Fr David Houlding preached at a Requiem Mass for Bishop Brian Masters, at Holy Trinity Hoxton
I think that everyone would agree that tonight we must have a text and in a sense the text has chosen itself for it was one of the bishop’s favourites and certainly puts everything else into context! “I am among you as one who serves” and, of course, at this point invariably, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
What’s the clue? Service. If there is the one sentence that sums up the ethos of Bishop Brian’s life it must surely be those worlds of Jesus, “I am among you as one who serves”.
Let us acknowledge immediately that he would not have wanted it any other way. To die in office, certainly before retirement and maybe the day before his seventieth birthday, was his plan for had he lived he would not have gone a day earlier. Wouldn’t he have made an awful old age pensioner – the Bishop of Edmonton in retirement! It is too much to contemplate and it was too much for him, too. Despite our great loss and overwhelming sense of sadness and shock which I know we all feel, he has been grated his wish, and we must thank God for that.
So we meet together tonight to mourn the passing of our beloved Bishop and to mark his promotion to glory. For he did indeed become what he was, a true Father in God and he was just that to us all.
And so we share the memories and tell the stories: stories which will, I suspect, be told for many years to come. And above all, to surround him with our love and our prayers that we might assist him on his final journey to his heavenly home as we commend him now to his loving Creator and Redeemer.
Oh, yes! And how the stories will be told. The Chrism Mass each year was always an occasion which he particularly relished. A few years ago he began his sermon by describing to his clergy his experience that morning when he arrived at the church. He had been confronted in the street by a large van with the words on the side “Masters and Co – Potato merchants” (he paused dramatically) and looking round at the assembled company simply added “perhaps not!”
He had a thing about shoes, believing that you could tell all you needed to know about a clergyman by his footwear. There could be no more dismissive a line that those inimitable words, “Wrong Shoes”.
He had his Golden Rules. “The Bishop makes the Jokes”; “No carrots” (vegetables were fat too healthy for him) and I am sure, looking round here tonight and certainly in the Cathedral tomorrow, can’t we hear him saying his favourite line, “it’s all so grand here!”
He was a great lover of loss causes, of protecting people even when he knew they were in the wrong. Many a time he helped the clergy get out of trouble of various kinds. He revelled in the fact that he would mix at the Buckingham Palace Garden Party, which he never missed, and at the same time be in ‘The Wenlock’, just down the road, ‘mixing with the villains’, as he put it. “Never appear for the prosecution” was another of his rules.
He was really an “old softy”, which displayed his great pastoral heart. Time and time again he could never bring himself to be quite firm enough, always on the side of one who was down. He was always irritatingly early and, if you are a person who is habitually late, believe me that could be very irritating.
He know his limitations and was quite prepared to send himself up. At the Edmonton Area Conference this year, at the end of the Review during which he had clearly been the star-turn, as ever, and which afterwards he readily admitted in that unassuming way, that his contribution had been the best part. In an almost throw away line, he remarked that after all the frivolity, what was needed was a really tedious sermon. He paused and then glibly added, “I think that you can rely on me for that.” Yes, he could ruin even the best of scripts, much to his chaplain’s frustration.
Almost five years ago, he lost his mother: it had been a close partnership over many years. But his mother, too, would vent her feelings and frustration. “Oh, where is Brian? I can’t think what he is doing. Brian, wherever have you been?” “All this fuss”, she would say, “Oh Brian, if only you weren’t so high!”
But I have to say that the best story yet came from the Bishop of London last week as we were planning these funeral rites when he recounted their conversation on returning from Canterbury this summer. “Well, Brian. What did you think of the Lambeth Conference?” “Not a lot; all spouses and Bibles and as you know, I don’t believe in either. Eileen was the best bit.” “Did you meet your counterpart from Canada – Victoria Edmonton? How did you get on with her?” asked Bishop Richard. “Very well”, was the reply. “As you know, I am always charming to the laity!”
Now, don’t be offended or misunderstand. He was always genuinely charming to those with whom he disagreed. Courtesy – here was the clue – and there was nothing he liked more than discussion. He enjoyed people disagreeing with him; it somehow brought out the innate politician in him. The point is surely, that the clue to his success in the Edmonton Area was that he held us together, people of all opinions, of churchmanship differing vastly from his own, with his example of loving and devoted service. It was his belief in the fundamental Catholicism of the Church of England with its parochial system and with mission beating at the heart of the life of the church that kept him at the “helm of the ship”. Many of us have had real cause to be grateful to him. He generated a sense of calm and perspective when others in the church “its busy war were waging”. Was not this all part of the Gospel he preached and embodied in his own person?
Indeed this is not an obituary and he would be the first to say that the Gospel must here be preached and the Gospel here is that he embodied in his episcopate the sense of being a focus of unity for us all, after the pattern of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Yes, he had his throw away lines but he cared desperately. We were frequently on the receiving end of his banter, the butt of his jokes, but in that he displayed his concern for us.
The clue to understanding the worth of his life must be Service: the entire consecration of himself, of his life, for the service of his people. He was always able to recognise what people gave to the church from the simplest thing of doing the refreshments to organising the campaign for the appointment of new bishops of London: Masters & Co., the Bishop Maker and no less than three bishops in succession. We need to recognise and acknowledge the influence that he had for good and for the catholic faith in so many areas of church life affecting the church in this Diocese and the Church of England as a whole.
He wore his faults on his sleeve like his Gammarelli Cuffs. It was because he was vulnerable that we were immediately attracted to him. Surely that is the essence of a ministry of service – to allow oneself to be vulnerable; not to dress it up. Although he did love dressing up, he never presented himself as other than he was. You got what you saw; and the truth is that we loved him for it. We knew he was one of us.
If there is one lesson to be learnt from all his preaching, then it was the theme which he repeated again and again: unless the disciple is in touch with the master, then faith will always be an empty void. “Be always close to Christ”, was his great line. Being close to Christ means always allowing him to feed us with Himself, the Living Bread.
That was surely the example that was set before us in Brian Masters – that was the way in which he exemplified the ministry of service. Service is at the heart of Christian unity. It is our need to serve and to be served which brings us together, as nowhere more powerfully than at the Eucharist.
At the Eucharist Christ is par excellence, the one who serves us . Nowhere was Brian happier than in Church, at the altar. He understood that no matter how high his theology of priesthood was, his theology of the eternal priesthood of Christ had to be higher still, if his ministry was to be one of service.
So now his body lies before this altar, fully vested in all his pontifical attire – before the altar at which, as before so many others, he served so faithfully. And we, his priests and people pray that he may rest in peace.
David Houlding is Master of the Society of the Holy Cross, and Vicar of All Hallows with St. Stephen, Gospel Oak, in the diocese of London.