FATHER CHARLES BILLINGTON RIP
Some Treasured Memories
Even before he actually landed at St Faith’s in July 1966, Fr Charles sent messages advising that he expected every member of the congregation to join the “HAND CLUB”. And what exactly was the HAND CLUB for heaven’s sake? Well, to find out the faithful were required to attend Charles’ first service in church when all was revealed. The answer?
“When any of you spot me in the street,” explained Fr Charles, “I want you to wave your hand and shout ‘Hello Fr Charles’. You see,” he continued “I probably won’t recognise you: but you will recognise me. And by waving to me, that is how you become a member of the HAND CLUB”. Suffice to say, there was a short trial waving session in church before his sermon continued!
In the months following there developed the “Brooke” group. Membership was open to all SF people aged over eighteen. The group rule of life required members to present themselves at the Brooke pub in Crosby after the main Sunday Eucharist. Thereafter, over a pint, the day’s sermon was analysed, the week’s SF gossip exchanged and the latest national and international news reviewed.
Charles soon learnt about the existence of the group and became an enthusiastic member. Because he was often detained at church after the morning Mass he was invariably last to arrive at the Brooke. But when he did, his entrance was with a flourish as he went quickly to the bar to order his beer. Straight away he stood out in the crowd, for not many C of E clergy were to be seen in a pub on a Sunday lunch time! And this, of course, was an important aspect of his Christian witness – to be out there in the community rather than closeted in a church building.
So, the group was ‘noticed’ by virtue of his presence in it. But importantly, Charles ensured that the discussions focussed on “crunch” matters of faith rather than simply on pub trivia. And over time a lot of evangelistic “work” was accomplished as members aired their doubts and posed their questions. And Charles was attentive particularly to newcomers to the group (and to SF) listening to their points of view and helping them to try and understand the mysterious ways of the Anglican Church.
Among the stalwart members of the Brooke group were Graeme Walker, Archie Pattison, Stan Smith, Geoff Holliday, Peter Cotton, Ron White, Peter Roberts, John Rankin, Ken Lane, George Henderson, Alan Murphy, Les and Jean Crossley, Dennis Smith, Ann Finlay, George Smith, John Taylor, Patrick Fitzgerald, Anthony Walker and, of course, Fr Charles himself.
I vividly recall Charles’ love of sport, particularly rugby (he played a couple of seasons for Hightown). But he was enthusiastic about soccer, tennis and bowls as well. Any who took him on at tennis had to beware of his innate ability to convince opponents that contested line decisions always went in his favour! Equally on the bowling green or at the Sunday afternoon football games his determination to win (at nearly any cost!) was never in doubt. Little wonder his opponents quaked.
But just as his visits to The Brooke were an exercise in witness, so too were his sporting activities. This was a man who had enormous understanding of the sacred, yet he saw the importance of building bridges between what was holy and special and the secular environment in which his flock had to operate.
At some point, early in 1969 I think, word was received from the SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church Social Club in Crosby asking if a group of people from SF would like to attend the Club’s next Sunday night session. Never one to hold back, Charles quickly accepted the invite and gathered a dozen or so SF people to accompany him and Heather to the Peter and Paul parish centre.
We didn’t really know what to expect: Charles had been told there would be live music, some singing, some bingo and some refreshments. Other than that we were more or less in the dark.
This is roughly how that night panned out! The compere, Jimmy Leary, gave us a big welcome and quickly pointed us to the club bar. There was a small (four piece) band which provided some background music whilst we settled ourselves in alongside the P&P regulars – about seventy all told. Then it was time for prayers, led by the irrepressible curate Fr O’Callaghan, followed by a bingo session. The SF group quickly emerged as bingo enthusiasts with cards at the ready listening intently as the numbers were called.
Now to the evening’s highlight! The MC called on several of the P & P regulars to do a “turn”. A young woman went first whose dynamic rendering of “Puppet on a String” mesmerised her audience. Then came some older people who sang various established favourites – “We’ll meet again” and “Sally” stick in my mind. After about half an hour of songs, and even one or two dances, Jimmy asked Fr O’Callaghan to come to the rostrum. To be fair to Fr O’Callaghan (Michael) he was not blessed with the most tuneful of voices. Nevertheless he delivered an old sentimental number, the name of which I forget, but which had the refrain “down Mexico way”. Fr Michael sat down to wild applause.
Of course, we know what’s coming! Charles, unable to restrain himself, caught the MC’s eye and asked if he too could sing. “Certainly Vicar Charles, please come forward” said Jimmy. And Charles strode to the front of house, had a quiet word with the band leader and then sang that lovely song “Smiling Through”. (That’s the one that begins “there’s a little old mill on the top of a hill”). Charles performed beautifully – I would say tears came to plenty of eyes that night. On finishing many of the audience rose to their feet cheering and shouting. The future of an SF presence at the P & P Social Club was now assured!
The following week our group, headed by Charles, returned to P & P’s. The format for the evening was exactly the same as last time. The MC called for volunteers to do their “turns” - inevitably “Puppet on a String” was demanded plus some of the other familiar numbers. Then a fairly elderly gentleman came forward and announced that he had listened to Vicar Charles’ version of “Smiling Through” last week with interest. But now he intended singing “Smiling Through” as it was “actually meant to be sung”.
This really was a hammer blow for Fr Charles, but he (just about) maintained his composure. Following Fr Michael’s standard “Mexico Way”, and the expected loud applause that followed, Charles sought the MC’s permission to get to his feet. Permission granted! Another quick consultation with the band leader and Charles launched into his own special version of “Sipping Cider through a straw”. A big hit with the audience – the song has a refrain which everyone sang with relish, along with banging of tables and stamping of feet. As we departed there were shouts of “see you next week”.
So, come week three and the SF gang are back at P & P’s. The evening followed the now familiar pattern. When we got to the “turns” Charles was quickly called to the front – he clearly had something “up his sleeve”. After his usual consultation with the band leader he then turned to the audience and said, solemnly, that he had been very saddened last week when told that his version of “Smiling Through” had not been up to scratch. So tonight he intended making up for any shortcomings by singing a very special song he would dedicate to the people of St Peter and Paul’s. He paused for a moment, cleared his throat, took a deep breath and proceeded with a truly amazing rendering of “Ave Maria” – in Latin!
It would be an understatement to say that Charles brought the house down. Not only was he afforded a standing ovation, it was also very evident that in a period of just three weeks he had won the affections (and respect) of the members of the P & P Social Club.
Certainly SF people continued to visit the club over the following weeks, with Charles’ inputs supplemented, for example, by Dennis Smith’s full frontal version of “The Laughing Policeman”. And on one particular occasion Charles and the SF organist, Patrick Fitzgerald, did a hilarious “duo” with their own exclusive version of “On a bicycle made for two”.
If ever confirmation of Charles’ gifts as a ‘mission’ priest were needed, his contributions at P & P’s was it. The good will generated, not to mention the many belly laughs we all enjoyed, ensured that this venture was an effective exercise in ecumenical relations par excellence. I would like to think that the friendship engendered between the two congregations at that time was maintained over the subsequent years.
I believe it was in May or June of 1968 that Charles announced at a Brooke meeting that he wanted to have a special discussion with the group.
He said he had been thinking for a long time about how St Faith’s might mark Pentecost more dramatically than hitherto. So, he had decided that next year (1969) he would organise a massive ‘midnight’ liturgical event to usher in the festival that marked the founding of the Christian Church.
Following his initial disclosure Charles subsequently briefed the PCC and regularly shared his latest proposals about the service with the Brooke fraternity. He didn’t exactly seek our views about his idea – in reality I think we understood that whatever our own opinions about his ‘special service’ for Pentecost, it was definitely going to happen.
As was his style, Charles soon had us caught up with his own enthusiasm. Tasks were delegated, the format of the service agreed, rehearsal dates arranged, media publicity organised, the Bishop informed and the congregation put on “ready”.
The “big day” was to be Saturday 24th May 1969 starting at 10 30pm I think. Charles and the writer had been interviewed live on BBC Radio Merseyside on the Friday before, we had written press releases for all the local and regional papers and alerted neighbouring churches. So perhaps it was not surprising that on the night there was a “full house”.
In the build-up we had described the service as being a kaleidoscope of word, teaching, music and drama incorporated within a traditional High Mass celebration. Emphasis would be on the coming (and power) of the Holy Spirit within individual believers and within the corporate Body of the Church.
The service, which was to last for two and a half hours (!), commenced with a hymn and the usual confession and collect. Either before, or immediately after the Gloria came a series of teaching homilies about the Holy Spirit. These were provided variously by a local Baptist Minister, by an Anglican priest from the newly emerging charismatic movement, by a Jewish Rabbi and by Father Walker, a curate from SS Peter and Paul’s.
The New Testament reading (from Acts 2 chapter 1) “..and suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty, rushing wind” was accompanied by a mime performed by a dozen or so SF men dressed in white robes. The Gospel, from the 14th chapter of St John beautifully sung by Fr Charles followed by the main sermon from the Bishop of Liverpool (Stuart Blanch). And then came the central part of the Eucharistic rite – incense, very dignified yet spectacular ceremonial, and importantly, the occasion impregnated with an immense sense of joy. Most of us I suspect left church exhausted, but almost certainly exhilarated. We had, I think, participated in a Eucharistic celebration that would imprint itself in our memory for years to come.
Some of us, not to be daunted, then went on to a fabulous party hosted by Peter Roberts – my diary indicates this ran until 5 30am. Heady days indeed!
A Celebration of the Holy Spirit was how Charles described the service both before and after. It will, I think, stand out as one of the landmark liturgical events in the history of St Faith’s.
For me, it was evidence of the imaginative mind of Charles Billington: evidence of his great energy and enthusiasm for the Lord he served: evidence of the importance he attached to bringing the “good news” in dramatic form to those around him: and evidence of his skill at master-minding and co-ordinating a big occasion. Furthermore, it emphasised the true effectiveness, and the true potential, that good liturgy has in impacting on the minds and souls of those who participate.
So there we have it – five specific aspects of Charles’ life as Vicar of St Faith’s that come to my mind. Inevitably, I recall others as well – as when he celebrated Mass in a remote Welsh Valley one morning with a small group of adults and young people. His altar was an old mangle purloined from a nearby derelict cottage, the chalice a wine goblet, the bread a loaf from the Co-Op. No books, Charles recited the liturgy from memory. We sang a hymn chosen by the children –“All things Bright and Beautiful”. Somehow, first thing of a morning in a beautiful and peaceful bit of Wales, that hymn had a special resonance. Oh, and one other thing. Because Charles had his dog Toby with him, it was necessary to secure Toby in some way during the service: the chosen method was to tie his lead to the legs of the mangle – our altar!
Charles, I recall, was a heavy smoker: a fast talker: the possessor of a first class mind: a very kind (and compassionate) man: he loved a good anecdote, nothing smutty though. But probably most of all, I recall his lovely grin and his dancing eyes: when he smiled it seemed his whole face crinkled with pleasure like when he reached the top of Helvellyn in the Lake District as he accompanied the SF walking group on its first outing.
Through its history the C. of E. has produced some notable priests of outstanding ability. Charles Billington was certainly one of that group. Larger than life, he could both inspire and infuriate: at times he could be obstinate, obdurate even: unpredictable and occasionally controversial: an amazing gift for outreach to his fellow humans: restless and anxious to push his parishioners into new areas of experience (he was quite clear that the Christian faith should not equate with believers relaxing in their various comfort zones): ery definitely committed to the notion that being a disciple of Jesus should bring a lot of fun (and much laughter). But he understood, too, that the path of faith also entailed pain (and he had his fair share of this). Sometimes his good intentions were misunderstood and he had to withstand criticism from some of those close to him. Despite the fact he was built like a lumberjack, Charles was extremely sensitive and the criticism hurt him, occasionally very deeply.
My prayer now is that the man from Tranmere may rest in God’s eternal peace. I count it a privilege to have known him on the earthly part of his pilgrimage, and, like many others I am sure, to have had my heart touched by him.
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