On Monday my father died. We were there and it was peaceful. It was probably as good as it could be. But as one of my friends commented to another – Jess has lost her polestar. It’s true – I could navigate by my father’s life.
I don’t know who was my father’s polestar but from his earliest life he has travelled in the same direction. As I lay thinking about him in the hours after his death I thought of the decades he has spent working for peace – peace that is dynamic and energetic, peace that includes justice, equality, wholeness for all and care for all creation.
Last month I spent a weekend with my parents and my sister. He told me for the first time about being at Cambridge in the early 1950s. He said he was saddened by the divide between grammar school boys and public school boys like himself. He tried to invite people from grammar school to socialise in his rooms but he found they wouldn’t come so he went to their rooms instead. He noticed that at meals in his college the public school boys and the grammar school boys sat together so he decided to sit with a different group of people every night. He said that by the end of it he often sat alone in the dining room!
He did his national service in the navy but turned down a role as an officer to spend time on the ‘lower deck’ – it was a formative time for him but not an easy one. In the 60s he won my mother over, became interested in communities and worked for Christian Aid – trying to end global inequality and support the development of the global south.
I got to know him in the 70s. In 1972 he founded Little Gidding Community – based on the priniciples of prayer, hospitality and care for creation. There he welcomed anyone who needed a refuge – a practice he continued for the rest of his life. In about 1978 when he was chair of governors at the local primary school he set up a twinning scheme with a school in Bedford. It was through this scheme that I made my first Muslim friend – I remember her climbing trees in our garden and me being give ice cream and fizzy drinks at her home.
In the 80s we moved to the Peak District and he help to found a Housing Association so that people born in this beautiful part of the world could afford to live there. He also championed rural theology, concerned that the issues of the countryside would be forgotten as the church focused on the urban environment.
Later in life he took on a church that was in a tradition that did not favour the ordination of women – by the time he left, with his support and encouragement, two women from the congregation had been ordained. He campaigned at the G8 summit in Genoa, built links with Denmark and the Folk High School movement, helped to run the Lifestyle Movement and campaigned for Caroline Lucas – doorknocking in Brighton before the 2015 elections.
Just a year ago, to celebrate his 80th birthday, he walked 80 miles in about 10 days – raising £17,500 for Freedom for Torture. We didn’t know then that he had already had a small stroke. He biked, he rowed, he listened, he encouraged, he smiled and twinkled, he made time for people and he danced (oh, the embarrassment) whenever he could. He loved my mother absolutely and in every way, despite their differences. The relationship they forged together, through grace and determination, is simply beautiful.
The tributes, cards and messages are pouring in. He touched many people’s lives and people are glad they had known him.
There was a Desmond Tutu meme floating around the internet recently that reminded me of my Dad.(How I wish I had shared it and tagged him in it) It said something like; “To be Christ-like is not to be flawless but it is to be someone who brings out the best in the people around them.”
Dad did that for people, whether they were old friends or people he had only just met For me, its been a joy to have known him all my life. Of course, I hardly told him that. He encouraged me in my career as a journalist, gently steered me out of unhelpful relationships, brought humour to every family gathering, rejoiced with me when I was ordained deacon….the list could go on for ever. But above all he lived his own life to the full and by doing so he was my polestar. Because of him, shaped by him, influenced by him I will continue to do what I do and I pray the wisdom, prayerfulness, patience and practice of unconditional hospitality may follow.