Sermon for High Mass of Requiem – Bp Ambrose Weekes Thursday 10 May 2012
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses
Welcome to you all. it is good to see so many of you here. When you die on the eve of your 94th birthday, most of your contemporaries are gone. It is a testimony to Ambrose’s influence that so many of you are here.
There are people here who representing various aspects of Ambrose’s long and varied life.
His cousin Ian on whom he relied and his great niece Anne and her family up from Kent. Ian will read one of the lessons tonight but the last of many practical services will be to convey Ambrose’s ashes down to Queenborough in his vintage Rolls Royce.
Bishop Henry Scriven, one of Ambrose’s successors in the Diocese of Europe is here to represent the Bishop and diocese. Archdeacon Barry Hammett: a former Chaplain of the Fleet, representing the present Chaplain and the Archdeacon of the Navy. When he had been a naval chaplain for only three weeks, he was despatched to the chapel of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich to sing the Litany at Ambrose’s consecration. The Very Revd. Alan Woods, like Ambrose a former Dean of Gibraltar. Colonel Ian Rouse representing the Friends of Rochester Cathedral and the Old Choristers’ Association. Canon Hugh Williams, the Preacher at Charterhouse where Ambrose was one of the brothers..
It’s wonderful that Bishop David Hope has come down from Yorkshire to preside at this service and give Ambrose a suitably episcopal send-off. Canon David Hutt, is also here tonight. The three of us discovered
in turn that being Ambrose’s landlord was among our more pleasurable duties as Vicar of this parish.
And then there are those who cannot be here because of age, illness or distance or unavoidable commitments, including: His old naval chum, Archdeacon Raymond Roberts from Llandaff, who would have occupied the pulpit at this service but is not well enough to travel. I spoke to him
this afternoon and he said, “I hope you are going to have a good party
afterwards. Ambrose would enjoy that.” Well we are. Ambrose has left
instructions that we should splice the mainbrace.
And there is the long roll call of comrades and friends gone before.
“You’ll come for a drink in my cabin, Father.”
An unconventional text for a sermon, but words Bishop Ambrose addressed to me almost 18 years ago. We had just finished rehearsing the simple ceremony in which Bishop David would make me Vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street. Fr. Peter McGeary, then the curate, also
here tonight, whispered a discreet word of warning about what I was about to receive. The very large gin and tonic proved to have had only the most passing acquaintance with the tonic bottle. In the last few days, I have heard similar stories from a number of people. We have all marvelled at Ambrose’s capacity to absorb alcohol without noticeable
effect. Were trainee naval chaplains sent on a special course, the equivalent of the commando training Ambrose later did, to teach them to cope with wardroom pink gin? In the last few days, I’ve heard similar stories from a number of you.
This order of service was finalised over a lunch at Charterhouse: preceded of course by a substantial aperitif with a group of his chums. I’m sure they thought me a bit of a light-weight – but they could have a siesta after lunch while I had to go back to work.
From notes he left and stories he told, it’s clear that Ambrose’s was a happy childhood in a secure loving home. His father, a prosperous businessman and RNVR officer who served in who served with
distinction two world wars; his mother a local councillor when women in
politics were a rarity.
It was at home and at the parish church of Holy Trinity that the foundations of Ambrose’s Christian faith were laid. He sang in the choir and served at the altar there. At the age of seven he became a
chorister at Rochester Cathedral and later a pupil at the splendidly named Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School – “the Math”. He was confirmed in the cathedral and in his early teens began to consider his vocation. Just before he was to begin his training for the priesthood at King’s College in London there was a delay caused by appendicitis, surgery and a convalescence which included a three week cruise
organised by his mother – a portent of both his future ministry and his favourite form of holiday in later years: those cruises on the QE2 or on river boats with Denzil and Pat.as he prepared for a cruise on the QE2 during Lent, we would jokingly ask, “Giving up religion for Lent, Father?” Of course, while it wasn’t exactly as ascetic exercise, his prayer book and a chalice and paten went with him.
He had not been long at King’s when the college was evacuated to Bristol. But not before he had discovered All Saints!
He passed his exams to become an Associate of King’s College – he
would later take great pride in being made of Fellow of the College. But he was still too young to be ordained and was sent to Lincoln Theological College.
There he came under the influence of two outstanding priests: Eric Abbot, later Dean of Westminster and Warden of Keble, and Eric Mascall, who would go on to be a professor at King’s.
His tutorials with Eric Mascall seem to have been spent doing almost anything but study St. Thomas Aquinas of whom Mascall was the Church of England’s leading scholar. Abbot exercised an extraordinary ministry of friendship with large numbers of people, some here tonight, especially in encouraging vocations. I’m sure that this was a model which Ambrose
sought to follow. I know that there are at least two priests here tonight who owe much to him in the finding of their call, and many more who have been strengthened in their ministries by him.
After returning home to be ordained in Rochester Cathedral to a curacy at Gillingham, he became a naval chaplain in the closing stages of the World War. The Royal Navy was to be his life and work, his home and love for almost 30 years. . It is no exaggeration to say that it won an undying place in his heart.
To someone of his background and temperament, its ordered and disciplined life, its history and traditions, the camaraderie and mutual support of ship’s crew or marine commando, the mess and the wardroom provided both stability and opportunity for ministry.
After almost thirty years in Navy, having reached the highest office there, and honoured for his service by the Queen, a quiet retirement might have called, a small house in the Isle of Sheppey perhaps: but not for Ambrose. Then began his long association with the Diocese of Europe; first in Tangier, then as Dean of Gibraltar – and what more appropriate posting could there be for a naval man?
Our son is married to a Gibraltarian girl, and when we went to Holy Trinity Cathedral for their wedding, it was a delight to find people who remembered Ambrose with affection and respect. His ministry there seems to have had twin foci: the altar of the cathedral and the bar of the Bristol Hotel next door.
Then he was consecrated as a bishop to serve in that far-flung diocese. I suspect that Ambrose’s naval chaplaincy days, living in confined spaces of warships, and moving from one posting to another, had been a good preparation for one of the most peripatetic ministries the Church of England has to offer: more time at airports; more sleeping in different beds every weekend than many of would like.
Even after another retirement, he still kept going: Territet in Switzerland, and after settling down here in Margaret Street again, if the call came to fill a gap in Stockholm or Tangier, or to confirm in the Netherlands, out would come the suitcase and off he would go.
St. Paul speaks of varieties of gifts and ministries. In the gospels, Jesus speaks of his detractors complaining that John the Baptist “came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon;’ the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a
drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
There are no prizes for guessing which model of ministry Ambrose was to follow. He was not cut out by background or temperament to be a John the Baptist breathing fire and brimstone from the pulpit or thundering denunciations of the established order in Church and State.
Not all are called to be prophets but before writing Ambrose off as a club-land cleric or bon-viveur bishop, we might call to mind the place of eating and drinking played in the ministry of Jesus. Ambrose was someone for whom companionship and conviviality, generosity and hospitality, were at the heart of ministry.
And it was not all pink gin. When he was HMS Ganges, like the good shepherd in search of the lost sheep, he would head off to Glasgow or somewhere in search of a young recruit who had failed to return from leave; to find out what was wrong. While with the Royal Marines
during the confrontation with Indonesia, he would trek on foot through the
jungles of Borneo to visit scattered detachments, with only a Dayak guide for company; hoping that this chap had given up head-hunting.
Those of us who shared life with him here in Margaret Street, saw a another side of him too. Each morning the doors of this church open for 7 and a little group of folk slip quietly in and take their places for half an hour of silent prayer. Ambrose would always be there – down by that pillar, wrapped in his cloak; taking his turn on watch as a member of this ship’s company. Then he would go to his stall next to the Vicar’s for Morning Prayer – it hasn’t been allocated permanently to anyone else stall since he left. Back he would come for Evensong. And until anxiety about his walking prevented it, he would take his turn celebrating mass with a profound devotion that helped others to pray. Early on in my time, he told me that a certain bishop in the diocese could say mass in ten minutes and added: “I’m sorry, father, I can’t manage in less than 25.” I replied “I’m glad to hear it, neither can I!”
By the time I got to know him, in spite of the epistle he chose for this mass, “Preach in season and out”, he was a reluctant preacher. He
would sometimes say, “You can’t preach to sailors.” I don’t know if this is true, but he must have had to preach in season and out over the years: sermons and confirmation addresses and those apt and witty little speeches which bishops are expected to give on all sorts of occasions.
One of the Latin titles for a bishop is “Pontifex” – that is a “bridge builder.” In his quiet and undemonstrative way, Ambrose was both a builder of bridges and a maintainer of them – a maker of contacts
with people and a keeper of them. He was not one of those people who are very good at loving humanity in general, yet somehow find the individual examples impossible to cope with. You only had to see him in
the courtyard here after services on a Sunday looking out for people who were new or on their own, perhaps shy and hesitant, to make them welcome.
Behind the Vicar’s stall here, there is a memorial to the great Father Mackay. It reads: “Whose memorial is in the souls of many worshippers here.” Ambrose’s memorial too, will be found in the
souls of so many people, in so many places, whose lives he touched and enriched down the years. He wanted this service to be one of praise to God for the blessings he had received from God. For us it is also one of praise for the blessings we received from God through him.
I think that little cabin he occupied next door next door, his home for so long, says something significant about Ambrose. Yes, he enjoyed the good things of life – eating and drinking, parties and holidays– but these were always things he enjoyed with other people. In many ways, he lived quite simply: he seemed to know that “here we have no abiding city.”
Life here is a pilgrimage, a voyage to something greater.
Ambrose’s last years have not been easy. Age began to take its toll. Increasing difficulty in walking, physical pain and deafness made life tiresome. After he had moved into the infirmary at Charterhouse, I
went to see him one afternoon and met a young lady in the lift. It turned out that she had come to fix his hearing aid. She offered to wait until I has seen him but I pointed out that my ministry would be made a great deal easier if she were to carry out hers first.
At the end of visits, he would say, “A blessing, Father.” I would reply: “Father, Then dementia, with its cruel capacity to destroy the memory and personality of people we know and love, took its toll; to his distress and that of all who loved and cared for him.
Later we will sing for him the sailor’s hymn, which he must have sung so often, and we can give thanks that for Ambrose the storms which beset his latter days have now been stilled and he has reached the shore; that in the words of a hymn we sung earlier, God will “re-clothe him in his rightful mind.
There is a poem of Gerald Manley Hopkins called “Heaven-Haven”
“I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.”
Hopkins wrote that for a nun taking the veil. I would like to say it for an old bishop going to meet the Lord he has served so faithfully all those years.
Ambrose has fought the good fight, he has finished the race. He has kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for him the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to him on that Day.
“Home is the sailor, home from the sea.”
Readings: Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 23; 2 Timothy 4.1-8; John 14.1-6