All Saints Margaret Street | Sermon at the High Mass of Requiem of Dr. John Birch Tuesday 15 May 2012

Sermon for Sermon at the High Mass of Requiem of Dr. John Birch Tuesday 15 May 2012

THE ADDRESS given by The Dean of Chichester, The Very Reverend Nicholas Frayling, at the Funeral Mass of John Birch – All Saints Margaret Street 15 May 2012

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body, and be thankful.’ (Colossians 3: 15)

What is a priest to do on an occasion such as this? The temptation is to offer a stream of anecdotes about John, each of which would be capped by another from almost everybody present in this church. Happily for me, however, Roderick Swanston will give a Tribute to John at the end of this Mass, and the lot has fallen on me to preach this Sermon.

It is a privilege to do so, not only for friendship’s sake, but because I know John to have been a humble and devout Christian. We may think of his always-immaculate appearance; his fund of wicked stories (most of which were recycled many times over); his waspish sense of humour; his understated care for individuals; his consummate musicianship and his constant quest for perfection. All of these we recognised in him, but beyond them all was a very different person.

John was not easy to get close to – it has been said that he was well defended – but to have sat opposite him, as I have during these past years, at Choral Evensong in Chichester, was to observe a deep spirituality at work, a rapt expression on his face, not only during the Psalms, the Canticles, the Responses and the Anthem, but in the prayers and in response to the preaching.

It has often been said, almost to the point of cliché – that music is the servant of liturgy, but John really believed that, and was just as likely to offer an encouraging comment on a sermon or a particular prayer as he was to compliment Alan Thurlow or Sarah Baldock on an exceptional musical performance. At such moments, the peace of Christ did indeed dwell in John’s heart.

In Chichester, we have a time-honoured custom of commemorating members of the Cathedral Foundation at the first convenient Evensong after their death. There are special prayers, and the Choir sings the Russian Kontakion for the departed. On one such occasion – the death of Canon Roger Greenacre, last year – John said, wistfully, ‘What a pity that won’t happen for me – I’m not a Canon.’ When I assured him that it would happen, John’s eyes filled with tears, and he said, ‘How wonderful.’ The ceremony was performed, with some of his closest friends present.

One person who did penetrate John’s veil was Dean Walter Hussey, who appointed him Organist and Master of the Choristers at Chichester in 1958 at the age of just 29. John immediately told the Dean that he would resign his London appointments on account of his new responsibilities. Hussey, with great perceptiveness, told him to do no such thing. As a fellow bachelor (the Daily Telegraph would describe them both as ‘fastidious’) Hussey knew that John would need to find fulfilment away from the world of the Cathedral Close, and if he did so, would be the happier for it and a more effective Organist. The Royal College of Music, the Royal Choral Society, the Royal Albert Hall and countless pupils have been the beneficiaries of Hussey’s wisdom.

The more daring of the choristers referred to John as ‘God’, and one, returning after a few years, met Dean Hussey and said, ‘Excuse me, Mr Dean, do you know where I might find God?’ ‘Young man’, replied Hussey, ‘God is everywhere: Mr Birch is everywhere except Chichester.’

But the music in Chichester was of course secure in John’s very safe hands, ably assisted by a string of Assistant Organists, among whom were Richard Seal and Nicholas Cleobury.

This evening the Cathedral Choir will have been singing the Psalm appointed for the 15th evening of the month, Psalm 78 – all 73 verses of it. On one occasion, Mark Wardell, our then Assistant Organist, gave the 32 foot reed an outing for ‘the hot thunderbolts’ in verse 49. Afterwards, John said, ‘Marmaduke Conway at Ely used to warn organists against emulating the excesses of the weather or the sounds of the animal kingdom. How wrong he was!’

John, through his music-making and his teaching, touched very many lives. Now, in this Requiem, celebrated in this church at his own request, we come to the moment of truth. The carefully chosen Scriptures and the music remind us of the heart of that truth, which is the promise of eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ: the love of God, the Good Shepherd – a love from which we believe even death cannot separate us … ‘See, I am making all things new’ in the words of the sage of Revelation … And then that mysterious teaching of Jesus about the bread of life, and the will of his Father that all who believe in the Son of God would have the gift of eternal life.

It is a timeless message of salvation, enriched, to be sure, by the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that St Paul commends to the Colossians, but at its heart a message that is always necessary, always nourishing and always new.

‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts … ‘ It is a peace that is indeed beyond our understanding – a peace of which the secret is praise.

John Birch returned from South Africa just before Easter. On his last Sunday in Cape Town, as Father Alan Moses told us, he had worshipped, as was his custom, at St Michael and All Angels. Incidentally, a Requiem is being held in that church at this moment. The Organist, Deon Irish, who is present this evening, invited John to accompany the Anthem. It was the last music that he played in a service of worship.

The piece was that old favourite by Maurice Greene: ‘Lord, let me know mine end and the number of my days …’

But more than that, ‘And now, Lord, what is my hope: truly, my hope is even in thee. ‘O spare me a little that I may recover my strength before I go hence and be no more seen.’

John would not have wanted it any other way. May he know the peace of Christ, of which the secret is praise. Amen.