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RIP – Paul Anthony SSF

Religion, religious practice, that is, can change people – and it’s not always for the better.  It can make a person sanctimonious, self righteous and artificial.  It’s a lovely thing that this never happened with our brother Paul Anthony.

Paul King was born and grew up in the Derbyshire village of South Normanton – and he never lost his Derbyshire roots, nor his close connection with his family, nor his northern plain speaking. He first joined the Society of St Francis when he was 21 so he had been a brother for nearly 30 years, yet he never conformed to people’s expectations of what a friar should be like: he was never a very religious religious – thank God!

There’s a story which he used to tell of when he was a novice on a parish mission team.  As is the custom on these events, he was farmed out each day for meals in the homes of parishioners and on one occasion he and another brother went to the house of a lady who had a little dog to whom she was devoted, but the dog was seriously sick. Since they were Franciscans, the lady asked them to give the dog a blessing. Well, Paul gave a blessing, but he can’t have done it very well because the dog promptly keeled over and died. The brothers never got their dinner!

Paul was a great collector – among other things of fridge magnets.  He had a magnificent display on the fridge in the vicarage kitchen.  But some of them were on the edge, or even beyond the edge of good taste – so much so that one brother felt it necessary, when the bishop visited the house, to take them down and hide them!

So we give thanks today for Paul – a person whom religion didn’t spoil.  On the contrary, I believe that the following of Jesus Christ in the way of blessed Francis made Paul more who he was.

In that lovely passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that in his Father’s house are many dwelling places – or as the KJV has it, many mansions.  What I think Jesus is saying is that in the Kingdom of God, in the fullness of life with God, there’s spaciousness; there’s room for the whole diverse range of human personality and of human culture.

Certainly, following Christ involves repentance, sacrifice and dying to self, but that should lead to us becoming more who we truly are, not less.  As St Thomas Aquinas put it, grace doesn’t change nature, it transforms it. And I think we’ve seen that happening in the life of our brother Paul Anthony – a gradual revealing of glory, an un-covering of the image of God in him, a true coming out.

Paul was an amazingly gifted person.  He was an accomplished artist and an icon painter. He was an enthusiastic gardener. He was a skilled home maker with an eye for the right thing in the right place.  At Balsall Heath in Birmingham he very successfully ran a day centre for the elderly. He would certainly never have classed himself as a theologian, but he was a good preacher, giving a clear and direct message; and a pastor too – I wonder how many funerals he had taken in the parish church over the past seven years. Life as a Franciscan brother, far from suppressing Paul’s gifts, allowed them to flourish.

I want to mention three of Paul’s characteristics for which I think we should especially give thanks to God today.  The first of them is kindness.  Behind that bluntness, that telling it as it is, there was a very kind person – lots of small acts of kindness for the people whom he met and amongst whom he lived; and some large kindnesses, too – he lived with and cared for his mother though her long last illness.  I think that the kindness flowed (although Paul himself wouldn’t have expressed it like this) from the recognition in his own depths of the deep-down kindness and compassion of God.  Because he knew that God treated him kindly he could show that kindness with others.

The second of Paul’s characteristics which I would mention is his generosity.  It came out in a number of ways, particularly in his shopping and in the meals he prepared. Of course this didn’t exactly conform to the pattern of Franciscan poverty but it was very him.  It can be easy for those of us who’ve known and grown up with plenty to choose a life of simple living.  But if you haven’t experienced comparative affluence, to insist on what may seem like austerity and penny-pinching can be a kind of blasphemy.  For Paul there had to be abundance, over-flowing from the abundance of God in all things.  When Paul cooked a meal you knew that there was going to be enough – and to spare. He didn’t serve wine in thimblefuls, praise God; he was a full bottles person.

And the last characteristic of which I would remind you was his courage, particularly since the aneurism started to develop in his brain five or six years ago. It was a hugely difficult illness for him, and let’s thank God for all those who helped him and supported him through it all: for Benjamin and Malcolm and Benedict; for his brother Andrew; for friends in the parish; for his wonderful consultant, Dr Patel; for the staff at the Sheffield Hallamshire Hospital and Magnolia Lodge in Doncaster. For Paul it was a very long struggle, but throughout he never complained.  He knew that the final operation was going to be  high risk and that he might well die as a consequence, yet he kept a sense of trust in those around him – and in God.  The knowledge that Jesus lives never left him.

Paul, at 51, has died comparatively young – for an age in which the average life expectancy is pushing 80 plus.  There’s a real sadness in that for us and a sense of incompleteness.  The work of the Spirit, the work of uncovering the glorious image of God in him had yet to be finished; but actually that is as it must be whenever we die – still more healing, more restoration work to be accomplished, still more glory to be revealed. We are always in the position of standing before God crying, ‘Lord, have mercy’, as sinners knowing our need of forgiveness.  But I believe that we’ve seen enough of that uncovering of the glory in the life of our brother Paul Anthony to have confidence that the task, through Christ, is complete.  As St Paul puts it in the Letter to the Romans:

Neither death nor life, nor angels, not rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Paul Anthony died on 24 December 2010, and his funeral mass was held at St Peter’s Church, Bentley. He was aged fifty-one years and in the twenty-fourth year of his profession in vows.