Paul Bagott remembers Father Bill Scott
“but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”
Chapter Fifteen of St John’s Gospel is an extraordinary passage which would take more than a lifetime to plumb. Jesus describes himself as the true vine and we as the branches, – no branch can bear fruit by itself, he says, it must remain in the vine. He goes on to say that greater love has no one than this – to lay down their life for one’s friends. He tells them his command is to love one another before going on to tell his disciples of their difficult ministry and mission in a world that would be both persecuting and accepting. I will send you the spirit of truth he tells them. All of these verses would be a good starting point for preaching at Fr Bill’s Requiem Mass, because this is the life he lived. But I have chosen one verse in particular, four of Jesus’s words which I associate especially with Bill: I call you friends.
I first met Fr Bill when I was teenager, he and my father were neighbouring Vicars in South Somerset. They were from different Churchmanship but they were great colleagues and friends, both had a good sense of humour, an easy smile and they both had a great love of their Lord. They were both that kind of old-fashioned Parish Priests which is quite rare now. I was impressed by his warmth and understanding towards a gawky and embarrassed teenager. I had met many clergy in my childhood, with Fr Bill I knew I had met someone special and we remained friends ever since.
There is something compelling when someone inhabits the correct place in life, when someone has found their calling, their vocation and they live it out to the full. In Father Bill Scott you saw a man who was fully the Priest. It was his natural place and because of that there was a light touch to the way he lived out his priesthood, there was almost a whimsy about it. I am not saying he did not take it seriously because he took it very seriously but it was part of his lifeblood, of who he was and how he related to others. He brought to it his natural sense of humour, that easy and compelling laughter, the warmth of his deep love of humanity. He could tell a good story, often at his own expense so he was good company, a great host, good guest at the dinner table or to stay. He was an able and caring listener so he made an excellent confessor and spiritual director and there were queues of his “naughty boys and girls” who came to see him and sought his spiritual wisdom. Bill was a very good spiritual friend to many.
Such a priestly ministry which sought to make strangers into friends was founded on a solid bedrock. This was his deep and faithful prayer life; centred on the Mass and enriched by the daily offices. This was the costly discipline which marked out his whole life as priest and disciple. One which sought to love as Christ has loved us.
Bill’s life was not without its sadness and times of deep darkness, and there was a sacrifice in living out his priesthood. Yet he came to know he had a friend in Christ who would not leave him or forsake him. He may not have always felt worthy of that friendship and knew that there was a costly price that Jesus paid to win his friendship. It was this friendship that he preached in an easy and compelling style, which he celebrated at the altar with deep understanding, and which he expressed so readily throughout his life. He felt at home at the altar whether it be the Baroque splendours of this place or the quiet simplicity of a convent chapel. Liturgy for Bill was always a profound act of prayer and worship and never merely a rubric to be performed.
In Bill’s spiritual and pastoral life, whereever he ministered, the Mass and Our Lady were at the forefront of his devotions and his teaching. He could not understand how you could love Jesus without loving his mother. It was so simple if you believe Jesus was God and man – born of a woman, then there must be something remarkable about Mary so the only worthy title to give to her is Mother of God. It then follows that she can be a refuge for Christians, a person to turn to for our prayers, our devotion and a source of comfort and help. Our Lady was all that for Bill even at his last moment of his life on earth. So there will be a familiar friend to greet him in heaven, no one less than the Queen of heaven.
The Mass was the centre of his Christian life and discipleship. He would not go through a day without going to Mass. He was always grateful to serve in a place where there was a daily mass and so while at the Chapel Royal and in retirement he was seen buzzing around town to say mass or attending mass in various Churches. While on holiday you would come down to breakfast in a hotel in some continental town to find that he had already been out to mass at some nearby Church.
The reason for his devotion was quite straightforward, as the gospel shows us, the breaking of the bread is what identified Christians from the time the disciples gathered around Jesus. It continued when they recognised the Risen Lord when he broke the bread. They gathered after Pentecost fulfilling his command to remember him, to meet for the Apostles’ teaching and the breaking of bread. It was what Christians did to mark the great events of life and was part of the everyday pattern of life, as important as the food on the dining table. Bill took seriously that command of our Lord and as Bill would have read in Dom Gregory Dix: “Was ever another command so obeyed? … across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God.” (from Dom Gregory Dix “The Shape of the Liturgy”)
Bill was always rather taken aback and rather humbled by the trajectory of his priestly ministry which seemed to him a series of unlikely events. As he said himself it “makes me think it is all a joke.” If he had written an autobiography about his ministry it could have been entitled “From the back streets of the Gorbals to the corridors of the Palace.” For Bill, it just seemed that he happened to be in the right place at the right time, or the hand of God at work.
Bill believed that being a priest and being true to the vocation that you can be a priest anywhere. His career took from the notorious and wild streets of the Gorbals with its sectarian divides, to the social deprivation of a large housing estate in North Somerset, the leafy lanes of South Somerset, the depths of the Norfolk countryside as the chaplain to the Nuns at Dichingham and for their girl’s school and hospital, then to the champagne days of London with the cream of Anglo-Catholicism and latterly the Chapels Royal – that well upholstered rounded chaplain so beloved at the palace.
He said about his move here to St Mary’s that he was appointed because “no-one knew anything about me and they knew too much about the other candidates.” In all these places he was still just a Parish Priest, a pastor to all and with all. If we can talk of success in this context this is where his success lay. It is this kind of ministry which creates in the people of God a lasting and deep relationship with their creator. We need good, faithful loving priests and praying pastors for our Churches to flourish.
Bill was never one of those managers so beloved of the contemporary church. In fact he recognised that his administrative skills could be better and that he avoided the confrontations which sometimes were needed to heal and to reconcile. He would recall these weaknesses as lost opportunities for godly work.
Bill loved the company of his friends whether meeting for dinner or at the opera, or on holiday or more simply, over a cup of tea. If when you went out for the evening with him, even in the most surprising places, you could guarantee to bump into someone who knew Fr Bill and who would greet him with affection and pleasure. Even when he was very ill he craved the company of his friends and could still break into a smile and a chuckle. It was Bill’s friends who gathered around him when his body began to fail and his life diminish.
These things we will remember and treasure about Bill. They made us love him as a Priest. However he was also our friend and he so easily combined his priesthood with his friendship. He offered these things together without either being compromised. It started from his own knowledge that he was loved and accepted by God and we could make a friend of God because he offered us that relationship in Jesus
He understood the true beauty of friendship, a vital bond where you are accepted and cherished. In the language of friendship there is an extravagance and joy and intimacy which models that extravagance and intimacy of God’s love for us, found in Jesus. Here we see that we are accepted and cherished. Jesus’s love is so lavished upon us that he gave up his life for us. He shows us our Christian friendship should be lived out when at the table of the Last Supper he first washed the disciples’ feet, shared a meal with them and at that meal he gave his broken body and out poured blood. What more friendship could we have than that which comes from God. Here is the pattern for all friendship and love. Bill knew this and tried, in his own special way, to live it
But it was his faith that kept him true. He needed to make things right with God in those lasts days, and to say his goodbyes to his friends. He had all the comforts the mother Church can offer, and he was very ready for his death in the sure knowledge and trust in the promises of Christ. “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. .. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
This homily was preached at St Mary’s, Bourne Street for the funeral of Fr Bill Scott on Tuesday 28th and Wednesday 29th July 2020. Fr Paul Bagott is the Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, Philbeach Gardens.