“Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.”
There are so many settings in which to have known Archbishop Philip: as a member of his family, or in his school and student days, in Rome, in the seminaries and parishes he served, as Bishop of Paisley and Archbishop of Glasgow. There were the many circles he moved in: of ecumenical dialogue, Catholic education about which he was so engaged and realistic, the civic life of Glasgow, not forgetting its sport. So many people touched by him, so many aspects to a life, so many perspectives to view it from. Three score years and ten. Our memories are fragments of a greater whole, and that whole – the mystery of a person – is in the mind and hands of God. “On the earth the broken arcs, in the heaven a perfect round.”
Today, in Christ, we remember Philip’s life, we give thanks for it and we pray for its completion and the comfort of the bereaved. We bring him and ourselves before God in a literal and metaphorical great Eucharistic prayer of hope and affection.
The image that comes to me is of a great tree felled unexpectedly in the middle of the night – Storm Covid. And only when we woke up the day following did we begin to divine what had happened, did we begin to grasp the depths of its roots, to see the space this tree occupied, the shelter it gave, and what we’ve personally and collectively lost. This uprooting has changed the landscapes of so many lives. “Tree” seems right. The timber of this man was sound. It was sound all through. At a time when hollowness or rottenness seem to surface with disheartening regularity, this was a comfort. I think we felt this soundness and relied on it more than we knew.
Eulogy is no part of a liturgy. It’s the last thing Philip would have wanted; he was not a self-advertising man. It’s not what we want; we are probably still too numb. But the prohibition of eulogy doesn’t mean we have to talk abstractions. Surely we can acclaim the providence of God, the presence of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit within him, from his birth seventy years ago to his committal today, from his baptism to this Eucharist, from the pouring of that first water to the final sprinkling of his remains. There seems a rare wholeness here. Surely we can acknowledge how the grace of his baptism and of his ordination grew and flowered in him, how the Lord was indeed his shepherd and through him shepherded others, how his priesthood became a true spiritual fatherhood which has left its trace on all of us.
Looking at it from our side, we are commending to God today someone who wasn’t small in any sense, someone of gravitas, and someone in whom head and heart came together, possessed of intellectual force and clarity and at the same time of great human warmth. There have been so many testimonies to this (and my thanks to all who have sent condolences). He might have passed his life in the green pastures of dogmatic theology, by the restful waters of seminary teaching (if they exist) or of promising ecumenical dialogue, but he accepted pastoral assignments and he cherished them. He had a gift for friendship and insight into people. During our Ad Limina visit with the Pope in 2018 he said to the Holy Father, “I miss the parish”, and got a delighted papal thumbs-up. As a pastor, especially here in Glasgow and for a while in Edinburgh too, he had plenty of valleys of darkness to walk through, with others, with unsettled priests, survivors of abuse, victims of accidents, and he did so in such a genuine, heartfelt way. The bin lorry episode, the helicopter on the roof, his concern for asylum seekers. A lady from my own diocese whose father died in the James Watt Street fire of 1968 sent me this: “I have happy memories of the Archbishop when he so kindly agreed to celebrate Mass for my dad and the many others that died in James Watt Street. It was said exactly fifty years later, it was beautiful and he spoke with gentleness and love. I felt truly humbled when he talked about my life during the homily. Somehow his love and understanding took away so much of my pain. I will always be grateful.” “He wept with those who wept”. Like the Psalmist, at times he also had his own “drooping spirit” to walk with. He was actually a shy and sensitive man. He felt pressures and there were certainly more than he voiced. He took things to heart, literally, and we know with what consequences. We need to be more careful of each other’s hearts. For myself, I only came to know Bishop / Archbishop Philip after becoming bishop myself in 2011. But I had already encountered him during the papal visit the year before, at the Mass at Bellahouston. Bishops and Abbots were waiting in a tent. He went out to look at the singing crowds, full of young people, and he came back with his face flushed, crying, “The faith is alive! The faith is alive!” This wasn’t a tired, box-ticking cleric; he seemed an almost childlike enthusiast. So the memories remain: voicing our apology for child abuse in this Cathedral, preaching to seminarians in the crypt of St Peter’s, urging them in his halting, straight from the heart way, to put Christ at the centre of their lives, everywhere and always, and find their integrity in him; responding explosively to a paper put before him at a bishop’s meeting, “Where’s Christ in this?”, or after a glass or two of wine at a late Spanish dinner in Salamanca launching into the intricacies of 16th c. Eucharistic theology.
How good, how apt, how consoling, that he should go to God on the solemnity of St Kentigern.
I have to say I feel his eye on me as I speak. It’s a little unnerving. “Go for it, Hugh, go for it”. This tree had a root: the deep Catholic Christian faith he had received from his family. And through that faith flowed the sacramental sap that nourished and greened his life. It wasn’t hard to choose the readings: the Eucharistic climax of the discourse from John ch. 6, Isaiah’s vision of the banquet on the mountain-top, the Psalm that ends with the feast in the Temple, when the shepherding Lord turns into a welcoming host, precisely the future we wish for Philip. Here was the heart of the man. Here, along with his family, were the loves that moved him: the Gospel of John, the person of Christ, God and man, born of the Virgin (he loved our Lady), risen from the dead and the same Lord’s real, substantial and permanent presence under the appearances of bread and wine, the food of our soul and the pledge of our resurrection.. These are the things that held him together, made him a whole, and gave him the holding power he had. It’s for believing and confessing and preaching these things he would want to be remembered: floreat praeconio verbi. It’s on this basis he would want his beloved archdiocese and the Church in Scotland to move forward. He could say, in dark moments, “do we still believe in the Eucharist?” He could also say, “I find people are fascinated if you speak to them of Christ.”
“On this mountain he will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, and the shroud enwrapping all nations; he will destroy death for ever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek.” So the prophet. “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.” So the Gospel. “In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell for ever and ever.” So the Psalmist. With these words, with this hope, let us comfort one another and go on.
The great tree goes into the earth as a seed, to rest through the winter of time in “the dear green place”, to rest and to be raised incorruptible. Man’s winter, God’s spring.
May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.
(St Andrew’s Cathedral, 21 January 2021)