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RIP – Geoffrey SSF

Br Geoffrey SSF - RIP

Brother Geoffrey SSF died on 11 April 2007,and his funeral Mass was held at Hilfield Friary.  He was aged eighty-five years and in the fifty-seventh year of his profession in vows.

‘Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’. Hebrews 12.2 I think that this is an appropriate text for an address for Geoffrey’s funeral because throughout his life Geoffrey has always been something of a pioneer, someone who has gone ahead and led the way. He was brought up with his brother, Guy, not far from here at Shaftesbury, but it was at Cambridge in the early 1940s that he first came into close contact with the brothers of SSF, particularly coming under the influence of Br Denis.  Chichester Theological College followed and he was ordained, quite young, to a curacy at Holy Trinity, Weymouth.

Geoffrey joined SSF in 1948.  The brothers must have been pretty sure about him because he didn’t serve any time as postulant; Algy just noviced him straight away, and after six months at Glasshampton he was transferred to the Cambridge Friary in Lady Margaret Road, where he worked among students and was chaplain to the fruiting and hop-picking missions that we ran at that time.

In 1953 Geoffrey was sent by Algy to Plaistow where he got the new St Philip’s church and hall built – and Princess Margaret to lay the foundation stone.  St Philip’s in those days was a flourishing Anglo-Catholic Church with a large youth club and Geoffrey threw himself energetically into the life and ministry of the parish.  When Philip Strong, Bishop in Papua New Guinea, in England for the 1958 Lambeth Conference, challenged SSF to send out brothers to his diocese, Geoffrey was the natural choice as leader of the group and in January 1959 he set out for Australia aboard the P & O liner, SS Arcadia.  You can read all about those early days in PNG in his memoirs, but, in brief, it was Geoffrey’s unflagging, indomitable, pioneering spirit which got the Anglican Franciscan life established in that part of the world, first in PNG, then in Australia, the Solomons and New Zealand.  He became the first Minister of the separate Province of the Pacific in 1968, and in 1970 was elected Minister General of SSF, by then a rapidly expanding order around the world.

Geoffrey held the post of Minister General for fifteen years at a crucially important period in the life of the Society. In that time he circumnavigated the globe at least once a year, visiting all the houses of the then three provinces, meeting, teaching and challenging the brothers; he interviewed each of us individually.  He entered fully into the life of a house while he was staying and insisted on undertaking his share of the manual work; at Patteson House, Honiara, in the Solomons, a high ranking Roman Catholic religious who had come to visit Geoffrey was somewhat shocked when he was directed to the showers and loos which it was Geoffrey’s custom to clean whenever staying.  He led by example.  In his role as Minister General he didn’t just concern himself with the First Order Brothers, but was also a great encourager of the Third Order, particularly in those parts of the world where there were no First Order Houses.  The Third Order groups in Hong Kong, Singapore, Southern Africa and West Africa were all nurtured by his tireless attention.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Geoffrey’s achievement as Minister General was the ‘Gospel Now Conference’ held here at Hilfield in 1981.  It was the first international gathering of brothers and sisters of the First and Third Orders which he called to challenge us to live out the fullness of our Franciscan vocation: a passionate working for peace and justice around the world, a deep commitment to the poor wherever they are found, a life thoroughly grounded in prayer and the study of the scriptures, and throughout it all a sacrificial following of our crucified and risen Lord.  The Conference was hugely influential on us at the time and it has played a significant part in shaping the vision of our life today.

And when in 1985 he completed his last term of office as Minister General, at an age when most people are wearily looking forward to retirement, Geoffrey went off to Zimbabwe to pioneer yet another Franciscan initiative, the Community of the Divine Compassion (the name an echo of his Plaistow days).  Africa always had a very special place in his heart.  He would love to have died in Africa.

It’s not very surprising that this irrepressible, pioneering, spirit that was so much part of Geoffrey’s character, found the limitations of old age and failing health very difficult to bear.  He was hugely frustrated; he hated being confined and, to his mind, ‘useless’; he resented being unable to return to Africa to live and work among the poor there. He was quite unafraid of Sister Death – he reminded us often that he was dying – he was just very impatient about the waste of time in getting there!

In the end, the real pioneer, for Geoffrey and for all of us, is Our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it.  Jesus is the one who is always going before us in sacrificial self-offering, always encouraging us to give ourselves more fully, more generously to the way of the cross for the sake of the world. And he is the one in whom all our efforts, all our vision and all our pioneering – inadequate and flawed as they are – are fulfilled in perfection. Geoffrey, to Our Lord and Saviour, our friend and brother, our pioneer and perfecter, we now commit you with thanksgiving, with trust and with joy. f