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RIP Martin SSF

Martin SSFpage 16 Martin

From the sermon preached at his funeral by Anselm SSF

Brother Martin SSF died on 19 May, 2014, and his funeral Mass was held at St Peter’s Church, London Docks. He was aged 89 years and in the sixty-third year of his profession in vows.

Martin died in Newham General Hospital in the early afternoon of Monday, 19th May. The news reached the brothers of the province that evening, and at Glasshampton we used the service ‘On hearing of the death of a brother/sister’ at midday on Tuesday. During that short office we used a prayer which sets an agenda for any funeral mass – ‘We thank you for Martin, the years we shared with him, the good we saw in him, the love we received from him’. The funeral mass is a eucharist, a thanksgiving for creation, for the saving work of Christ, for the blessings of the Spirit – and, on this occasion, for Martin as God’s gift, God’s creation, God’s mediator of the Spirit; for the years shared, the good perceived, the love given.

page 16 He prayeth bestBut for many of us here today, even Franciscan brothers and sisters , he has to be a remote figure in time and space – we all meet together annually for a week, next week as it happens, which makes it necessary to remember, for the preacher in particular to attempt, however inadequately, to paint a picture which is recognisably Martin. To help him he has Margaret Tarrant, in her day a noted illustrator and painter of children who when called on to depict a child at prayer had the assistance of her eight- year old neighbour – John Coombe, later, yes, Brother Martin, SSF – her model. That picture tells us more about his early years than can any string of words.

He died at 89 after 63 years in profession. He was 20 years at what we now know as Hilfield Friary in Dorset, then 14 years in Cambridge as vicar of St Bene’t’s, then for some years in Scunthorpe, back to Cambridge, and finally to London where he shared first the Stepney house and then St Mary’s Vicarage, Plaistow with a group of brothers and sisters; latterly, with Sisters Elizabeth and Chris and they were, it was rumoured, the happiest house in the province. Few living brothers or sisters shared more than a few of those years with him and have in their memories the living human being – fewer still, the young Martin. I will attempt to share with you memories to bring the years to life, to illustrate the good we saw, to make real the love we shared, and thus to make this a eucharist, a thanks to God for his gift to us of Martin.

Running all through Martin’s story is the paradox implicit in God’s call for him with his deeply conservative temperament, to a community on the brink of radical changes in a church which in 1994 ordained women to the priesthood. This left him in a quandary. His dogged resolution of this was costly, and through it all he retained his integrity, his goodness and his love – ‘the good we saw, the love we shared’.

As a brother ordinand he went to Chichester Theological College during his time at Hilfield, and I well remember the presenting of a red rose by the new priest to his mother at his first mass. He became priest in charge of the tiny hamlets of Hilfield and Hermitage. I remember too, that he was pastorally gifted for work with youngsters. One of them is among us today in the person of Michael Perham (now Bishop of Gloucester, and our Bishop Protector). Others became nationally known as The Yetties who reached the charts with their country music.

All this coincided with changes in SSF which followed Father Algy’s death in 1955 and came to a head with the chapter at which the decision was made to open all community offices to all brothers, who would all be known as ‘Brother’. I think that it’s significant that Martin’s last five years at Hilfield were in fact spent in boarding school chaplaincy work – perhaps symptomatic of a certain discomfort for him in community.

We thank God that he was able to accept the invitation to move to Cambridge in 1971 to become vicar of St Bene’t’s and later chaplain of St John’s College School. The strands in his vocation came together as he found himself both a parish priest, and among children at the school. Jaffa Cakes always remind me of Martin and the confirmation classes at St Francis House for whom they were strictly reserved.

Martin reached the age at which retirement cannot be postponed in 1985, and the resultant shakeup found him banished to outer darkness – the then Provincial HQ in Scunthorpe. I (then Minister) gained a Provincial Secretary who was consistently cheerful, efficient and loyal as my colleague for my last five years in office, before I in turn became vicar of St Bene’t’s.

This was in 1992. From 1994 women were welcomed to preside at the eucharist among us. Martin, when he returned to Cambridge later, preserved his integrity and faithfulness to God’s call by ministering to the congregation of St Clement’s until he moved to London to the Stepney house and then to St Mary’s Vicarage, Plaistow with Sisters Elizabeth and Chris. Here his theatre of priestly ministry became this parish church of St Peter with its glorious history, while Elizabeth, also a priest, was attached to St Paul’s, Bow Common, which has its own history – glorious no doubt, but lacking Fr. Lowder and his curate, Fr. Wainwright.

And it’s here that Martin leaves us, but not without choosing the readings for this service. The gospel reminds us that at every eucharist (starting at Emmaus) Jesus tantalisingly disappears just as we recognise him and leaves us to love him in each other – living and departed. So, we greet each other and include our brother, Martin. Martin, the peace of the Lord be always with you. f