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Sermon for the funeral of the Rt Revd John Neale, Bishop of Ramsbury 1974-88

by Michael Ford last modified 31 Jul, 2020 01:33 PM

31st July 2020 at 2.45pm at Holy Cross, Ramsbury

The order of service is here.

John was well organised, an excellent administrator, good chairman, a strong and steady presence.  This is not the funeral he had in mind and set out in some detail, several times.  He would have been delighted by the welcome and hospitality  of Holy Cross church in beloved Ramsbury where his body has lain overnight; delighted by all of us making the effort to be here – quietly pleased that he still has the convening power; and especially grateful for the work Mike Lange-Smith has put into gathering us and organising and leading this service. 

John would also have been very touched by the many thanksgivings and expressions of affection there have been. Whether it will be possible in a timely way to gather for a Thanksgiving service, I do not know. My best guess is that All Souls-tide this year will be particularly significant as a way of marking all those who have died in these strange socially isolated times.  

There will be an obituary in next week’s Church Times.  If anyone wants to write one for one of the broadsheets that would please John and meet his expectations but what he wanted from this service and the sermon was not a eulogy but, “a confident presentation of Christ and the good news of salvation”.  

Thank goodness the funeral service, his own choice of readings and hymns, the prayers and this holy place do a lot of that for us. The care Christians take in burying the dead says so much about who we are and what we believe about the gift of life and what it is to be God’s people. 

In his choice of readings and hymns John has provided the scaffolding for the preacher: 

The Lord is my light and my salvation. Psalm 27.1

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 2 Cor 4.16

So we are always confident... for we walk by faith not by sight... We make it our aim to please the Lord. 2 Cor. 5.7, 9

And from John’s Gospel:

I came that they (John wrote you) may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10.10b

T S Eliot’s Little Gidding fits with the man of prayer and deep spirituality. Extraordinarily John’s notes as revised in November 2019 say, “Collects for a requiem plus Trinity 7”, the BCP Collect for last Sunday.

The hymns are also very personal choices. In “All Creatures of our God and King”, based on the canticle by St Francis, John is celebrating his delight in the gift of creation, giving thanks to God for all of it. 

John could have been mistaken for a gardener. He was never happier than in his garden. For the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, he came to Salisbury with a small group of Wiltshire Tree People to plant a tree in The Close in thanksgiving for her long reign.  I was in my first year as the diocesan bishop. He gave me strict instructions to give it a bucket of water every day for at least the first few weeks.  I did so, partly out of fear, but I am pleased to say that the tree has grown in stature and I think of John every time I pass it.  We have grown used to the care of God’s creation as the Anglican Communion’s Fifth Mark of Mission but John was already on the case before the mid 1980’s when it was adopted. St Francis, of course, was an even earlier adopter.

John specified we use the two verses which in the New English Hymnal are starred and usually omitted because of length.

And all ye men of tender heart,
Forgiving others, take your part…

The heart of the Christian Gospel is something to do with forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, in the parables in the teaching of Jesus it is the person who has been forgiven much who loves much. 

John adored his mother but had a much more complicated relationship with his father.  A lot of my conversations with John in the last few years were about this.  There was something deeply unresolved.  His integrity meant that he worked away at it, even in old age trying to understand his father and their relationship.  This was a key issue for him. 

John was single and of an age that made it difficult for him to admit to himself and others that he was homosexual. His father didn’t understand why he didn’t marry. I don’t think John thought of this as a gift, it’s just how he was, but it was the nature out of which he developed his very remarkable gift for friendship. 

John was disciplined in his prayers and knew his need of God.  Knowing his own needs made him a deeply pastoral Father in God to others, including his 15 Godchildren. 

For someone who was a bishop to the tips of his fingers and who struck me as quite an establishment kind of man, he had an amazing ability to support the vulnerable and marginal.  In this diocese he was passionate in his commitment to the Pilsdon Community. He is remembered for his support of refugees.  With the now Dean of Canterbury he helped to establish our diocesan link with Sudan and now South Sudan.  

When he moved to Partnership for World Mission he lived on the Isle of Dogs in East London.  Not fashionable, certainly interesting, probably partly because of the cost of housing but undoubtedly because it was one of the hot spots in London with the London Docklands Development Corporation, the strains on community life and the rise of the BNP.  John was interested by all of that.

Like St Francis, John came from a comfortable and relatively wealthy family.  He was educated at Felstead School, served in the Royal Artillery towards the end of WWII, started in the family business of export shipping but realised the call to ordination was irresistible and had to be followed.  His father asked him what would happen to the business if he was ordained to which John replied, “The Lord will provide”.  Someone bought the business at just the right time.

Like many good clergy, John trained at King’s College London under the influence of Eric Abbott, Sydney Evans and, at St Boniface Warminster, of John Townroe.  In John’s room at Shockerwick House the two photographs most prominent were of Eric Abbot and Archbishop Michael Ramsey with John at his consecration; John Kirkham, Ramsey’s chaplain and later Bishop of Sherborne, colleague and friend, looking over the Archbishop’s shoulder.  

Whatever doubts John had, the call to ordination was real, deep and wonderfully sustained by the discipline of daily prayer.  A number of clergy have spoken about his influence on their vocation. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10.10b

And thou most kind and gentle death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath…

John was kept in God’s waiting room for longer than he and his bank manager expected. It didn’t seem kind though he was very well cared for and, in the end,  death was gentle.  Wearing mask, apron and gloves, I celebrated communion with him the Sunday before he died.  John made his confession, I absolved him after a conversation that lasted nearly 2 hours.  Mike spent much of the week with him towards the end of which John took to his bed for the first time in months.  When Mike left on Friday morning, the manager at the home said it was if John was waiting for his last visitor to go before he himself left the room at 2.45pm.

John was confident that in all of this, in life and death, nothing separated him from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  In that faith he lived and died.

John was a bishop for very nearly half his life: a pastor, teacher, shepherd, a man of God.  John’s life and this service are a blessing to us and to those who wanted to be here but are prevented from doing so. He was a blessing to the Church.  In him was life, forgiven and full. 

With thanksgiving we hold our brother John lovingly before God, asking God’s mercy of his sins and we commend to him God’s eternal care to whom be glory now and for ever. Amen

31st July 2020 at 2.45pm at Holy Cross, Ramsbury

The funeral of The Rt Revd John Neale, Bishop of Ramsbury 1974-88

 

Sermon - The Bishop of Salisbury

 

John was well organised, an excellent administrator, good chairman, a strong and steady presence.  This is not the funeral he had in mind and set out in some detail, several times.  He would have been delighted by the welcome and hospitality  of Holy Cross church in beloved Ramsbury where his body has lain overnight; delighted by all of us making the effort to be here – quietly pleased that he still has the convening power; and especially grateful for the work Mike Lange-Smith has put into gathering us and organising and leading this service.

 

John would also have been very touched by the many thanksgivings and expressions of affection there have been. Whether it will be possible in a timely way to gather for a Thanksgiving service, I do not know. My best guess is that All Souls-tide this year will be particularly significant as a way of marking all those who have died in these strange socially isolated times.  

 

There will be an obituary in next week’s Church Times.  If anyone wants to write one for one of the broadsheets that would please John and meet his expectations but what he wanted from this service and the sermon was not a eulogy but, “a confident presentation of Christ and the good news of salvation”. 

 

Thank goodness the funeral service, his own choice of readings and hymns, the prayers and this holy place do a lot of that for us. The care Christians take in burying the dead says so much about who we are and what we believe about the gift of life and what it is to be God’s people.

 

In his choice of readings and hymns John has provided the scaffolding for the preacher:

The Lord is my light and my salvation. Psalm 27.1

 

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 2 Cor 4.16

 

So we are always confident… for we walk by faith not by sight… We make it our aim to please the Lord. 2 Cor. 5.7, 9

 

And from John’s Gospel:

I came that they (John wrote you) may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10.10b

 

T S Eliot’s Little Gidding fits with the man of prayer and deep spirituality. Extraordinarily John’s notes as revised in November 2019 say, “Collects for a requiem plus Trinity 7”, the BCP Collect for last Sunday.

 

The hymns are also very personal choices. In “All Creatures of our God and King”, based on the canticle by St Francis, John is celebrating his delight in the gift of creation, giving thanks to God for all of it.

 

John could have been mistaken for a gardener. He was never happier than in his garden. For the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, he came to Salisbury with a small group of Wiltshire Tree People to plant a tree in The Close in thanksgiving for her long reign.  I was in my first year as the diocesan bishop. He gave me strict instructions to give it a bucket of water every day for at least the first few weeks.  I did so, partly out of fear, but I am pleased to say that the tree has grown in stature and I think of John every time I pass it.  We have grown used to the care of God’s creation as the Anglican Communion’s Fifth Mark of Mission but John was already on the case before the mid 1980’s when it was adopted. St Francis, of course, was an even earlier adopter.

 

John specified we use the two verses which in the New English Hymnal are starred and usually omitted because of length.

 

            And all ye men of tender heart,

            Forgiving others, take your part…

 

The heart of the Christian Gospel is something to do with forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, in the parables in the teaching of Jesus it is the person who has been forgiven much who loves much.

 

John adored his mother but had a much more complicated relationship with his father.  A lot of my conversations with John in the last few years were about this.  There was something deeply unresolved.  His integrity meant that he worked away at it, even in old age trying to understand his father and their relationship.  This was a key issue for him.

 

John was single and of an age that made it difficult for him to admit to himself and others that he was homosexual. His father didn’t understand why he didn’t marry. I don’t think John thought of this as a gift, it’s just how he was, but it was the nature out of which he developed his very remarkable gift for friendship.

 

John was disciplined in his prayers and knew his need of God.  Knowing his own needs made him a deeply pastoral Father in God to others, including his 15 Godchildren.

 

For someone who was a bishop to the tips of his fingers and who struck me as quite an establishment kind of man, he had an amazing ability to support the vulnerable and marginal.  In this diocese he was passionate in his commitment to the Pilsdon Community. He is remembered for his support of refugees.  With the now Dean of Canterbury he helped to establish our diocesan link with Sudan and now South Sudan. 

 

When he moved to Partnership for World Mission he lived on the Isle of Dogs in East London.  Not fashionable, certainly interesting, probably partly because of the cost of housing but undoubtedly because it was one of the hot spots in London with the London Docklands Development Corporation, the strains on community life and the rise of the BNP.  John was interested by all of that.

 

Like St Francis, John came from a comfortable and relatively wealthy family.  He was educated at Felstead School, served in the Royal Artillery towards the end of WWII, started in the family business of export shipping but realised the call to ordination was irresistible and had to be followed.  His father asked him what would happen to the business if he was ordained to which John replied, “The Lord will provide”.  Someone bought the business at just the right time.

 

Like many good clergy, John trained at King’s College London under the influence of Eric Abbott, Sydney Evans and, at St Boniface Warminster, of John Townroe.  In John’s room at Shockerwick House the two photographs most prominent were of Eric Abbot and Archbishop Michael Ramsey with John at his consecration; John Kirkham, Ramsey’s chaplain and later Bishop of Sherborne, colleague and friend, looking over the Archbishop’s shoulder. 

 


 

Whatever doubts John had, the call to ordination was real, deep and wonderfully sustained by the discipline of daily prayer.  A number of clergy have spoken about his influence on their vocation. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10.10b

 

And thou most kind and gentle death,

Waiting to hush our latest breath…

 

John was kept in God’s waiting room for longer than he and his bank manager expected. It didn’t seem kind though he was very well cared for and, in the end,  death was gentle.  Wearing mask, apron and gloves, I celebrated communion with him the Sunday before he died.  John made his confession, I absolved him after a conversation that lasted nearly 2 hours.  Mike spent much of the week with him towards the end of which John took to his bed for the first time in months.  When Mike left on Friday morning, the manager at the home said it was if John was waiting for his last visitor to go before he himself left the room at 2.45pm.

 

John was confident that in all of this, in life and death, nothing separated him from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  In that faith he lived and died.

 

John was a bishop for very nearly half his life: a pastor, teacher, shepherd, a man of God.  John’s life and this service are a blessing to us and to those who wanted to be here but are prevented from doing so. He was a blessing to the Church.  In him was life, forgiven and full.

 

With thanksgiving we hold our brother John lovingly before God, asking God’s mercy of his sins and we commend to him God’s eternal care to whom be glory now and for ever. Amen

 

 

 

 

 

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