Douglas McKittrick reflects on a priest who was Diamond by name, diamond by nature
Fr Diamond—known as ‘Farve’—was a remarkable character who deserves to be remembered. He was one of the finest parish priests of the twentieth century, fashioned by his heroes: those slum priests, mission priests of the nineteenth century such as Fr Dolling of Portsmouth and Poplar, East London, and Fr Mackonochie of St Alban’s, Holborn, London who believed, as ‘Farve’ did, that a priest’s call to holiness was demonstrated by being alongside the poor.
It was the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote:
‘The Church is her true self only when she exists for humanity… she must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over people but helping and serving them. She must tell people whatever their calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.’
Fr Diamond, like his priestly heroes of earlier days, existed for others whatever the cost. He was like the rest of us—not a saint, but a sinner who knows that the Church exists for sinners and not for saints.
‘Farve’ was a giant of a priest whose memory lives on, and that is why we are here to pay tribute to his remarkable ministry both in Liverpool and in Deptford. He was utterly devoted to the people of his parish. I could spend the next few minutes reminiscing and telling stories but that would not do justice to this great priest who made a significant contribution to the life of the Diocese of Southwark and the wider Church of England. Not, though, through his membership of General Synod (which he loathed) or his being a Guardian of the Holy House at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (which he adored) or being a Governor of St Stephen’s House in Oxford, where he and many of his curates trained, and of which he was so proud. Fr Diamond was a great priest in the way that he responded to God’s call to him to be nothing other than a parish priest. Fr Diamond loved Deptford until his dying day. He loved the place, he loved St Paul’s Church, and most of all he loved the people. His ministry transformed all three: place, church building, and people.
It was not Fr Diamond alone that made him a great priest, but the grace of God—given to him at the sacrament of ordination—working through him. At the heart of ‘Farve’s’ ministry was the ultimate sacrament of grace: the mass. To him it was the mass that mattered and how he could get his beloved people of Deptford to come and experience Jesus in the mass. At any opportunity given him in his ministry in the wider church he taught how the mass needed to be in its proper place as the central act of worship. There can be no church without the mass. This is the service given by Jesus to his Church. It was indeed Fr Mackonochie who said:
‘Here we worship our Blessed Lord present in His own appointed sacrifice.’
This message was at the heart of Fr Diamond’s teaching. Whether he was visiting someone at home or talking to someone in Deptford High Street or in the pub (there were many pubs in Deptford High Street once upon a time, now only one) or in an Afro-Caribbean club or a late night party in the church’s crypt, his parting words, whether he had had a gin and tonic or not, were always ‘see you at mass on Sunday.’ And he meant it! Reflecting the mind of the eighteenth-century priest and poet George Herbert, Fr Diamond saw heaven in ordinary things and he knew the sacred could adorn and grace the secular.
Fr Diamond was generous to all and he had a particular place in his heart for disadvantaged young people, of which there were many in Deptford; they were commonly known as ‘chavies.’ Packing his car with ‘chavies’ and heading off to Box Hill in Surrey or Margate on the south coast, he was in his element—though never more so than when those same youngsters would come to mass the following Sunday. Fr Diamond was a charismatic priest. He packed the pews of St Paul’s through his generous, pastoral care and genuine devotion to all who lived in the streets and high-rise flats of Deptford. Whoever they were, all were welcome and all were equal. As in the Holy Trinity so in the parish: none is before or after the other; none is greater or less than the other.
For ‘Farve,’ the church was a community of people reflecting the wider community, and it was certainly not an exclusive club. The rectory was an open house, though at some cost I have to say. All kinds of people at all hours of the day or night would call at the rectory—enquiring people, people with real problems, people with imaginary problems—but time was always given. The clergy of St Paul’s, Deptford (of which I was privileged to be one) were caught up in enthusiastic, ambitious, energetic pastoral care and involvement in the community of Deptford. We celebrated Deptford annually and wonderfully in the Deptford Festival with its amazing events, always beginning with the Deptford Festival Mass, hymns and music accompanied by the Southwark Orchestra and singers. After the mass there was an enormous firework display from the church’s roof. The fireworks were provided by the Queen’s pyrotechnician! There were school events, street parties, endless fun and celebration. On one occassion, a fun day out in Margate saw a thousand pensioners leave the parish in scores of coaches. Fr Diamond was a tireless worker and campaigner for Deptford. He had an evangelistic zeal that few in the catholic tradition of the Church of England could match today, but I am hopeful for the future.
There were two altars in Fr Diamond’s life: firstly, the altar of the mass which he offered almost every day, praying for the people of Deptford; second, the altar in the community. He loved and served both. These altars were like the mountain that Isaiah spoke of in our first reading where there would be food and wine for all. These altars of worship and community were like mountains, places of revelation and encounter. We encounter Christ and reveal Christ through our worship and service of the people God has entrusted to us. There was no ‘altar of red tape’ which so dominates and alienates the church today. Reflecting on our Gospel reading, Fr Diamond fed the hungry, drank with those who needed a drink (sometimes too much), welcomed the stranger, visited the sick, visited those in prison or in youth custody centres. He would write a character reference for someone he knew appearing in court who had no-one else to help them. He was there for the many who the social services could not or would not handle. It was said of Fr Dolling earlier in the nineteenth century: ‘when everybody else had given up on a person it was always said Fr Dolling would take them on.’ This could equally be said of Fr Diamond. His work was continued after his death with the founding of the wonderful ‘999 Club’, which had openings in Deptford and elsewhere in south-east London where the poor were welcomed and cared for.
Jesus was his model; he is of course the only model. Jesus ate and drank with people, he noticed and mixed with those the establishment chose to ignore. ‘Farve’ mixed and could chat with anybody, the dosser in the churchyard or the multi-millionaire who he hoped could be persuaded to give money for the restoration of the wonderful, almost unique, eighteenth century Thomas Archer parish church, which he had restored and beautified thanks to the generosity of the many people he sought. St Paul’s was described by Sir John Betjeman as ‘a pearl in the heart of Deptford.’
In my own immensely happy four years as a curate (1977–1980) I remember visits from Her Majesty the Queen—twice; Princess Margaret; the Queen Mother; the Archbishops of Canterbury, Coggan and Runcie; the Bishop of London, Gerald Ellison; The Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp; many visits by our own wonderful then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood; and too many times to count our wonderful friend Bishop Michael Marshall of Woolwich. Last, but not least, Millwall FC players! 1978, I think it was, and they were languishing at the bottom of the Third Division when Fr Diamond invited the team and their supporters to mass. St Paul’s Deptford once again was full to capacity, Mass was offered and Millwall FC shot up into the top of the Second Division!
I end where I began, with Fr Dolling—one of Fr Diamond’s heroes and who ended his days amongst the poor of St Saviour’s, Poplar. It was said of him:
‘Fr Dolling appears to have remained a boy to the end of his life, in the sense that he could always forget his pre-occupations and throw himself into the fun and games of those around him.’
‘Double Diamond’ was himself fully involved in the life of Deptford in a ministry not perfect, but zealously done for Jesus. The vast good ‘Farve’ did through the grace of God will never be undone or exorcised from Deptford’s memory, and never means never. His death at 56 was premature. His funeral drew hundreds of people to a requiem mass at St Paul’s church and hundreds lined Deptford High Street for the funeral procession. Almost one hundred priests— many of whom were, like Fr Diamond, of SSC—were in attendance.
On your behalf I would like to thank another great and generous priest who threw himself into this community of New Cross 43 years ago, to thank Fr Owen Beament for hosting this requiem mass here at All Saints, New Cross and to thank you ‘Farve’ for your faithful and considerable ministry in this parish.
We thank God for Fr Diamond, who in the words of St Paul in our second reading was:
‘always abounding in the work of the Lord knowing that in the Lord, your labour is not in vain.’
Address given by the Archdeacon of Chichester, Fr Douglas McKittrick SSC, on the 25th anniversary of the death of Fr David Diamond