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RIP – Gordon SSF

Brother Gordon SSF died on 10 September 1999 at hospital in Newcastle and his funeral mass was at Alnmouth Friary. He was aged seventy-five years and in the fortieth year of his profession in vows.
A sermon preached at his Interment of Ashes at Hilfield Friary by Brother Damian SSF

‘In the moment of God’s coming to them, they will kindle into flame, like sparks that sweep through the stubble.’ Wisdom 3.7 Gordon Grahame Tate, born in 1924, was a Geordie from Fenham: it was from there that he set out on a particular Christian pilgrimage, inspired by his old school’s motto, Willing Service. His family church was St John’s in Newcastle on Tyne. With two older brothers, John who became ordained and a middle brother who was killed in an RAF flying exercise, it became clear to Gordon, already disadvantaged with health problems and feeling a little overshadowed, that he had to step out on his own. A prompting came from John and from Fr Bernard Gurney Fox, just back from the Ashram in Poona. And so at the age of nineteen Gordon set out from the North East down to the South West and after being interviewed by both Douglas and Algy, he was admitted as a Junior Oblate in November 1943 at Hilfield. Later, twelve years later, he was clothed by Denis as a First Order novice, then professed by David in 1959 and he completed his dedication in life vows before Bishop Robert Mortimer, the Protector. If he had lived another month, he would have completed forty years in profession.

You have to read his book, 55 years in SSF, to get a fuller taste of life under Fr Algy – which he describes at times to be more like serving in the Light Brigade: ‘There’s not to reason why, There’s but to do and die.’ It’s reassuring that he doesn’t complete the stanza! I heard him proudly boast that he reckoned in his book he had been more open and honest about how it was living under Fr Algy than had been recorded in other writings. Nevertheless he was clearly as devoted to Algy as anyone, and Gordon fell in with the various austerities required of a brother in those days, such as extreme cold and queuing to make your confession to Algy at up to two o’clock in the morning!

Gordon was sent to the House in Cable Street, East London, amidst the brothels and gambling dens. However, his attention was caught, rather, by the waves of West Indian families arriving, totally unprepared for life in this country or for the opposition they met from local residents. His heart was deeply moved – and there began what I suppose came into being, his own style of Franciscan ministry, where he gathered people around him, where he made provision for them, drawing particularly the displaced and despised, and gently giving them his attention, and physical and spiritual hospitality. We have all marvelled, in his last address at the Ravensmount Residential Home in Alnwick, at how he drew together groups of the infirm and incapacitated for Bible Study, to feed on the Word of God over a cup of tea. He had become a master at ‘making the occasion’ for people, and he had been doing it virtually all his life. This was essentially what he took to Papua New Guinea, gathering together in the barracks at Port Moresby a group of policemen or Army soldiers to study the Scriptures. His six years in PNG made a missionary opportunity, not so much to preach but, let loose in some of the surrounding villages, he soon created natural occasions to study the Scriptures. This led of course to his receiving much hospitality himself. In return he gave his own warmth and friendship. He used this knack of forming people into groups around him for the work of God.

This talent for attracting others, joined with an attitude of self-giving, drew many people to Gordon, and their response was to give back to him a deeply-needed sense of acceptance which had previously never quite registered in him. Many of us would know more of the intense, serious brother with a big frame, who had never quite received a full recognition from his own family and, even within the Society, that acceptance felt slow and unclarified – indeed we would be as aware of his scowl as his smile. Outside, there is abundant evidence of his being acknowledged for his Christian demeanour, of his being owned and adored for his warmth and friendship: and that was visible up to the day he died. At Ravensmount, and from the nurses who saw him through the years of his dialysis to the time of his death in the Freeman Hospital, there have been multiple tears shed for one who deeply touched them.

How many people Gordon actually touched! The parties of refugees in Yeovil, the Methodist youth, the villagers at Buna in PNG where he had been initiated into their tribal family as a won-tok and our Brother Bray is a brother to him twice over. On the streets of Brixton, back in the seventies, one youth leader remarked ‘Do you know who is the safest white face on these streets? It’s yourself,’ he told Gordon; ‘They won’t tell you themselves but they would do anything for you.’ And that was true in Battersea, in Scunthorpe, and it will reflect the reason for our visitors’ presence here today.
Gordon, at first, had very much been pressed into the rôle of a servant, out of which he came to shine as a servant of his Master, Jesus. In doing so he not only learnt a means by which he found himself to be accepted, but he also shared his discovery to enrich the lives of countless poor, ignored, despised, discounted men and women that he sought out.

Transforming the barriers of race, age, class, creed, he carried within him a spark that could sweep through the stubble and kindle the flame of Love and, with brotherly affection, he raised a state of servitude to the warmth and glow of friendship, with a spark that swept through fields of stubble. As our Brother Bernard once remarked, ‘Gordon simply shone outside SSF’ and people felt the privilege of his attention, of his ready acceptance; he was a wonderful ambassador for the Society.
I overheard one of the last conversations that Gordon had in the Freeman Hospital with Peter Lepine, our Tertiary who as a First-Order Brother had once served with Gordon out in PNG. Gordon knew he was dying and was very methodically saying his goodbyes, with that simple and direct manner that Gordon had. He added, ‘and I’ll have the kettle on, ready for when it’s your turn.’ He died as he lived, yet so relieved to be able to lay down the weight of his body burdened with the heaviness of debilitating health, and those inner fears that he was being outshone by other family or community stars. None of it was actually true, for he had learnt that being a prisoner for the Lord he had discovered what St Paul describes as ‘the unfathomable riches of Christ’. He was no longer a servant: the Lord now called him friend, to whom he had given his total faith and trust, and for whose sake he had created and formed a network of friends who treasured him. He had lit up God’s kingdom effectively. My guess is that the Lord will have created a flame strong enough in grace to catch a light under the kettle to welcome Gordon into the place of rest prepared for him in the heavenly mansion. Gordon, may you rest in peace and rise in glory. f