Sermon by the Rt Hon and Rt Reverend Richard Chatres Lord Bishop of London
The Funeral of John Slater
St George’s Hanover Square 5th July 2004
This was a day I never thought to see. Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus and he blesses our tears. There is tragedy here. After years of great achievement at St John’s Wood, John moved here with proper spiritual ambitions for St George’s. The community quickly came to love him and like all those touched by John’s spirit, this is a day of mourning here and in all the places and among all the persons whom John has served.
As I look around the church this morning I see friends from every stage of John’s life. Members of his family and those who remember him at All Saints and St Saviour’s when he was known as “the dishiest clergyman in London”.
There are so many priests here and it is one of the hardest tasks to be credible for one’s professional colleagues. At the conclusion of this service in a graceful tribute John’s coffin will be carried out of the church by some of his recent curates.
Then there are representatives of life outside the parish. John’s chaplaincy to the Kings Troop meant a lot to him and he treasured their parting gift of a shell case fired on the anniversary of the Queen’s coronation for he was also a great monarchist.
He was devoted to Sion College and we served together on the court. The President and many fellows are here.
He was committed to Jewish Christian dialogue and a friend to the synagogue in St John’s Wood. Part of the Kaddish will be sung in the intercessions.
We all share a proper sadness at the passing of our friend but the deeper story is one of tragedy redeemed, a foretaste of that day glimpsed in Revelation when “mourning and crying and pain will be no more”. In John’s way of dying we can see the deeper truths about his way of living.
It was courage and determination which brought him into this church the Sunday before he died to preach from his chair about the place of renunciation in the Christian life. After the initial stage of growth into maturity is passed, we come to God more by subtraction than by addition or aggrandisement. John often said that the Sunday liturgy was the highlight of his week and he was determined to be present in St George’s. [How he would have loved today’s superbly worshipful service.] He sat at the door and greeted the congregation. He went home and on Monday wrote two more sermons for delivery on ensuing Sundays. He died on the following Sunday, the festival of the Resurrection having received the final anointing and while a friend was praying the Lord’s Prayer.
Here was the passing of a believer. In life John was fond of quoting Cardinal Newman, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” He was rooted in the catholic tradition of the Church of England but refreshed those roots by being hospitable to fresh interpretations and expressions of the faith in worship and music. He was always a fine preacher with an eager questing style based on strenuous reflection and research. At the conclusion of his earthy pilgrimage, however, he showed the simplicity and the bedrock conviction which is the preparation for Newman’s “higher world”.
But it was not in the realm of ideas that the essential John shone through. We all remember his conviviality and recall the parties and his relish for the good things of life. As he used to say “there are only two things in life we regret, the things we say and the things we don’t buy.” But we also know how good he was as a pastor and how faithful he was to friends and families down the years. Right up to the end he was determined not to let people down over their family weddings or bereavements.
He had declared his intention of being present at the Ordination of Deacons in St Paul’s on the day before he died, particularly since the vocation of one of the deacons had been fostered at St John’s Wood. Ordination day this year was the day when the Olympic flame was passed from hand to hand in its journey through London. John was too ill to attend but with the ordination of Deiniol Heywood, deacon of this mass, John had once again, as he had so many times before, played his part in passing the torch on to the next generation.
Like many complex people, he did not always believe that he was such good priest and sometimes found it hard to credit that he was as beloved as he was. Here again his way of dying opened the door to a richer truth. It was so good that as a result of the devoted care of Eileen, Keith and Jean and the family, John was able to be at home and not removed to some institution. He was able to speak and show the deepest love to those who surrounded him and he was able to receive that love in a transforming way. Love was offered and love was received. So many wounds were healed and so many doors stood opened as he died on the feast of Resurrection.
And the one who was seated upon the throne said, “See I am making all things new.” Then he said to me, “It is done, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things and I will be their God and they will be my children.”