Charles' Billington's Golden Jubilee
The text of the sermon preached by Fr Dennis Smith in St Faith's on Friday 22 September, 2006
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 perish”?
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 were excluded.
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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