Bishop Kenneth Stevenson, 1949-2011

Kenneth StevensonI attended the funeral of Kenneth Stevenson today. Kenneth had been Anglican bishop of Portsmouth from 1995 to 2009. However, I knew Kenneth first when I was an undergraduate at Manchester University and he was the Anglican chaplain. I was a member of the university Christian Union, which in the UK is a conservative evangelical constituency. Traditionally, at British universities then, Christian students were either of the “CU” or of the “Chaplaincy” and I was definitely of the former variety. Kenneth and I met because I wanted to write a final year dissertation on Edward Irving (1792-1834). Kenneth’s family on his father’s side were members of the Catholic Apostolic Church, a church which had been founded after Irving had been ejected from his ministry at the National Scotch Church in Regent Square, London (which was an outpost of the Scottish Kirk). Kenneth therefore knew the story of Irving well and was able to supervise me on the dissertation.

Kenneth, along with Sarah, his wife, had an amazingly hospitable personality and a tremendous sense of fun. He was not remotely “stand offish” about evangelicals and they happily welcomed me into their home where we spent many hours ransacking his extensive library for relevant reading material and discussing theology and Christian thought in general. At that time, I was in the early stages of candidating for the ordained ministry in the Church of England. Kenneth was wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic about my sense of call. He teased me for being over-serious but underneath it all took me very seriously. When you’re in your early 20’s and exploring big things like the possibility of giving your entire life up to public Christian ministry, encouragement is a critical ingredient. He had started a course on the History and Significance of Liturgy in the Faculty at Manchester, which he co-taught with Richard Buxton. I, however, was not much interested in liturgy at the time. But Kenneth’s fascination for the subject was infectious.

A couple of years later, after I had been selected by the Church to train for ordination, the recommendation came with the suggestion that my training should include work towards a postgraduate degree. I was hooked on the story of the Catholic Apostolics, who followed Irving. How could a group, which had begun in the controversy of an outbreak of speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy, so shortly afterwards develop one of the most ornate series of liturgies in the 19th century? Irving had spoken of the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” about 70 years before Pentecostalism was born. How did they understand the working of the Holy Spirit to relate to their seven liturgies of initiation?

A research topic was born, but to do it required access to Catholic Apostolic primary texts, which are enormously hard to come by, as most of their books were privately published for internal circulation. As the church began to die out in 1901 and had all but ceased by the 1970s, this was potentially incredibly difficult. However, Kenneth (who had himself done his PhD on the Eucharist of the Catholic Apostolic Church) was both my supervisor and my librarian. With his Catholic Apostolic family roots, he was able to provide key texts which rendered the project possible. As such, he was the main reason why I was able to tackle and complete my doctorate. Seldom do research students owe such a double-debt to their supervisor.

Kenneth was also a key supporter in the early years of my ministerial career. He was a referee in my candidacy process with the Church of England – I remember ringing him up long-distance from Manchester to Notre Dame University, Indiana, where he was taking a sabbatical, to ask him for the reference. He faxed it through to the church authorities within a day or so. He encouraged me to write after I had finished the doctorate and we co-edited (with David Stancliffe) an introduction to the Celebrating Common Prayer daily office called Something Understood in the early 1990s.

His encouragement, support and assistance are foundational to my present ministry. The debt I owe him is huge.

Of course, his achievements are much larger than this and have been widely reported in the church and secular press. (You can read Bryan Spinks’ obituary in The Independent here.) I simply wanted to put on record my debt to him. I am not alone. He was an encourager, supporter and enabler of very many.

Today’s funeral service took place in Portsmouth Cathedral, which was packed to overflowing. I’m sure Kenneth would have enjoyed the liturgy (he was not censorious, so it makes no sense describing him as ‘approving’ or ‘disapproving’ of a liturgy). Bishop John Gladwin did an excellent sermon – Kenneth had told him, ‘don’t talk about me, just preach the gospel’, but since there was so much gospel in Kenneth’s life, the two things weren’t incompatible. The choir and orchestra were on good form. For me, the most moving point was the Kontakion of the Dead which is one of my most favourite pieces of liturgy, ever, sung by the choir to the Kiev melody:

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servants with thy saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
Neither sighing but life everlasting.
Thou only art immortal the creator and maker of man:
And we are mortal, formed from the dust of the earth
when thou created me, saying,
‘Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.’
All we go down to the dust;
and weeping o’er the grave we make our song:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Now that’s what I call a woman!

Conchita CintrónWhilst away on a residential course last weekend, I read this amazing obituary of Concita Cintrón. She was a champion bullfighter from Mexico who moved to Spain after World War II. Her life would make an amazing film, especially if they could persuade Penélope Cruz to play the lead. I think I nearly fell in love with her just reading the obituary – which is a rather scary thought. (And if you’re reading this, my love of 25 years, it’s the similarities between the two of you that have me by the heartstrings!)

The Royal Society and Creationism – did Reiss jump or was he pushed?

An interesting story currently featuring on the BBC website concerns the ‘decision’ by Professor Michael Reiss to stand down as the director of education of the Royal Society. This follows a minor controversy following his comments that creationism should be discussed in science lessons if a pupil raises the matter. The difficult is that I cannot understand why Prof. Reiss has done anything wrong. He did not, as some newspapers reported, advocate that creationism should be ‘taught’, merely that it should be ‘discussed’ if pupils raised the matter. This seems an identical proposal to that which is mentioned in the press statement from the Society, which states that creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum …

However, if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific.

So what is the difference between these two positions? Perhaps the worst that Professor Reiss actually did was to posit the idea that such a situation might arise and that pupils’ questions of this nature should be taken seriously by science teachers. (Surely that’s what any good teacher would do?) Maybe members of the Royal Society do not wish to be reminded that so many people actually believe creationism, so by raising its profile in this way, Professor Reiss’s comment was failing to chime in with a secularist agenda which likes to claim that only the odd crank or two believes, literally, in the biblical story of creation.

For the Royal Society to get involved in the religious vs secularist debate would be a retrograde position for it to adopt. It is, after all, the ‘Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge’ – not a Philosophy debating society. It includes within its numbers advocates of atheism, secularism, Jews and Christians along with members of other faiths. Up to this point, it has advocated a broad-church approach to the religious and philosophical stances of its members. (Take, for example, the philosophical and religious positions of Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday.) It is a matter of concern that Professor Reiss should be asked to step down, merely for suggesting that a religiously-influenced stance on the origins of the cosmos should be taken sufficiently seriously to be challenged on its scientific veracity. It is a matter of even greater concern, perhaps, to note that Professor Reiss is also an ordained priest within the Church of England. Could this have added a greater hysteria to the calls for him to step down from his seconded position?

It is interesting that Lord Robert Winston is quoted as saying: ‘I fear that in this action the Royal Society may have only diminished itself… This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science – something that the Royal Society should applaud.’ If the Royal Society is starting to exhibit something resembling a Dawkinsian secularist knee-jerk reaction, then it is guilty, itself, of entertaining a ‘misconception about science’.

(18th September …) I’ve had one further thought about this subject since writing the post: there are some who suggest that the best place for creationism to be addressed is within the confines of RE lessons, largely on the grounds that ‘creationism’ is a religious viewpoint, as opposed to evolution, which is a ‘scientific’ viewpoint. This is to entirely miss the point, however. The two theories are occupying the same intellectual space and are competing theories, rather than completely different subject matter. Unless creationism is tackled within the context of science lessons, it is implying that both evolution and creationism are, in fact, both religious viewpoints. I cannot believe the Royal Society would be too happy with that kind of conclusion that pupils could draw, even though it is entirely implied by relegating the subject matter to RE lessons. In the end, creationism must stand or fall by the canons of scientific verification, in exactly the same way as must evolution. A further point is that much creationism is backed up by ‘scientific’ theories, which must themselves be subject to a scientific analysis. In the end, it’s a case of the old adage that if you walk off the pitch refusing to play, you are deemed to have lost the game.

Mary Sill: 24th November 1911 – 13th May 2008

Mary was one of the bright lights of the congregation at Cotham. Before the war, she had worked in haematology, seeing active service in the blood transfusion service working all over Europe with the Red Cross. In the mid-1960s she was admitted to the Order of Deaconesses. At that time, women in the Church of England could not be “ordained”, which meant that they could serve neither as priests nor even as deacons. Mary was committed to serving God and the Church, so she, like many women of that time, chose the Order of Deaconesses as the best path available to follow their vocation.

She served as a parish worker in Laurence Weston, an area on the northern outskirts of Bristol, and then eventually served within the chaplaincy team at Southmead Hospital. She left full-time stipendiary ministry to care for her aging mother, who, like Mary, lived well into her 90s.

Mary was a great pray-er, but also very interested in theology. When I arrived at Cotham, she was already approaching her 90th birthday. I remember my first visit, when she was anticipating another hip replacement operation. She was absolutely matter-of-fact about the risks and wanted to speak about her funeral should she not recover from the surgery. Fortunately for us all, she did, so it was the first a many visits. All the staff of the parish used to say that visiting Mary was self-indulgence! She always gave us such a welcome, shining a wonderful high-wattage smile of welcome that seemed to warm up whoever was the recipient. Visits would include a conversation about some theological subject or other, but most of all, I always left feeling far more ‘ministered-to’ than ‘ministering’. (This, I guess, should always be the case, but I’m still not quite that adept as a Christian minister for it to always feel like that!)

As she was preparing to come to the Midnight Mass on Christmas 2006 she had a bad fall, breaking her leg. There followed five hard months in hospital, battling an infection as well as healing the bone and learning to get about again. It all gets much harder as we get older. Her patience was astonishing. She was still in plaster, even when she returned home. Her last time at Cotham was on Sunday 20th April. The following day, she had a stroke and was taken into hospital. The stroke was not severe, but it did affect her speech. Then after being transferred back to the rehabilitation hospital where she had spent most of those five months, she fell ill and died peacefully in the night.

Mary’s spirituality was centred on the Eucharist, so it seemed most appropriate to have communion at the funeral. As it was her, we pulled out the stops and had incense too. There’s something very wonderful about incensing the coffin of someone who has followed Christ all their lives. It’s an honouring of the body which has been a hallowed temple of the Holy Spirit during their life. So we duly censed Mary’s coffin and sang the Nunc Dimittis at the end of the service.

There’s a tradition that a priest’s coffin is always brought into church in reverse to the usual way. Most coffins are brought in feet-first, ‘facing’ the front of the church. A priest’s coffin is brought in head-first, so that they ‘face’ the people whom they have served during their life. When Jennifer, my colleague, got to know Mary, she told her that in many ways, had she been younger, she would have loved to have been ordained a priest. (Most deaconesses were eventually ordained deacon and then, some years later, priest – but Mary was retired before this was permitted and she didn’t feel it was appropriate to be ordained deacon or priest in her retirement). Just as the funeral directors were about to bring the coffin into the church, it just came as an insight, that – for Mary – this orientation of coffin was appropriate. For she had served and ministered to all of us, and generations before us, by who she was and by her love for the God whom she served. I wonder if anyone noticed the direction of the coffin. I will miss her welcoming smile …

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