Homily from Brother Benedict at Brother Giles’ Funeral at Hilfield Friary on 30th August 2018
Dear Giles, firstly, I want to pay my own personal tribute to you and to thank you – well, in my better moments to ‘thank you’ and in my worst moments ‘blame you’ – because if it hadn’t been for you I probably wouldn’t be in SSF now. In 1970, I came as a young green-behind-the-ears Brummie (with a broader accent than I have now); a city boy who came down to the wilds of Dorset for an aspirants weekend; there were 8 of us all told, waiting for interviews. The then Minister Provincial, thought that I was too soft for the rigours of Franciscan life within the SSF; but you, Giles, as Novice Guardian, was willing to give me a chance and somehow you persuaded Michael that this was the right decision. Michael I remember saying a bit reluctantly ‘OK let’s see if he survives 6 months’ – and here I am 48 years later. And privileged to be the celebrant of this Eucharist; and even if I feel very underqualified to be saying these few words, Giles, we are all here to celebrate your long and your very full life, a life which has meant so much to each one of us sitting in this chapel; each with our own memories and with deep appreciation for all that you given and meant to us.
Gosh, where to start? Well, it was very typical of Giles to have left detailed instructions as to which hymns and readings he would like to have at his own funeral service. They were all written out in that small and very distinct yet very neat handwriting which he had; and it is on these that I am going to hang just a few thoughts.
Giles’ choice for the first reading was from the book of Ecclesiasticus (Chapter 34 verses 9 – 20) from which I quote: ‘An educated person knows many things and one with much experience knows what he is talking about. An inexperienced person knows few things, but he that has travelled acquires much cleverness. I have seen many things in my travels and I understand more than I can express.’
Giles was an educated man, having secured a Degree in Theology at Exeter College, Oxford in 1958 and then a MA in 1962. He trained for ordination and was Deaconed in 1961 and Priested in 1962; but it was as a Friar, not long after he actually joined SSF, that he spent the next several decades living abroad in other Provinces. He moved to Koke in Papua New Guinea in 1965 and was Parish Priest in the capital, Port Moresby. He came back to the UK to be Novice Guardian in 1969 settling for a while here at Hilfield and then moving to Plaistow. He went on to Alnmouth as Guardian and then to Sweden to help establish a Friary there in 1975. He came back to Hilfield to be a local Team Vicar for a year, before moving to Canterbury when we had a house just outside of the city in Harbledown. Then he did a short stint in Paddington before heading back to the Pacific and spending many years in both PNG but also and mainly in the beautiful Solomon Islands. As he gained experience living in other cultures, he acquired the wisdom which other brothers recognised and so they elected him to positions of authority and responsibility within the Community according to the situation, so he held the offices in the Pacific, at different times, of Provincial Secretary, Brother in Charge, Guardian, Deputy Minister, Assistant Minister and Minister Provincial. In about 1998 he came back to the European Province and subsequently lived at houses in Stepney, Canning Town and finally here at Hilfield Friary. Not surprisingly then, Giles chose this 34th Chapter of the book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach for his first reading.
If his life was, in many ways a travel agents dream, I don’t suppose it should be too surprising because travel seems to be in the Sprent genes. His father, Philip, was a Priest and with his mother, Lois, served abroad certainly in Sweden – and from them Giles got his love of that country – and the Caribbean. In recent years, Giles did a lot of research and wrote a book about his grandfather who was a missionary in China – and if you are interested copies are on sale in the Friary shop!
As I was perusing Giles’ file which the Minister Provincial keeps, I came across so many long, long, letters which Giles had penned perhaps sitting after a day’s work in the cool of the evening, when he was in PNG or the Solomon Islands or in Zimbabwe, letters which described the birds of paradise which came down in the mornings, or some trip he had made with brothers into the rainforests, or describing the devastating effects of a hurricane which hit the Solomon Islands, or about the perilous journey by sea in a small church boat from Honiara to reach the friary at Alanguala several days sailing away. Reminiscent of Alistair Cookes ‘Letters from America’ they are meticulously written and in detail, describing life with the brothers, local and national politics, ecclesiastical gossip, events going on of interest within SSF or further afield, the writings of an interested man in many things. It would be such a pity if they got lost; it might be worth collecting them together and placing them in the archives or brochure form some time, as they give a very realistic picture of this brother’s life and experiences.
He was living in the Pacific at a crucial time of their development when PNG and the Solomons became two separate regions and he is remembered fondly by the brothers out there for the contribution he made to their life. This email was sent to me by the brothers in Honiara when they received the news that Giles had died. (The email was ready out) The Friary here at Hilfield has received a bundle of condolence cards and letters – one referred to Giles as a ‘cool brother with his tattoo’ by a youngster – a rather rough home made tattoo, I seem to recall, done in the Islands and mercifully high enough up his arm to be covered by his habit!
Remembered and loved at home and overseas. So that leads me to think about the second reading Giles chose for his own Funeral Service which is the well-known hymn of Love written by St Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Verses 1-13.
Giles loved his family. I refer here to his blood relatives particularly. Giles has always been, to my knowledge a family oriented man. He comes from a very close knit family having two brothers and a twin sister. All through his community life he has appreciated his siblings and the loving support that they have given to him, and especially when he was abroad. He was justifiably proud of his brothers and sister and also their own children and visits to their homes were very important. Right up to the end of his life, this family contact was a priority: those of Giles family who are here today already know this, I am sure, but he did love you very much. When I first knew Giles, his parents were still alive and he had his two aunts in Lyme Regis. Giles would take groups of novices to see his parents often as a work-party, such as picking apples to earn a very nice afternoon tea as a reward afterwards. Many of us went to visit his twin sister, Daphne, at her home in Andover – it is there that I encountered a bidet for the first time: to Giles amusement and to my discomfort. I remember thinking, as a young many from the back streets of Birmingham, it must be a posh house if they had a separate footbath in the toilet and asked Giles about it not knowing what it was, Giles was very happy to wickedly mime how it worked but did say, ‘don’t worry it is not something you are likely to find in a brother’s friary any time soon!’
Secondly, Giles loved nature and the countryside. The created order spoke to Giles of God Himself. The care of and respect for the environment were important to him and he believed in what Hilfield is trying to achieve here at the Friary in support of peace and justice and the integrity of creation. He chose hymns for his own funeral which reflected this: ‘O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the works they hand hath made……………..Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, How great thou art, how great Thou art…..’.
Giles was of course a keen and an imaginative and knowledgeable gardener himself. He did a year’s course in tropical horticulture before he went out to PNG in the 1960’s and wherever he lived he put to use his acknowledge and love and passion for creation. He did this particularly in the more tropical countries of PNG and the Solomons and also later in Zimbabwe where he and I overlapped for a short while and where he planted fruit trees which have now come to maturity – but even here at the Friary he took an interest in the gardens behind this chapel, always being very hands on, until he got too elderly and his health more fragile when he was content to dispense advice to those who are doing the manual work.
Finally, the Gospel which Giles chose for his funeral Service is that taken from St John’s Gospel, Chapter 14 v 1-6. ‘Trust in God, and trust in me…I am going to prepare a place for you and I shall return and take you with me. …..For I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.’ Giles heard that call from Jesus to follow Him and responded to it in when he was in his twenties, taking the route of ordination and beginning his Franciscan journey within SSF. In one of his letters, in the bundle I mentioned earlier, Giles had written to the then Minister Provincial in the 1980’s saying, ‘Why did I become a Friar 20 years ago?’ And then he gave the answer himself, saying, ‘In brief, the things which attracted me about the Franciscan life, the things that challenged me when I read the Gospels and heard the words of Jesus were (a) a sacrificial offering of the self to God; (b) a common life; (c) service – that is ministry to the poor and outcast; and (d) simplicity and poverty. Not necessarily in that order – for they are all part of a mixture of inspiration and expectation. My life in SSF has enabled me and encouraged me, on the whole to do this. There may have been fluctuations, ups and downs, failures and weaknesses. But I still feel the relevance of these challenges and the attraction of them.’
I think that Giles would have very much re- affirmed his statement which he made in the 1980’s if he had written it more recently, at the age of 84 and affected by Parkinson’s Disease. As he said, he had his ups and downs, failures and set-backs – which of us brothers, or any one of you here today, doesn’t. But, Giles knew that he had to follow Jesus – that he had to put his trust in that ongoing call Jesus made to follow Him – who is the way and the truth and the life. And he acknowledges this in the hymn he chose:
‘Great is thy faithfulness; great is thy faithfulness,
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand has provided,
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!
Pardon for sin, and a peace that endureth;
Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow;
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.’
Giles – you led a blessed life – and you were a blessing to so many as a brother, uncle; friend, priest, gardener, archivist, spiritual director and mentor and in whatever other capacity you have been known to us. We shall miss you. You have been a bright star in all our lives; may you now rest in peace, and rise in glory.