them with the Chantry Clerk, will now know why – if you don’t, you get me preaching at your funeral! And at least one curmudgeonly priest instructed that there be no oration at his funeral, as he said he wanted “no old priest lying in the chancel with another old priest lying in the pulpit”!

It is right that there should be laughter as we remember today, because there was much laughter where Geoffrey was, ribald and otherwise, as well as awesome silences, and eyebrow punctuated stares that could make a bishop baulk, and a basilisk blink.

Geoffrey was a big man is every way, for the young - the Gee Wizz, and though he suspected he was an icon or even an idol for some, he knew very well that this idol had feet of clay as well as iron. His passionate devotion to Our Lady, especially under her beloved title of Our Lady of Walsingham, was based on his certain need of the intercession of that “purest of creatures” who is also “sweet mother, sweet maid”.

Born into a teaching family he went to his father’s own school at Forty Hill, and after grammar school to The College of St Mark and St John to train as a teacher. Here he gained a circle of friends that was to remain for the rest of his life, and introduced some of them to the innocent exuberance of the Catholic Faith as experienced in the Church of England in the heady days of the sixties.

His own able mathematical mind and catholic faith brought the group under the spiritual, intellectual and alcoholic influence of Fr Keith Hobbs, himself a math’s don, and the lovable family blue stocking Mary who presided over parties and “suppers” from Gloucester Road to Chichester Archdeaconry.

It was at this time that he began to amass the encyclopedic knowledge of continental shrines, abbeys and watering holes that he was to put to such service for the Catholic League and other societies that sought to remind the Church of England that it was indeed but “part of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”. Even then he could be an “innocent abroad”, as when he drove a party of grammar school pupils and staff out of Czechoslovakia towards Russia, passing through the Soviet tanks and armies as they massed on the borders for their brutal repression of the state the pilgrims had just left!

If, as the Walsingham Protesters believe, the EEC is plot to take us into Europe and thence into the arms of the Papacy, then with the death of this man who spent the last part of his Civil Service career dealing with Brussels, we have lost one of the chief conspirators! It is wonderful that his requiem is celebrated on the feast of St Benedict the patron of Europe, for as well as his love of the continent; to the end of his days he fostered an understanding of the Religious Life as a witness to the Church. Although his own oblation within the Benedictine family did not work out as he might have hoped, these contacts and his own musical abilities will leave a gap in the chant and life of the Beguinage in Bruges and at Monmatre, which can be summed up in a letter from the sisters at Tours whom we met last September - “we confide your friend in every way to the prayers of St Benedict”.

In Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel the Papal Master of Ceremonies is shown helping the demons push the souls into hell! As the MC to the C of E, and occasionally even to Continental Cardinals, we can be confident the Geoffrey now knows intimately that part of Purgatory reserved for ceremonial experts and players of the liturgical zither! From his youth in the GSS, through his so obvious public service at Walsingham, via the welding of teams at Wembley and Docklands, to the most arcane thing her ever did - namely the reconstruction for TV of the Funeral of Prince Arthur - Geoffrey used his knowledge of rites and people and the arteacts of the Catholic Movement in the service of the worship of God with utter dedication, though he would disguise it with a contrived laid back vagueness that belied the careful preparation and eagle eye. For over two decades we interpreted together the reforms of Vatican II in a style that owed something to the Royal Tournament as well as Fortiscue O’Connell, so I would like to think that I can hear him saying of these rites today: “We like that”!

To distinguish him from David of ThatsSame Ilk, he was often called “Roman Wright”, and so it was an immense surprise and no little pain to some of his friends that he did not follow them in submission to the Holy See after 1992.  This side of Judgment we may never now know why, but we may hazard a guess standing here where he was Church Warden and an integral part of the life of this parish. Like many remaining clergy he had people to serve and lead. He knew that the church needed the services of committed laymen as much as priests, and so he seized the chance that early retirement gave to restore to the Catholic movement the role of the gentleman of leisure, who had served the church in an earlier era with their time and private means. Thus it is that in these last ten years, and especially since his retirement, he has thrown all his skills, liturgical, logistical, academic, typesetting and teaching, and redeeming his early teacher's training in the joint pioneering of youth work and catechesis, that leaves a yawning chasm in the life of those who wish to witness to the faith “once delivered to the saints”. Without him, the Catholic League, Forward in Faith, the Church Union would not be what they are today.

In a sense this both gave him a reason to live, and killed him; for, if we are honest, his health has been deteriorating for several years. He would have hated to be an invalid, with its dependence on, rather than the service of, others; and the invasion of the personal privacy he cultivated. Yet in the last few weeks perhaps, he glimpsed something of the affection and concern in which he was held.

In the early literature of post World War I remembrance there was much talk of dying hands casting torches down for others to take up. Geoffrey’s most lasting legacy must be that other hands will light tapers from his torch to illuminate the life of the many societies and communities he enflamed.  This congregation is a cross section of the worlds he inhabited, but it is drawn together in another world, which transcends our divisions and is bathed in a greater light that even he was for us. That Paschal Candle reminds us that in Christ we are new creatures, and brothers and sisters built upon the foundations of the apostles.

With Geoffrey, since our baptism we have shared the resurrection life of Christ which is sustained by the food for our journey which, Emmaus like, nourishes us on our pilgrim way. He poured out his service so that sacramental life might be preserved and rightly celebrated for those who seek to “know the way”, and so that through the sacrificial death and new life of Christ pleaded day by day before the Father’s throne we might enter into Christ who “ever lives to make intercession for us.” Here now for him, and for ourselves in our joy and grief, we “do this in remembrance”; not merely looking back wistfully, but making Christ and all he has done for us really present and efficacious in our lives, and in that next stage of Christ’s service which is the room “in my Father’s house” which Geoffrey now occupies, knowing that “neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, …. can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.”

Geoffrey was keen that his grave be unmarked, but we shall probably disobey him in this, though he will, I am sure, have had in mind the words of St Monica to St Augustine as she died:
“Lay this body wherever it may be. Let no care of it disturb you: only this I ask of you, that you should remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be”
This we do today, in the firm hope that through this sacrifice, and the prayers of the Mother of God, he will one day hear that Judge more awesome even than the one envisaged by Michelangelo say “well done good and faithful servant enter into the joy of you master”. Till then we pray:
“Rest eternal grant unto him O Lord and let light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.” 

Thursday, 1 August 2002

Geoffrey John Wright, RIP - General Secretary of the League 1974-2002

Geoff Wright belonged to the small, unswerving and venerable Anglican tradition which looks beyond Canterbury to Rome, and the chief pastor of Christendom's role in the life, worship, and mission of all the Churches.

The late Geoffrey Curtis CR, in his life of the Abbé Paul Couturier, observed that prior to Vatican II few Roman Catholics in England had given credit to the continuity and extent of Catholic belief and practice in the Anglican Church after the sixteenth century. By the same token most Anglican Catholics had been keen to assert the Church of England's position as 'the Catholic Church of this land', to the exclusion of Roman Catholics who are equally bearers of an authentic English Christianity. Thus for the consciousness of Geoffrey Wright and other 'Anglo-Papalists', the Church of England is not merely a part of the greater Catholic Church, neither is it the local branch: the whole Church is one in its very essence and 'the walls of separation do not rise so far as heaven'. He devoted his energies towards realising that unity, raising the ecumenical profile of the Church of England's Catholic tradition, and promoting the reconciliation of all Christians around the successor of Peter.

His encyclopaedic knowledge of shrines, abbeys, liturgical and musical oddities, railways and restaurants began as a delightful way of going on holiday by way of going to church. He stood in an honoured tradition of English travellers who were taken with 'Quaint Sights in Continental Places', to quote an old Faith Press title. When this love of pilgrimage matured in later years, he realised these unique links by enabling new networks of Christian, ecumenical friends from different countries and spiritual cultures to find each other, love each other's prayer and church lives, and to grow in a desire to persevere out of urgent personal experience in the cause of Christian unity. Thus his retirement became increasingly devoted to supporting regular visits by groups to the Béguinage and the English Convent in Brugge; to the convents of the Monmartre nuns all over France; to Lisieux and Tours and monasteries all over Europe. At the time of his death he had been planning with me a new visit to Lyon and Ars in 2003 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Paul Couturier, priest of Lyon, apostle of Christian Unity, devoté of St John Vianney and founder of the Week of Prayer. Geoff had a deep understanding of the Religious Life as at the heart of the Church's vitality and faithfulness. Although his own Benedictine oblation did not work out, he forged deep links of ecumenical friendship, quietly building up understanding and affection for Anglicans among European Catholic communities, often through music. In return, they trained him to play the liturgical zither, so he could take back for St Matthew's, Ponders End in Enfield (where he was for many years churchwarden) the same peace and attentiveness he discovered abroad. After retirement, almost as a solitary, he prayed the office by singing along to the monks and nuns' tapes and CDs: 'Who sings, prays twice'.

But his service in the Catholic Societies for over forty years, increasingly ensuring that European, ecumenical dimensions were not forgotten by others, will be his legacy. A gifted facilitator, Geoff devoted all his liturgical, musical, administrative and teaching skills to ensure the involvement and enjoyment of others in the things of God, rather than his own self-fulfilment. His deep sense of vocation to making an active lay, rather than priestly, contribution through his ministry and discipleship, both gave him a reason to live, and taxed that life in the end to the full.

As only the second secretary of the Catholic League (a society to promote the corporate reunion of the Anglican Church with the See of Peter) since the 1930s, from 1974 he played a leading role in introducing the Anglo-Catholic world to the liturgical, doctrinal and pastoral renewal transforming the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II. Geoff loved the people of God in their liturgical action. It is often a matter of curiosity to Roman Catholics and to most Anglicans that a section of Anglican parishes use the Roman rite. To some it is disloyal to the canons of the Church of England; to others it only makes sense if you follow through to logical conclusions by actually becoming Roman Catholic. One understands, however, that for Geoff and many who shared the philosophy this was not about imitating Rome. It was a way of witnessing against the idea that there was a distinctive, separate, qualified Catholicism for the Church of England. The logical conclusion was that therefore, beside the individuals who were taking this path, it is the whole of the Church of England that has to own and recover its Catholicity through visible unity with the See of Peter. The symbol and witness of this is the adoption of Catholic liturgy, just as before Anglicans had adopted Catholic hymns, retreats, spirituality, arts and made their own to enrich their own church life, even if in separation for the time being. Not in the end satisfactory, or completely licit, it has nevertheless been a sign of contradiction - a reminder to Anglicans that, as Dr John Habgood said when archbishop of York, the future of the Church of England is Catholicism - a reminder to Catholics that 'sacred actions of the Christian religion as carried out in communities separated from them can truly engender a life of grace and can rightly be described as providing access to the community of salvation', and that their 'fruitfulness for salvation has been derived from the very fulness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church' (quotations from the prayer prior to Catholic ordinations of former Anglican clergy).

With the same thinking in the late 1980s, Geoffrey was one of three who set up 'the Congregation of the English Mission' to explore practical ways of implementing ARCIC through corporate reunion with the See of Peter. Though this came to nothing, during the 1990s he enabled the Catholic League to transform itself into a genuinely ecumenical society of Roman Catholics, Anglicans and other Christians praying and working for visible unity. This somewhat counters the suspicion that those believing in authentic unity with the Holy See are actually either merely an extreme party among Anglicans, or Roman Catholics who do not have proper respect for the individuality and distinctiveness of 'beloved sister' churches. It was just not like that, I think, for Geoff, at the heart of whose Catholicism were Mary, Benedictine religious life, and living, organic membership in the One Body which he longed for but never lived to see revealed.

Geoffrey was troubled when the Church of England decided to admit women to the priesthood and a number of his priest and lay friends left. His decision to remain seemed at odds with his zeal for reunion with Rome. He sacrificed something dear to his heart in order to continue with his share in the painstaking work that one day will lead to corporate reconciliation. And out of respect for the testing times some of his friends faced to become Roman Catholics, he thereafter declined the usual generous invitations to receive Holy Communion at mass on the continent. This was a profound offering for the sake of the unity of the Church. So too was his Anglican life for, as a leading light in the Church Union and Forward in Faith, to many in the Church of England he and others have been portrayed as partisan, even preferring separation. But for Geoff this at times painful tension was intrinsic to being loyal both to the Church of England and to Catholicism in the same moment. It was a paradox he lived in, embodied, but strove to reconcile and resolve.

One day, when the miracle to make the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church visibly one is revealed, it will be thanks not only to theologians and negotiators. Many like Geoffrey have lovingly cemented the bonds of spiritual kinship over decades of prayer, service and ecumenical constancy.