Monday, 7 May 2012

John Metcalfe, Churchwarden, Diplomat, Christian

JOHN ISMAY METCALFE 1st August 1929 – 9th April 2012


John’s funeral was on Thursday, an occasion to return once more to the remarkable church and parish of Saint Giles-in-the-Fields, in the West End of London, which I had the privilege of serving for just over three years from 2000. Funerals are always sad occasions, but S. Giles is not a sad place, and John was one of the many people whose character and qualities made it so. Nor would he have wished his funeral to be sad, being a marker of the culmination of the Christian faith and hope in which he had lived all his life. He had expressed the wish to me, and I’m sure all the parish’s clergy over the years, that he should not have a eulogy at his funeral, but a simple service, according to the Book of Common Prayer. Nor did he countenance prayers for the dead. When we depart this life, he believed us then to be “past praying for”. At first this seemed rather a harsh – if typically logical – doctrine, but in John’s case there was some very considered theology behind it. He suggested that if, for instance, his late wife’s eternal destiny was to be influenced by his own prayers, the prayers of a weak, and sinful, and occasionally forgetful, man, then what sort of pressure would that place on him? And what sort of God would God be, to be open to such influence, and such infinite opportunities for caprice, and neglect? Would the popular be more likely to enter the kingdom of heaven, because they would have more to pray for them? He found no warrant in Scripture for that. It was a compelling argument, and since that conversation I have preferred instead to “pray with thanksgiving for the lives of those who have died”, seeking that, in the spirit of the Prayer Book, we might so “follow their good examples” that we too might have the hope of heaven.

He was a highly educated man, who read the lessons in Greek before the service, and afterwards too, if he thought the sermon had deviated from acceptable doctrine. That was a daunting thing to any preacher, especially one who might have to preach to him twice on a Sunday, because, faithful to his duty as churchwarden, he was there in church, without fail, come rain or shine, or leaves on the line, from his home in Black Heath, morning and evening, Sunday by Sunday. But this is to make of him a much more dry and dusty man than he was. He had a dry wit, but a real sense of humour, bordering on the saucy at times. He had a zest for life, which was genuinely catching. Sometimes, if the service, and the bell-ringing, and the music, had particularly moved him, he didn’t mind saying so – “if I hadn’t wanted to be there for every minute, I’d have gone out into the highways and byeways, and compelled them to come in!”. It was typical of him to express his enthusiasm with an apt reference to a Gospel parable. He was a most convivial man, and whilst I couldn’t share his enthusiasm for sport, and what he called “being a football hooligan”, it delighted me to know that when other members of the supporters’ club brought their tinnies along on the coach, he made careful selections of vintage claret from his cellar, and shared his offering without a care for its cost or value. Although, the original cost would have been relatively little – he said he’d never spent more than a fiver on a bottle for his cellar, but over the years those fivers would have appreciated more than the most carefully chosen stocks and shares. He had hoped, he said, to share that cellar with his wife in their retirement, but then she had gone and died, and he was bereft of someone to share it with over dinner. He took me to the Travellers’ Club one time and seeing something on the wine list said “I’m sure I’ve got this downstairs, let’s see what it tastes like”. My guess is that it was priced at considerably more than a fiver. And to taste – well, its value was far greater! But I don’t think money interested him. He was meticulous with it, and paid his dues to the church and other good causes annually, not weekly or monthly like the rest of us, and he was very supportive of the measures we took to smarten up the finances of the parochial charities at S. Giles. Because that was another, integral, part of his work as churchwarden – to be also a charity trustee for some millions of pounds, donated long ago for the education and welfare of the poor of the parish. Our own parish school had closed in the 1960s, but the trust still allowed us to make grants to neighbouring schools, and he not only came and visited some of them, being, with Jill Hutchings, his fellow-warden, possibly the first trustee in many years to do so, but also connived with me to bend the rules of the charity so that we could benefit others just outside our boundaries too. The church, and its benefactors, meant to do good, and good they must do.

I found him not only a convivial and encouraging man, but also a peacemaker. There was a time when an anxious young man, a little over-devoted to Prayerbook rubrics, had brought his copy with him to the altar rail. He had lately been rather scathing in his criticism of both the rector and myself, for failing to follow the rubrics, and he had seemed not to want to receive Holy Communion. So, I gave him a blessing – it is the tradition in many churches that that is what you do when someone carries a book, or the order of service to the rail. But no, this wasn’t what he wanted at all – he had wanted the full words for the distribution of Holy Communion, and finding us lacking (because we had agreed to use only the first half, that the rector could remember), was going to make good himself. He accused me of excommunicating him. As it happened, I did give him communion, when he explained what he really wanted, but it rattled me a lot, and I asked the wardens – John, and Peter Whitfield, back then – to come into the vestry after the service to explain it all. They not only calmed me down, but also stressed that the poor fellow was clearly very upset, and hadn’t meant to make a scene. It poured needed oil over those briefly troubled waters. It saddened him, too, that the rector wasn’t happy in his role, and he wondered how we might make things better for him, which prompted me to put in a good word for him when the Deanery of Christ Church came up. It didn’t work, but at least I tried. I think John was rather more successful in dealing with the British and Spanish governments over the equally vexed business of Gibraltar, earning an MBE in the process! The most lasting thing I shall remember of John was something he said after the bombings in America in September 2001. It was the Sunday night, after evensong, and we were discussing what on earth the future might hold, and someone asked John what he thought the answer might be. “It’s obvious”, he said, “we must convert them”. And whilst our eyes were rolling at what appeared to be a Colonel Blimp comment from a man wearing a pound sign on his tie, he added “by example”. And that, 11 years into the Afghan War, is the single wisest thing I have heard said about the whole wretched affair, and the single bit of advice that has not, alas, been heeded. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”. May one presume to say, rest in peace, thou good and faithful servant?

Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford May 2012

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