An inspirational life of service

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This eulogy, by the Revd Canon Dr Peter Groves describes an incredibly inspirational life well lived. This was Peter’s address from the requiem mass held for the late Fr Michael Farthing, a priest whose ministry included guiding and nurturing the woman who would go on to become our first female bishop. 

Anglicans are apt to enjoy nostalgia, and Anglo-Catholics particularly so. In a city as churchy as this one, (St Mary Magdalen, Oxford) it’s all too easy to reach across the generations with tales of the great men and women who have lived and served the Christian faith and whose lives were closely bound up with Oxford. In this particular church, which dates back 1,000 years and has lived through most of the upheavals of English Christianity, it’s hard to be unaware of the past. But it’s also essential to learn from it, and not simply to shrug one’s shoulders and sigh that the days are gone when there were giants in the land.

Fr Michael Farthing

Fr Michael Farthing

Of the many words one might use to describe Michael, giant would not come very high on the list. I remember well a previous requiem mass in which we both participated – I felt these lovely black vestments were a little too long for me, but poor old Michael was practically at the stage of having to hitch up his skirts for fear of tripping over the sanctuary step. When I was licensed to this parish as priest in charge, I had several assisting colleagues who were well over 6ft and towered over me at the high mass. It was nice, from time to time, to have a deacon who made everything look in proportion, even if those proportions were pretty tiny. But of course, in another sense Michael was a giant, and a giant of the Lord’s own making. More than 60 years of priesthood, and a Christian life dating back to infancy.

A life of service

Michael came to Christian ministry from an existing life of service, having joined the Royal Navy in the immediate aftermath of the second world war when global and political uncertainty continued to dominate. He spoke of the importance of his naval chaplains and the discipline of prayer in the formation of his own vocation. He went to Durham to study, and then came to Oxford to be trained under one of those aforementioned giants, the great Fr Arthur Couratin of St Stephen’s House.

Serving his curacy at St Mark’s in Marylebone he met a young member of the choir named Jennifer Woods, and the rest was history. Apart from that first parish, the whole of Michael’s ministry was spent in this Diocese. He served in Newport Pagnell, Standlake, Lower Windrush, Wheatley – and then at the Cathedral, and here at Mary Mags, and St Cross and countless other parishes and communities which benefited from his care and generosity.

The memories we treasure, of a loving husband and father and grandfather, of a priest and pastor and teacher, of a friend and colleague and mentor, are a part of our tribute to someone who gave so much to so many. Personally, I will always be tremendously grateful for his gentle wisdom and support, offered 15 years ago to a young and very inexperienced priest in charge: Michael never imposed anything, but his guiding hand, often almost unnoticed, saved me from many of the pitfalls of that inexperience. His and Jenny’s friendship to everyone here, and especially to my children to whom they are second grandparents, is a gift which carries on giving in our thoughts and in our hearts.

Nurturing our first woman to serve as a bishop

But there is much more than memory to celebrate. It would be easy to say that they don’t make them like they used to. Michael represents a generation in the life of our country as well as in the life of our church to which we all owe an enormous amount. The exemplary model of priesthood he displayed has been an inspiration to younger clergy and ordinands literally for decades, and how fitting it is that the first woman to serve as a bishop in our diocese was guided and nurtured in her vocation by Michael more than 30 years ago. The world which he knew and in which he ministered is in some ways distant from us, and we might mourn for a time when the church’s face and presence in the communities of our country was personified by Michael and his ilk. But at the same time, nothing is lost, because the faith which Michael lived and taught is a faith for the here and now, a gospel of love and of hope which transcends the rose tinted visions we are so ready to conjure. No matter how keen we are to look back, the truth remains that there is nothing nostalgic about the love of God, nothing old fashioned about his grace and presence in our lives.

“…a gospel of love and home which transcends the rose-tinted visions we are so ready to conjure.”

That grace and that love were not just the reason for Michael’s ministry, they were the very content of that ministry. Christianity does not call us away from the world to a remote and distant heaven, it proclaims the good news of heaven on earth, it celebrates the God who is with us in the child of Bethlehem and the preacher and healer from Nazareth. Everything Michael did as a priest – every mass celebrated, every sermon preached, every baby baptised, every couple married, every sick person anointed, every lonely person visited, every child affirmed and taught, every parishioner supported and upheld, every hospital ward attended, every deathbed sat beside, every soul commended to God, every mourning family comforted – every one of these things is nothing other than the love of God lived out in our world and in our lives, lived out in the ministry of the church which is the body of Christ, and through the sacred order of the priesthood to which Michael was called more than sixty years ago.

As we celebrate God’s love in the life of our departed brother, we are marking the end of a life. But we are also celebrating the end of a life, not end in the sense of termination, but end in the sense of purpose or goal. Michael’s life was directed by, and directed towards, the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Easter faith which Michael proclaimed sustains and assures us that if there is an end of things, it is only the end, the goal, of the love which will not be contained and bursts the realms of emptiness and death. The Hebrew name Michael means: who is like God? The answer was Michael’s whole life.