‘HOW DO you celebrate the funeral rites of a Provincial Episcopal Visitor?’ had not been a question frequently asked. It had to be asked – and urgently answered – in December 1999 when Michael Houghton, Bishop of Ebbsfleet, suddenly died of congenital heart disease. The Catholic way would be for the metropolitan to preside, assisted by his brother bishops, and by the clergy and people who had been in the bishop’s care. The funeral Mass would celebrate the Christian hope in the resurrection – and much comfort would be derived from the unity and unanimity of the mourners. In the case of the funeral of a PEV, two problems must have immediately presented themselves to those responsible for making arrangements. The first would be the difficulties that would be caused – for himself and for others – were the metropolitan to preside. The second would be the difficulty of deciding who are the brother bishops. Would the bishops of the Province who assembled to consecrate the bishop also assemble to say farewell to him?

As some of us were sadly pondering these questions, one thing seemed clear: Bristol (where the Houghtons lived) would be a more likely venue than Canterbury (the diocese in which the suffragan see of Ebbsfleet is situated). The response to the difficult question of how to conduct the obsequies of a PEV was imaginative and sensitive and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Bristol are to be congratulated on enabling the decisions that were made to be implemented.

The Funeral Eucharist was celebrated in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who presided at the Rite of Commendation) and the Bishop of Bristol (who introduced the Rite of Commendation). The Bishop of Richborough (Michael Houghton’s fellow PEV in the Province of Canterbury) was Principal Celebrant and seven bishops concelebrated the Mass with him. The bishops were the retired Bishop of St Helena (under whom Michael had served), Bishop John Richards (Michael’s predecessor), the Bishop of Beverley (Northern PEV) and the Bishops of Basingstoke, Fulham, and Horsham (Southern Suffragans). The Dean and Chapter of Bristol attended and the Cathedral Choir (girls and men) sang. Traditionalist clergy were invited to concelebrate, others to attend, and the doors of the cathedral were opened good and early for the faithful.

When I arrived with over an hour and a half to go, I was amazed to discover that the nave of the cathedral was already filling up. There was a great stillness as people sat there. There was the coffin draped in a coloured pall. The Paschal Candle was alight. The clergy began to arrive and the Chapter House filled up. So many of us vested (168 priests) that the Processional Hymn – ‘Praise to the holiest’ – had to be sung twice. An initial organ improvisation led into the first time through the hymn. A substantial interlude was similarly improvised leading into the second time through the hymn. Finally, for the censing of the altar, a third improvisation was needed.

It was an extraordinary scene. The bishop of Richborough was flanked by two deacons – James Patrick and James Wilkinson, both recently ordained by Michael. In the North transept, in front of half of the concelebrants, were the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Bristol. In the South transept, in front of the other half of the priest concelebrants, were the concelebrating bishops, in their white mitres. Behind, in the quire, were the musicians and the visiting clergy. All had been splendidly prepared by Fr Brendan Clover SSC, Precentor of Bristol.

Readings from Wisdom 4:7-15 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-end were read by friends. The Gospel reading, Luke 12:35-40, (appointed in the Book of Common Prayer for the Ordination of Deacons) invited the Lord’s servants to live with lamps aflame in readiness to meet the Bridegroom at the marriage feast. It was sung not only in English, by James Wilkinson, but also in Romanian, by Fr Radomir Stoica, Bishop Michael’s former assistant. The sermon was preached by Fr David Houghton, Michael’s brother. A cathedral full of people supported him as he transcended personal grief and preached about a life fully lived and in that sense complete. A group of friends led the intercessions, the Master of the Society of the Holy Cross praying for a renewal of the Catholic priesthood in the Church of England.

The music was magnificent. Themes of sacrificial love (‘Praise to the holiest’ to Somervell) and confidence in God (Psalm 121, to a chant by Walford Davies) complemented the pleas for the departed (a ravishing polyphonic Requiem aeternam after the psalm and the Offertory hymn ‘Christ enthroned in highest heaven’, sung to Picardy).

Easter kept bursting through (an alleluia from O filii et filiae as the Gospel Acclamation, and Vaughan Williams’ Rise heart, thy Lord is risen during Communion). The Kyrie was sung to plainsong, the lingua franca of the Catholic faith, and the Agnus Dei to Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi munera, a celebration of apostolicity. Paul Inwood’s Gathering Mass, with its characteristic hosannas and alleluias, was used for the congregational parts of the Eucharistic Prayer.

As the Archbishop sprinkled and censed the coffin, the plainsong Salve regina was sung – a moment which was as memorable as it was surreal. Then came ‘Love Divine’, set to Blaenwern. It was as fortissimo a farewell song as I have heard: people sang their socks off.

Finally, the junior clergy whom Michael had ordained last Petertide carried his coffin to the hearse. He who had given them such support was now gently supported by them. There were two small, but highly significant further moments. It was a filmmakers’ day for a funeral – the rain was pelting down – but the clergy refused to follow ‘wet day’ instructions at the end of the funeral and processed out through the West Door to the waiting hearse. The other was more poignant: the people too insisted on filing through the West Door and almost all of them spoke to Diana Houghton. As I stood there in the rain, waiting for the lift home, I have never seen a cathedral empty so slowly. It had taken Michael Houghton only a year to become a fine bishop, a much loved father of his priests and a shepherd after the Heart of the Good Shepherd who himself came to what seemed to be an untimely end.

Andrew Burnham is Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and Chairman of the Catholic Group in General Synod