The sermon preached by Robbie Low at Fr Geoffrey Kirk’s Requiem Mass in December 2021
Many years ago, in what now seems like another lifetime, Broadhurst and Kirk and I were sitting in the foyer of Church House when an upwardly mobile young clergyman sashayed through on his way to the Crown Appointments Commission meeting to determine the episcopal fate of some far-flung diocese.
‘Time to get out another barrel’, boomed Broadhurst in his familiar subtle and self-effacing way. The young man paused and took the bait. ‘What do you mean? Another barrel?’
‘Well,’ Broadhhurst grinned with vulpine satisfaction. ‘You’ve already scraped the bottom of the last one.’
I mention this episode because many of the sanctuary party will be wondering how it has come to this choice of preacher, and I must confess I am not Geoffrey’s first choice. He wanted Andrew. Unhappily, as readers of New Directions know, Archdeacon Andrew Armitage-Shanks tragically predeceased Geoffrey in a hot-air ballooning accident over a village fete. Geoffrey’s second choice, the Revd April Heavysides, has despaired of the incurable misogyny of the Church of England and become a Quaker and now rarely speaks at all.* Nuff said.
We are here, brothers and sisters, because we love Geoffrey. I dare to put that in the present tense because, as Catholics, we may be separated in death but never divided in Christ. The whole family of the Church Militant and the Church in the Purification is united with and cheered on its way by the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Those bonds of solidarity and love are ordered and channelled by our prayers, and supremely in this solemn and joyful duty of the Liturgy of the Mass and the Sacrifice of Christ.
We come in mourning, true, because we miss the immediate and tangible companionship of Geoffrey’s merry heart on the road homeward. But we come also in profound thanksgiving for the many and glorious gifts that were showered upon us by God in this extraordinary life. Geoffrey’s hospitality was beyond generous – to those who opposed him as well as to friends – and to those he knew would never reciprocate. His intellect was beyond keen. His interests truly catholic. His library double-stacked. He had a forensic capacity for detecting nonsense and charmingly demolishing a theological house of cards. He was the nearest we had to a truly Renaissance man.
All this was lightly worn and garnished with a glorious sense of humour which seldom failed to find the mot juste. Of the senior church bureaucrat whose amour propre never recovered from Geoffrey’s summary and unforgettable dismissal of him as ‘self-basting’. The unfortunate bishop who made it into print as ‘the liturgical equivalent of an unmade bed,’ or the indecisive and unreliable prelate whom Geoffrey correctly described as ‘a man who inevitably takes the shape of the last person who sat on him’.
When we look back on those years of conflict we might reflect that seldom in history has the losing side had so much fun and then, to top it all, found themselves inexplicably and miraculously on the winning side. All this courtesy of God, Pope Benedict and, dare I add to the roll call, Geoffrey whose dream and vision was in many ways fulfilled in the gift of the Ordinariate and the reunion of the faithful. We have been much blessed to be in his company.
But this is simply the context of our prayers and our hearts. Geoffrey would not want a homily that was but a trail of affectionate memories. He was serious about his faith. His choice of service is not arbitrary and you will notice that the whole thing is held in that precise tension between the vision of Heaven and the need of a sinner for the Divine Mercy. From the opening Kyrie to the final revelation of the final lines of his favourite and concluding hymn, ‘Jerusalem the golden’, we are led on the journey of salvation. We look forward to that glorious banquet in which Isaiah builds on the Mosaic experience of the mountaintop when the elders sat on a pavement of sapphire in the divine presence and ate and drank and were unharmed. A prefiguring of the Mass and a foretaste of Heaven. There is throughout the drumbeat of irrepressible hope and divine mercy, the inexplicable and profligate hospitality of the Host and the longed-for welcome home.
In the Gospel we meet the feisty Martha who challenges Jesus on His absence and who is challenged in her turn by Jesus, in the midst of heartbreak and apparent hopelessness, to assent to the Faith. How often this is where the heart of a good parish priests dwells – and Geoffrey was, above all else and primarily, a consummate parish priest, content to dwell in institutional obscurity, his people ever on his heart before the Lord.
And when the Lord seemed to lay him aside from the priesthood on his conversion, he did not flee to some palace of glorious liturgy but was content to be a humble parishioner at this his parish church, cared for by a priest whom Geoffrey regarded, in many ways, as the son he never had and whose ministry to Geoffrey was unfailing and exemplary. The key to this requiem and Geoffrey’s request to us, his friends and companions on the pilgrim way, lie in the choice of the obscure Methodist offertory hymn because a priest is a man who looks every day in the mirror and sees the humbling sight of a shabby sinner – but a sinner of Christ’s redeeming. A priest is a man who is a penitent but who is also a confessor, and must occupy the watchtower on the walls while walking the streets of the city. A priest is both a warrior and a scout who must walk the wild borderlands where the powers of the dark are gathering and regrouping in their malice towards Man, the guardian and defender and feeder of the flock. He does this knowing his own utter inadequacy and total dependence on Christ, that he must answer to Christ for this extraordinary responsibility and faithful discharge of his office. And thus he comes to pray this prayer of naked honesty and total submission to the profligate love of God in Jesus Christ:
‘Father, Thine everlasting grace our scanty thoughts surpasses far.
Thy heart still melts with tenderness. Thy arms of love still open are
Returning sinners to receive – that mercy they may taste and live.’
It is this that we are asked to pray for Geoffrey’s soul, our love for him bound on this sacred altar where Calvary is re-presented, where our humanity is transformed by Christ’s divinity, where our mortal is translated into immortality and where time and eternity co-inhere. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
* Archdeacon Andrew Armitage-Shanks and the Revd April Heavysides were two of Geoffrey’s brilliant fictional creations for his satirical commentary on the then current state of the C of E.