Charles' Billington's Golden Jubilee
text of the sermon preached by Fr Dennis Smith on Friday 22 September,
I need to begin with a small confession. At the start of this year I
set myself a target to achieve by tonight. Those of you who are
familiar with my penchant for food and drink may not be too surprised
to know that my goal of losing almost three stones by tonight hasn’t
been reached but, thankfully, I am actually well over half way to
achieving what I set out to do – and wasn’t it the writer of
Ecclesiastes who reminded us that “Where there is no vision the people
Anyway, what’s a few pounds amongst friends? And tonight we come as
friends to join Fr. Charles on this most wonderful and special of
occasions in thanksgiving and celebration of his Golden Jubilee of
Priesthood. It’s especially good to see so many faces from the St.
Faith’s of the past, and marvellous that Charles’ family and friends
have been able to travel from the four points of the compass to give
him their support and be here tonight.
I feel particularly flattered and privileged that two or three years
ago now, Charles had sufficient confidence in me to ask me to preach. I
say that because he must know that, as with all of us, there are one or
two events and incidents belonging to the past which could prove a
little embarrassing if brought to light. I can assure him that his
confidence is wholly justified and that any proverbial skeletons will
stay securely locked in their ecclesiastical cupboards.
To appreciate fully the extraordinarily vital part Charles played in
the life, formation and development of this parish, we have to go back
in time to the winter of 1965 – over 40 years ago.
Fr. Hassall left us a sick and somewhat sad figure after the third mass
of the day on November 1st, the Feast of All Saints. St Faith’s was now
in interregnum for the first time in 18 years. Being a ‘Chad’s living’,
the machinations for the appointment of a new incumbent went on
discreetly behind the scenes. Over a three or four month period we were
told that a couple of priests had been approached but had not shown
much interest and then, on a particularly wet and depressing day in
late February 1966, having been entrusted as keeper of the Vicarage
keys, it fell upon me to show a potential incumbent around the vicarage
and garden. What was memorable about that visit of Fr. Bob Honner who,
alive today at 92, is still in touch with us and who had been a former
curate of the parish, was that apart from the appalling day, the
vicarage garden had been thoroughly neglected and the triffid-like
length of the grass alone would have dispirited the enthusiasm of all
but the most intrepid of house-movers! Not surprisingly, Fr. Homer
decided that God wasn’t calling him to return to Crosby and so the
search for an incumbent went back to square one.
More weeks went by. Concern gave way to anxiety and some in the parish
began to wonder if anyone would want to take up the living. And then it
happened. There came a throwaway sound-bite from thesuffragan Bishop,
Laurie Brown, who came here regularly to say mass whenever his Diocesan
duties allowed. Leaving the choir vestry after an early midweek
celebration he turned to a couple of us and, with a twinkle in his eye,
said that there was another fish in the sea. Deo Gratias – a couple of
weeks later that “fish” appeared – a prize salmon, dressed in a light
grey suit with grey clerical shirt – Fr. Charles Billington appeared on
the scene with Heather, in their small Triumph Herald.
Without doubt, the Lord had provided. In July of 1966 on a Saturday
evening there was the Induction followed the next day by Charles’ first
sung mass as parish priest. Almost as if it was yesterday, rather than
40 years ago, I can recall something Charles included in his first
sermon from that pulpit. He spoke about the launch of a new “Club” – it
was to be called “The Hand Club”. Whenever we saw Fr. C. walking about
the parish, as he told us he often would be doing, we were to wave and
shout “Hello,” or “Hiya Fr. Charles”! None of us had been members of a
Hand Club before, and, as a way of establishing contact and recognising
individuals, it was, as far as I recall, an unqualified success.
To be at St. Faith’s, especially in those early years of Charles’
incumbency, was, for many of us, an incredibly exciting and enriching.
If ever it could be said that the right man came to be in the right
place at the right time, this was it. From the fairly moribund state in
which, as a parish community, we were, Charles breathed new life into
this hallowed place. Liturgically we found ourselves catapulted into a
wondrous world of catholic life, practice and devotion. The church’s
seasons had always been observed with appropriate and due solemnity,
but now there seemed to be a new depth and dimension – incense was no
longer to be confined to a once-a-year Holy Saturday hole-in-the-corner
status, but was to be used on all High Days and Holy Days. A
fully-adorned Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday, with the accompanying
Watch until Midnight was observed, and, for the first time, there was
to be a Solemn High Mass sung at Easter Midnight. At that first Easter
Midnight in 1967 I can picture now the High Altar sanctuary,
resplendent in Madonna lilies, blazing candles and beautiful new
vestments with Charles intoning for the first time in St. Faith’s the
glorious Litany of the Saints, with the refrain of the people “Pray for
us”. Some here tonight, will remember the splendid party at 12
Worcester Avenue, and the immense sense of euphoria that prevailed into
the early hours and which saw some of us stagger home intoxicated by a
little more than just the liturgical spirit of the season.
The changing order which Charles was instrumental in bringing to St.
Faith’s witnessed the emergence of a whole new sense in which the
parish began to move forward, not only in its spiritual development and
growth, but also in the social and fraternal direction. A plethora of
new groups sprang into existence; much needed youth clubs and a Junior
church catering for different age groups were formed. A Monday night
Horsfall Ladies, a Friday night men’s’ Glee Club, a monthly Hikers’
Club; parish outings to North Wales and to sunny Southport and the
Railway Club, became a feature of Bank Holidays – parish dinners,
dances and parties – choir holidays, servers’ dinners, and outings to
places like Thurstaston Common and Rivington Pike – football matches
and tennis matches in Victoria Park, Crown Bowling in Coronation Park,
Pitch and Putt in Arrowe Park, cricket games in Moorside Park – all
these and many other social events became part of the vital ingredients
of a social calendar and a vision which Charles saw as the direction in
which the Holy Spirit was leading.
Those of us who took part in it or came to see it could never forget
that quite wonderful event which Charles conceived, and christened “The
Festival of Christmas”, requiring mountains of scaffolding, special
lighting effects, sound and stereo equipment, actors, choristers,
musicians and backstage helpers in what, without doubt, must rate as
one of the most spectacular events ever staged in this great building.
So too, some of us tonight will remember the unprecedented Whitsun
Midnight Mass of 1971 and the narrative of the first Pentecost
dramatically acted out here on the Nave Altar platform by thespians,
young and old, dressed in white.
All these events, including parish weekends away and retreats to places
like Scargill, helped to cement relationships and build and strengthen
the bonds of friendship in this community of faith – some people
perhaps for the first time, beginning to feel that they belonged and
were valued and others who, having been on the periphery of parish
life, began to enjoy the fun and fellowship of life at the centre.
No attempt to paint an accurate picture of life under the Billington
regime would be complete without mention of two other things. The first
of these was to prove considerably controversial – the Nave Altar.
From the outset of his incumbency Charles believed that the
establishment of a central westward-facing Altar was essential if St.
Faith’s was to move forward and embrace the benefits of liturgical and
spiritual renewal. The very prospect of a so-called “Nave Altar” was
anathema to some, and for months a heated and, at time fractious,
debate ensued, with the warring parties exchanging arguments and
opinions both on the ground, at P.C.C. and through the letter columns
of the parish magazine. Eventually the decision was taken and the High
Altar frontal chest was brought out from what was then called “The
Children’s Corner” to be used in an experimental manner.
Some opponents of the decision remained hostile and unsympathetic
towards the experiment, while others began to value the benefits of
abandoning the High Altar on Sunday mornings and being more involved in
the enactment of the Eucharistic drama. For those of us who had
supported the initiative, the crowning glory came at the Patronal High
Mass in October, 1970, when at a most moving and inspiring service the
towering, magisterial figure of Bishop Mark Way, a former curate and
recently retired Bishop of Masasi, returned in full pontificals to
consecrate the specially built altar we now see before us and have
since grown to love.
The second aspect of the Billington regime was the part played by our
local hostelry, the “Brooke Hotel”. Just as the “Rovers Return” and the
“Queen Vic” in their respective soap operas are at the heart of
community life, between 1966 and 1972 the place and significance
enjoyed by “The Brooke” in the life of St. Faith’s was special and
distinctive It was there, the “engine room” of St. Faith’s parish
that Sunday by Sunday, a group of anything from 6 to 20 or more people
aired their ideas or grievances and rode their hobby horses: parish
outings and events were conceived and planned, discussion thrived,
arguments and differences of opinion were thrashed out, new friendships
formed and nurtured, individuals and loners were taken into the fold
and made to feel welcome and accepted, and many in the parish knew that
on a Sunday lunchtime between 12 and 2, and often mid-week evenings as
well, in “The Brooke” was a group to which all were invited and none
Charles’ priesthood has, of course, been exercised in places and among
faith communities other than here. In his order of service welcome he
refers to people and congregations to whom he has ministered and who
have been instrumental in his formation and nurture as a priest.
Charles is and always will be “a Mirfield man” through and though. His
strong sense of catholic tradition, discipline, order and practice is
part of that rich heritage.
I can recall from the early 1980s a lovely memory of him celebrating
the Sunday Mass at Leybourne Grange Mental Hospital in Kent where, for
about four years, he served as full time Chaplain. I can picture him
entering the chapel in procession and waving caringly and lovingly to
the large number of assembled patients standing in the pews,
acknowledging his arrival with great glee and gusto and an amazing
cacophony of welcoming sounds and manual gestures.
At Ditchingham in Norfolk, and before it at High Lee, Charles has
always enjoyed the affection and support of many who attend the annual
charismatic celebration. For those who know little or nothing of this
event, Charles’ traditional special spo” at the conference has been to
organise and stage-manage the so-called “Christian disco”.
I can only tell you that such a spectacle is very much akin to the best
situation comedy that TV is likely to offer. The sight of Charles, in
the midst of his hectic organisation and demonstration of the various
dances, mopping his sweat-laden head with a towel is quite
unforgettable. “Forward, forward, forward, backy, backy back” will ring
in the ears of some of us for many a year to come.
At this year’s Ditchingham celebration in early August, I recall a wise
and perceptive older priest telling Charles that God had given Charles
a very special gift: that of being able to make people laugh. An astute
observation which brings me to the remembrance of a cricket match in
which I was involved 20 or so years ago.
I was playing for the Liverpool Diocesan Eleven in the final of the
Church Times Cup in early September at Southgate cricket club in
London. Our opponents were Bath and Wells. Liverpool were batting and I
was sat, padded up, waiting to go in. On this occasion Bishop John
Bickersteth, the Bishop of Bath and Wells and a former Bishop of
Warrington had come to support his Diocesan team. Engaging me in
conversation, the Bishop asked me which parish I was from and, naming
St. Faith’s, in that inimitable, far back, plum-in-the-mouth manner of
his, he came out with the words “Charles Billington – that man has
something of the gaiety of the gospel about him”.
“The gaiety of the Gospel” – what a truly glorious and splendid
expression and how true it was to describe such an epithet to Charles.
The heart of the Christian Gospel may indeed be about God’s
unconditional love and acceptance of us all as sinners, and many other
things besides. But it’s also about joy – the joy of the Kingdom; the
joy of breathing, living and experiencing the richness of God’s Grace,
of his Saving Acts in our lives. Joy is a keynote of Luke’s Gospel – we
find it mentioned on a number of occasions, including the passage read
as today’s Gospel. To be described as one who mediates and radiates the
gaiety or joy of the Gospel through one’s witness and ministry is no
small compliment or achievement.
There is much more which could be said tonight in thanksgiving and
recognition of Charles’ ministry – a ministry which in this particular
parish laid the essential foundations upon which his three successors
have been able to build, and without which the St. Faith’s many of us
know and love today would probably have been very different – but in
his celebration of this Mass Charles’ actions as a priest will speak
far more eloquently than will any words of mine.
I would, however, like to finish with three definitions of priesthood,
each of which says something about the nature of the role which, for 50
years, Charles has exercised with courage, vision and imagination.
Alexander Nairne, a scholar and theologian who died in 1936, wrote a
book called “The Epistle of Priesthood”. It’s a commentary on the
Epistle to the Hebrews. At the heart of that book there’s a memorable
definition of a priest, as “One who stands on the manward side of God
and the Godward side of man”. Such a phrase these days has perhaps to
be purged of its non-inclusive language: “One who stands on the
human side of God and the Godward side of humanity”. The task of the
priest is to help others to discover their priesthood and to exercise
the priestly ministry which, in their everyday lives, is theirs.
A second definition of priesthood appropriately comes from Robert
Runcie, the one hundred and second Archbishop of Canterbury and old boy
of this holy place.“A priest,” said Robert Runcie “has to be with God
for other people and with other people for the sake of God”.
And the third and final definition of priesthood comes from Fr.
Jonathan Graham who was Charles’ Superior at the Community of the
Resurrection in the early 1960’s, and for whom Charles had the greatest
respect: “The essence of the priesthood is loving people into holiness.”
Charles, tonight we celebrate and rejoice with you for the ministry and
priesthood that has been yours these last fifty years, and which has
touched and enriched the lives of so many others. With great affection
and much love we commend you to God’s grace and blessing, praying that
He may yet continue to use you for the furtherance and to the glory of
his Eternal Kingdom.
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