Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Sermon at the Funeral of The Reverend Christopher Armstrong

Thursday 5 August 2021

It is a rather daunting prospect to preach at the funeral of Christopher Armstrong

The tributes from his brother Julian and a school friend called Denis O’ Brien, bear witness to a remarkable life

From school boy to

· Monk

· Scholar

· Academic and writer

· Parish priest

They all speak, not only of a remarkable life, but a very distinguished life in the Church

Ordained just six years after leaving Downside, he entered monastic life soon after leaving school and spent more than sixty years in Holy Orders

At his funeral, the man asked to preach, has barely served one sixth of his time in the Church

And is in no way his equal academically or spiritually

Nevertheless given the daunting task of trying to say something that does justice to such distinction

One of the difficulties of coming to a parish relatively recently is that one knows little of its history

And even less of the people who form part of the parish

I spoke to Christopher occasionally during my first year, though not in any great depth

And just short of twelve months after arriving, we were in lockdown which meant that our relationship went little further

However, even on the few occasions when we met and spoke, I was struck by his presence

He was a gentle man, softly spoken, who seemed to radiate holiness

Although he was a man of few words he had an authority which was hard to describe

His very being spoke of a deep seated spirituality

It was interesting therefore to compare my personal estimate of Christopher against his life

A life which I only came to know more about when I read the various tributes

Reassuringly, in many ways, it supported the estimation I had made myself

First and foremost, he was clearly a man of considerable learning,

Taking a double first in French and Portugese at Cambridge, followed by a Doctorate

Then a first in Theology from Salamanca and a Manga Cum Laude from Freibourg

Magna cum laude means “with great distinction”

Which bears witness to an academic ability of the highest order

However, I noticed, with particular interest, that his doctorate from Cambridge was in Quietism

I must confess my ignorance when I saw the subject he had chosen

However, a little investigation into the subject chimed with the man I knew

Quietism is a form of mysticism developed by the Spanish priest, Migual de Molinos (1640-1697)

Molinos taught that the soul must abandon itself entirely to God

Thinking neither of reward or punishment/simply letting God work out his will without any action on behalf of the soul

Quietism is the opposite of activism – those who, like me, believe that the Christian duty is to be in the political arena

It is sometimes criticised for being inactive in times of political crisis

However, by contrast, activists like me admire, and even crave, the life of prayer, withdrawal and contemplation

This was the essence of Christopher

With this as his doctoral thesis, I was less surprised by the subject of the book written by Christopher later in his life

His choice was Evelyn Underhill who was a mystic in the Anglo Catholic tradition

Once again, this was not a subject I knew much about

Mystics, so far as they can be defined, are those lucky enough to have a profound and compelling sense of union with God

They have been able to transcend this world and experience a sense of joy and exultation as a result

Above all, they have found oneness with the ultimate reality which, of course, is God

Evelyn Underhill had these experiences as a child and sought to make sense of her mystical experiences in adult life

She wrote that, by travelling down the mystical road we can receive, in peace, the incomprehensible light which enfolds and penetrates us

This state of union, in turn, produces a glorious and fruitful creativity

As she said, a new life, “unquenchable and lovely comes to meet them with the dawn”

One beautiful phrase of hers leapt out for me which was

“It seems so much easier in these days to live morally than to live beautifully. Lots of us manage to exist for years without ever sinning against society, but we sin against loveliness every hour of the day”

She sought to live a simple life, beautifully, and it seems that Christopher did too

For Underhill, mystics were giants, heroes of our race and Christopher belonged to that race too

But every life is a journey and they never turn out as you imagine

Christopher’s was no different

His call to monastic life was not to continue for long although I sensed he was first and foremost a monastic by temperament

After ordination as a Catholic priest, he went up to Cambridge, where he discovered another road which lead him to marry his wife [Meriel]

But, of course, marriage inevitably led him out of the Catholic Church and then to an academic post at Edinburgh University

Here he was to take up his role as a priest once again, now in the Episcopal Church of Scotland

A move to Westcott House in Cambridge lead him into the Church of England

And finally to the Church in Wales,

Where he took over the parish of Aberdaron, once the living of the Welsh poet RS Thomas

I was very taken by the choice of poem for this funeral service which, inevitably, came from the RS Thomas himself

Called “Sea Watching” it follows the cadence of breaking waves

It was difficult to put in the order of service because of the shape of the poem itself

But waves seem so appropriate because they continually break over all our lives and can disrupt

But, even in the midst of this continual cycle of breaking waves, the poem discerns the presence God

As Thomas says, “the grey waters of the sea”, vast like an “area of prayer” in which God appears, fleetingly, like a rare bird

Peculiarly, when one is not looking as many of us will know

All the while, Christopher was to me like “the hermit of the rocks” “watching” and “praying”

For himself and for all mankind

And so to the conclusion of his life

Again, unexpected and so hard to predict as he worshipped first at Bolton Priory

And then on-line as the pandemic took hold

In the weeks and months of lockdown, I would send Christopher the liturgy so he could follow at his new home

But it is so appropriate that Bolton Priory should be the final part of his earthly journey

Monastic, mystical, steeped in prayer over the centuries and in the Anglo Catholic tradition like his heroine Evelyn Underhill

Christopher’s body has reposed here overnight

We now proceed to celebrate the great Eucharistic feast together –with Christopher and all the Saints

And commit our brother into the hands of Almighty God.