A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
HOMILY PREACHED AT THE CHURCH OF ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY, MATSON, BY FR. RICHARD BARTON AT A DEANERY HOLY HOUR ON 26th MAY 2013
TO MARK ‘THE YEAR OF FAITH’
The other evening, I was here, in this church, with a group of young people from our local Redwell Centre. Together-in-Matson – the sponsoring group for the Youth Centre – was set up in about 1980 by the three churches of Matson to reach out to the local community. These young people, the other night, were here to practise for their singing debut at our parish festival on Saturday 15th . Some of the musicians from the New Testament Church of God have been introducing them to Gospel Music and were helping them to turn their dreams of singing into reality. The result is going to be impressive. I have to say it was really moving to hear them get to grips with ‘O Happy Days’ and then to hear them sing the 1985 charity number ‘We are the World’ –
‘There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
Its true we’ll make a better day
Just you and me.’
For the last 1900 years or so people in Gloucester and the Forest of Dean have made that choice and have sought to make a better day, in Jesus Christ.
Staying for a moment longer here in Matson, as we walk up Matson Lane towards Robinswood Hill we pass our friends and partners at the Baptist Church and then we come to St Katharine’s. This church was largely re-built in 1893 and one of its great glories is the west window by Christopher Whall. The glass depicts St Hilda of Whitby who died in 680. Three of her pupils – Tatfrid, Bosel and Oftfor, were elected as Bishops of Worcester. Three bishops – well one didn’t quite make it – who stand in succession to St Augustine of Canterbury depicted in our great window and patron of our parish family.
In the west window at St Katharine’s we also see St Ina who was sent from Ireland by Patrick to re-convert the half-heathen inhabitants of Cornwall. In that window we are reminded that our deanery today straddles the borders – our rivers – the Severn, the Wye and the Leadon –have acted as natural boundaries. To the west the Celtic Christianity of St Dubricius and the saints of Wales and Cornwall and Ireland. To the east a Christianity which has flowed from Augustine through Chad and the missionaries of Mercia and also Birinus and the missionaries of Wessex.
From 680 the Forest of Dean proper lay in the Diocese of Hereford whilst we over here lay in the diocese of Worcester – so different traditions, roots, culture, saints, bishops and even architecture. Yet one in Christ.
But the Christianity brought by Augustine and the Christianity of the Celtic peoples were not really different. In ancient lore Gloucester, the old Roman city chosen in 680 by Osric as the site of his monastery, was claimed as the location of the earliest stone church in Britain. Yes, on the site of St Mary de Lode Church. It was further claimed that it was built by the first Christian king, the probably mythical, Lucius. Roman villas tucked in in hills boast of Christian symbols and Eldad was said to be bishop of Gloucester long before the arrival of Augustine.
Every school child in my day could tell you – and probably still can today – that St Augustine, sent by the Pope, arrived in 597 on the Isle of Thanet to convert the Angles or Gregory’s ‘angels’.
The story is told by Bede how, in about 604, Augustine met the Celtic bishops somewhere near here perhaps even on the banks of the River Severn. A lady the other day was telling me it was at Coleford. Others speak of Aust Rock, others still speak of College Green in Bristol. I have always favoured a field between Down Ampney and Cricklade. The truth is that we simply do not know. What we do know though is that Augustine made a mighty blunder. The Celtic bishops had agreed to defer to him if he stood to greet them. Augustine remained seated. Probably the first bungled ecumenical meeting in the history of our green and pleasant land. As Christians of different traditions we have blundered like Augustine time and time again.
Yet, Christianity, in spite of hurt and argument and division, flourished. It is for good reason that Gloucestershire has been described as ‘God’s own country’ – whether that be because of our three great mediaeval Benedictine monasteries – Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Winchcombe – or because of the trail of beautiful spires along the Vale of Berkeley. Gloucestershire has a rich Christian patrimony and in Gloucester City alone religious orders flourishes – Benedictine, Augustinian, Carmelite, Dominican, Franciscan and more. Today stones and place names still bear witness. The Forest, too, has its mediaeval churches and its crowning glory Newland, ‘Cathedral of the Forest’.
This Year of Faith gives us an opportunity to look back, to give thanks, and to take stock. We have learnt bitter and costly lessons over the years and the blood of martyrdom has flowed as thickly here as anywhere. The Forest of Dean recalls the ministries of the Blessed John Sandys and St John Kemble – martyr priests- as well as the ashes of the tragic Edward Horne, the Protestant martyr. The Forest can tell tales of recusant families, and fines and difficulties. In the C19th the beginnings of Catholic revival led in the C20th to church buildings, parishes, religious communities and schools. Many of you will have read from the mission diary of the Radcliffe family and the story told by George Hare.
On this side of the Severn we again find martyrs. A martyred bishop, who suffered horrifically in the flames outside of his Cathedral Church. Then a poor bricklayer and even a poor blind boy suffered in the flames in the year after Hooper’s holocaust. Within a generation Gloucester witnessed the barbaric execution of two priests and a poor glover. Two other local men were martyred in London for aiding priests and local man and priest, the Blessed Thomas Alfield, died in London. John Pybush, another martyr, was arrested in Matson after a break out from Gloucester Gaol.
As in the Forest, Gloucester’s Catholic story gradually unfolded. In 1685 there was a brief awakening during the brief reign of James II and then, from the late C18th, a mission, a church and then the building of the St Peter’s Church that we know today. Expansion and immigration saw missions and now parishes at Churchdown, Tuffley and Brockworth. Here at Matson we are celebrating sixty years since the beginning of the mission, fifty years since the church was opened and, this weekend, twenty-five years since the solemn dedication.
Whilst we must not forget Blaisdon and the convents at Hartpury, Gloucester and the Forest – or for that matter the schools they established – and even our parish schools – we must also remember with joy the story of Prinknash Abbey – Benedictine life restored! The community has made an enormous contribution to the spiritual life of generations of local Christians and has supported the clergy.
Talking of clergy and Prinknash Abbey before I finish I would like to mention Father Alban. Back in the mid 1980’s he compiled an important essay on ‘The Lay Apostolate in Gloucestershire from the Reformation to the Present Day’. He started by making an important point which I would like to share with you:
‘Though the sanction of the Bishop is necessary and the ministry of a priest essential, I want to show that it is not always the clergy who took the initiative and laid the foundation of a parish but the laymen and laywomen who first got things going and then sought the ministry of the clergy’
This insight has clearly been identified by those who compiled Newent’s story, ‘More Precious than Gold’. As title page states:
‘The story of a People who built a Church and continue to foster its growth and development into a community of worship, love and service.’
As the years advance we are more and more conscious that it is really the people’s story not just that of priests and wealthy patrons. Already Monsignor Roche’s remarks in his 1968 ‘History of St Peter’s’ seem faintly archaic and jars in ears accustomed to talk of collaborative ministry:
‘As in most parishes there are a number of people, men and women, who are always available when there is a job to be done’
‘The people of St Peter’s Parish acknowledge their debt to their priests who have toiled for them, their debt also to fellow parishioners for their part in parish activities and their debt one to another’
However, his final words are timeless:
‘Under God the parish (and, for this afternoon, our deanery) will accept new challenges, new ventures and new service’
As a deanery, as Christians living in an ecumenical context, may I bring you back to Matson where I began. If we are to stir into flame the gift of God that we have been given and which we hope to share with others we cannot go it alone. Our faith demands the living out of two words – Better Together.