Christopher Collins reflects on the life and ministry of Arthur Middleton
In the Church of St Columba, Southwick, in Sunderland—now sadly closed to Anglican worship—the walls are decorated with murals by the famous artist James Eadie-Reid. The one of particular note is that in the apse behind the high altar, and I can imagine that the young Arthur as chorister and server spent many a moment in contemplation of the events this impressive picture painted.
Coming appropriately enough from the north side of the apse was a procession of northern saints—led by St Aidan, then St Columba himself, St Oswald and St Hilda. From the south side a similar procession is led by St Augustine with, amongst others, St Gregory in support. The two processions meet in the centre of the apse, directly behind the High Altar’s crucifix, and on the wall the artist has placed the legend ‘One Flock, One Shepherd’.
I am guessing that the significance of this apocryphal meeting was not lost on the young Arthur; here in visual form was an icon of the blending of traditions, Celtic and Roman, which would become in many ways the foundations for the Church in England, and especially the Church in the North of England. Two processions of faith meeting under the banner of one Christian Church.
Even if I am not correct in this fancy of mine, I offer that picture of the apse of St Columba’s Church as an image of Arthur’s vocation and ministry. From my own personal knowledge of him as my first Vicar, I can attest to the way Arthur was able to bridge the seeming divide between pastoral care in a parish and the calling to continue his theological studies. Neither the parish nor the books lost out in this synthesis of activity: we were sent out to visit at 2pm every day—the ‘Garbett Hour’ as Arthur called it—and yet somehow Arthur could pick up a book at any time and be deep into its contents if only with minutes to dedicate to it.
He could also find the time to devote his attention to Stewardship in the Durham Diocese, as well as spiritual direction, and in recent years leading St Chad’s College as interim principal.
His scholarship was also a meeting of traditions, bridging the divide between contemporary church life and teaching, and the treasure of the Anglican Fathers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Perhaps history will give Arthur a place of honour for his raising the level of interest in the Fathers of our Church of England through his books, conferences, lectures and articles in especially New Directions. Some of this activity took Arthur all over the world.
But this bridge had another arch to it, connecting the Anglican Divines with the foundational teachers of the faith, the Fathers of the first few centuries of Christianity. Rarely could be found an intellect like Arthur’s so caught up with, and knowledgeful of, the writings of both the Anglican divines and the ancient Fathers. Arthur’s conviction of the truth of that vital bridge is nowhere better expressed than he does himself in the introduction to his book Fathers and Anglicans:
When I stand at the chancel step and face east to say the Nicene Creed in St Nicholas’ Boldon, I gaze at two Byzantine mosaics, one of St Nicholas and the other of St George, on each side of the East window depicting Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb. These associations from the East and West do not represent an eccentric accommodation of Anglicanism to Eastern Orthodoxy, but illustrate how the many associations of Orthodox Christianity can live together and not look out of place.
There was one other bridge that Arthur built—his most important and possibly foundational to his whole ministry—that synthesis of ‘professional’ life with that of married and family life. Jennifer and the boys, and subsequently their own children too, were central sources of pride and affection that made Arthur the warm, personal, rounded individual he was.
Back to where we started, gazing at the double procession of founding saints of the Church in England in the parish church of St Columba, Southwick, Sunderland, the cradle of Arthur’s faith. On St Columba’s Day each year, 9th June, a procession around the Church was a vital part of the liturgy, whilst singing a specially composed hymn outlining the story of Columba’s flight to Iona and his subsequent mission. The chorus expresses Columba’s desire to continue that journey, building a bridge between the mortal and the immortal. Imagine, then, the young Arthur Middleton singing these words, and let them be for us a thanksgiving for his journeying in faith.
All glory be to Jesus for His victorious grace,
Who in His Saints hath struggled till He brought them to their goal;
All glory to the Father Who prepares for them their place,
All glory to the Spirit, for Columba’s saintly soul:
For he sought a better country than the dear Hibernian shore,
And the music of its children soundeth sweetly evermore.
Seek now and find, Arthur, that better country: cross the bridge built on your spiritual life and discipline, and be part of the chorus of its children sounding sweetly evermore. Amen.
The Revd Christopher Collins was Arthur Middleton’s curate in the 1970s.