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RIP – Michael SSF

Brother Michael SSF died on 5 December 2003 in Cambridge and his funeral mass was held at St Bene’t’s, Cambridge. He was aged eighty-five years and in the fifty-ninth year of his profession in vows.

An extract from the sermon preached at his funeral, by Brother Damian SSF

Free to be Free was the title of one of Michael’s television documentaries about the religious life. For Michael, this was a freedom which allowed him to break out into many significant experiments in which he was not always certain but in which he was always compelled to act. Like Francis himself, Michael made himself a brother, seeking ways to include, to offer fraternity, to fight for the under-dog, to welcome and share the delights of the moment. His courage showed itself in creating new areas of work, reforming our Constitutions, changing the way we offered our prayers. There are so many aspects of his life which give us cause to be grateful to him. He will be remembered most as a man of the heart, for his loving was generous, wide, sincere, beckoning, necessary. He revelled in art and architecture, in music and song; how he loved conversation, a new book, a new film; he had an eye for all that was beautiful!

Reginald Lindsay Fisher was born in Streatham in 1918 into a close-knit, loving and stable family. He was known as Roy. He once confided to me that he wasn’t doing so well at school because he was left-handed. In those days draconian methods were applied to make a child write properly; the teacher used to put a bag over his left hand and the young Roy began to flounder. His Mother, Jane, noticing that something was wrong, took him to the doctor. In the surgery the doctor happened to drop his pencil and Roy reached to pick it up – with his left hand. The doctor whispered, ‘are you left-handed?’ ‘Ssh’, said Roy, ‘I’m not allowed to be’. But he knew he had been heard.

The confusion and pain brought about by those attitudes and the experience in the surgery gave to Michael a new way forward, a first glimpse that things could radically change: from this handicap into freedom, from oppression to redemption, from injustice to fair-dealing. New energy for a lifetime of ministry had been released which allowed him to be imaginative, creative, intuitive; gifts that were later applied as a communicator, a preacher, a missioner, a bishop in the Church and a much sought after pastor.

One recurring scene that, living with Michael, I noticed daily in the chapel was in his time of meditation. One hand would be holding an open Bible, the other nursing his jaw while his whole being fed on God’s word. Then, reaching for a pen, he began to underline verses from which he would later be feeding others. It was as if all those disadvantages from school were being turned into opportunities, in which mistakes became redeemable, and a multitude of paradoxes met in peace.

After I joined the Society in 1966, I was for a few weeks in the formative position of acting secretary to Michael – a privilege and a learning place indeed – just as Michael himself had benefited from being Fr Algy’s secretary over a much longer period. After his beloved mother, Jane, Fr Algy was the No.1 influence on Michael’s life; Algy taught him about Scripture, about sermon construction, about missioning with a passion and a zeal that caught the imaginations and hearts of so many and would change the direction of their whole lives. Michael built on his mentor’s foundations and soon was in great demand at home and abroad, working with SCM and undertaking missions from Dublin to Dogura. He finally made it to America, though he was refused an entry visa to the States on the grounds that he had been a member of the Communist Party – this was at the height of the Cold War. Michael took it upon himself to contact the Ambassador in person!

Having been invalided out of the Army after contracting TB in 1940 and suffering permanent damage to his lungs, Michael was received as an SSF oblate. He had vowed that if he survived he would serve the remaining years of his life as a friar. However, the house in Lady Margaret Road, Cambridge, didn’t prove to his liking and, somewhat disillusioned, he packed his bag to leave. He got past the back door, tripped and badly sprained his ankle. He gave in, returned to the Community and recovered his vocation. He warned me several years later, ‘God calls to Religious Life those he doesn’t trust outside’.

On the surface Michael would appear to have had a hugely successful life, and his achievements are many and remarkable. Time is too short to tell of the mission to the Durham coalminers, the founding of Alnmouth Friary, his creating a new kind of hostel for ex-offenders, his supporting new life for Burford Priory, his leading of the friars as Provincial and later Minister General, and of course his ministry as Bishop of St Germans.

How we loved to hear Michael preach. A favourite theme, in Franciscan tradition, was the Cross: from many a pulpit he spoke profoundly on Christ’s words from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do’. Michael liked to combine these words from the cross with a sentence of St Paul which placed the redeeming work of Christ right at the centre of our human situation: ‘He made himself sin for me, he who knew no sin.’ Christ comes in judgement and in mercy to the very depths of our human state, to the place of disordered passions, to the place of conflict, destruction, suffering, and Jesus reaches out his hands to us with love and prays to his Father: ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do.’

We thank God for Michael, a true Father-in-God, a wise Bishop of our church, a Brother and a friend; one who has opened up for many a vocation in the way of St Francis. He has added depth to our discipleship, turning servanthood into friendship with Christ, showing us how to lead and to love in the ways of Christ. Above all, he lit up paths of salvation, showing us that God ‘has planted me in his heart.’

Michael so often quoted Cardinal Newman, ‘Let heart speak to heart’. May the living heart of Christ raise you, our Brother, in the sure knowledge of his forgiveness, from the Cross to your joyful resurrection. Amen. f