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RIP – Edward SSF


Brother Edward SSF
from the sermon preached at his funeral by by Brother Damian SSF

St Matthew 19. 16-26: Jesus’ telling of the story of the rich young man begs us to examine our yes’s and no’s. And Edward said a lot of yes’s and very few no’s. He sold many possessions, he brought many riches to the poor, and he became a disciple, all at once it seems, because his first turning to Christ also included accepting the call to priesthood with an eye on the Franciscan way. The rich man of the Gospels went home sad, but I am more than confident that Edward has returned home full of humble joy, gratitude and goodwill.

Let me take you back to the childhood of Christopher John, born on 5th March, 1921, the younger son of the Rt. Hon Hastings and Mrs Eleanor Joyce Lees Smith. He and Patrick were proud of their father, Christopher John especially so. Imagine him standing up in the centre of Keighley at the age of 8 making his very first political speech, Vote for Daddy! So we can unveil one of Edward’s fundamental principles that he taught us as novices, “Never stand up unless you have something to say”. He set a precedent at Westminster School by inaugurating their first experience of a trade union, taking sixpence off his fellow students for protection against some of the school’s more outmoded practices.

When his father died suddenly in 1941, Christopher was just about to become the youngest colonel in the British Army, serving during the war with the South Notts. Hussars. Proving himself a great campaigner, and leader of men, he survived the horrors of war during which, incidentally, he facilitated the avocets’ return to Britain as they became re-established in an area of marshes in Suffolk which he had ordered to be flooded. Edward’s reward later from the RSPB was to be given an honorary life membership; the site at Minsmere is today much visited, and the RSPB took the image of the avocet as its logo.

Edward graduated in history at Corpus Christi College, Oxford in 1949; R W Livingstone, the Greek historian, recommended him for a Gladstone Studentship. This reference, dated 27 June 1949, included the words, ‘he has gifts which will enable him to do valuable work for Christianity in England, and especially in the field of the relations of Christianity with social problems. He will in the future make an important contribution to the church.’ He forged links with pioneer Ted Wickham in the Sheffield Industrial Mission. Ordained deacon in 1950, he served under Canon Gordon Hopkins at St Luke’s, Pallion in Sunderland. He arrived at Hilfield in June 1954 and for the next seven years was occupied in gardening, retreats and missions; the best mission work might well be done while stringing runner beans in the fields.

Edward could be very naughty. The parable of the talents, he said, did not apply to himself, suggesting that he had precisely no talents! Well SSF had to teach him how to clean a bath, boil an egg. At Plaistow in East London he was put in the kitchen only for the brothers to discover the Shepherds Pie on the table was the work of five volunteers whom he had rounded up, as he explained the secret ingredient was just a touch of oregano. Yes, he was a great organiser. Beach trips from Alnmouth Friary in the afternoons had people bringing back dustbins full of sea coal for winter fires. Following the annual Camps at Budle Bay he directed a play each night with his band of Northern Pilgrims set around the village squares as they journeyed from Lindisfarne through to Durham Cathedral. There was his Way of the Cross, a drama with just one rehearsal, performing the Passion of our Lord as the gong sounded and the cast froze to create the next Station. He was magic because he always went for the direct message of the Gospel, nothing obscure, always involving people, engaging them in his campaigns, boundless energy spent, dispensing all the fruits of the Spirit, for there was always love and joy and goodness and that clarion call to Christ.

But his deepest influence upon the Church, shown very largely through his 55 years as a Franciscan Brother, was in his work with scores and scores of individuals who perhaps arriving at Hilfield in Dorset would innocently accept an invitation for a 20 minute walk around the Friary triangle. Half way round is a gate. Always he paused just there, took in the magnificent view of the undulating countryside, and capturing the moment, spoke directly to the other about vocations to the priesthood, to the convent, to the brothers, it’s about the Primacy of God, you need to Belong and you need to Serve. “Little one, he would say (we were all little ones!) unless you know you belong – you will become lonely, and then it will be either wine, or women, or worse”.

Edward’s work as a friar in the North-East began with the founding of the Friary at Alnmouth in 1961. From 1966 to 1974 he was elected as Guardian, from whence he became known all over the North East for his warmth towards everyone, his particular work salvaging the lives of many a lad in trouble, always as an authentic example of a friar, a father, a friend. To all he would offer an instant welcome; and you probably left the Friary as a Companion, a Tertiary or an aspirant.

Moving in 1974 to Plaistow in London’s East End he was initiated into life in the Third Order as he took up a new role as Tertiary Chaplain. His reforms and communication skills brought about a complete revolution in the modestly sized Tertiary family. Third Order membership rose from 200 to 2000 in twenty years.

Edward had a lifelong devotion to the subject of his University degree, history, which he digested with considerable understanding and wisdom. His Church History lectures to successive groups of novices earned him 110% for delivery and a little less for content. However, the point was that he massively inspired and enthused us to read Church History.

Archbishop George Carey called Edward to Lambeth Palace to receive the Cross of St Augustine. In his citation dated 6 October 1999 the Archbishop said “Some joked about Edward as the recruiting officer, but none could doubt his transparent Christian commitment, his absolute grasp of the discipline of daily prayer and the Eucharist; combined with his real and continued sense of serving the poor. This same pattern had also made Edward the role model for countless numbers of ordinands. Parish priests, bishops, deans and clergy of all sorts of different positions owe the discovery of their vocation and its nurturing to Br Edward.”

My own summing up would be wider again: ‘Love conquers everything’. Edward: for your obedience to the Great Commandments our Saviour Christ taught his disciples, your love for God and your love shown to so, so many

friends, energising us with zeal for the Gospel, your commitment to Christ, your overcoming all the obstacles in the power of the Holy Spirit – thank you. f