Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Monday, 1st January 2007
Michael Mayne opened his last book by talking about the cantus firmus, the melody that is carried unadorned in plainsong and which forms the basis for the ever more complex harmonies of polyphony. 'Perhaps', he wrote, 'it is only as we grow old that we can discern the cantus firmus of which we can say: "This has been mine and mine alone: however much I have deviated from it and chosen my own note-lengths, this is its ground bass. There are certain critical truths and experiences that have seized and shaped me, and it is this firm ground that speaks to me of what is authentic (and therefore authoritative), and to which I can return, touching base as it were, at every stage of my unpredictable human journey."'
All his life Michael listened for that cantus firmus - and in his ministry he encouraged others to do so too. Many are here today for just that reason. Prayer was central to all he did - as a priest, as a Christian, as a fragile human being. Not the sort of prayer that reaches for finely crafted words, though there was no finer craftsman than Michael, but the sort that waits, and listens, and then, in the silence lets the melody form itself in the heart. In each of the parishes where he worked, Harpenden, Norton and Cambridge, Michael started prayer groups, some of which were still there, with other communities of prayer, to give support through the last, testing months. When, at Great Saint Mary's, Michael transformed St Andrew's Chapel by the addition of a stunning Risen Christ it became a place where you really wanted to take time and be still. At Westminster, he relished the early-morning silence of St Faith's Chapel. From the days at Cuddesdon, under Edward Knapp-Fisher, who was there again, as Sub-Dean, to welcome him to Westminster, through the days of retirement in Salisbury, this discipline of attentive, listening prayer was a lifeline.
If it was in the silence that Michael could listen for the cantus firmus, it was in the polyphony of creation that he heard 'an endless sequence of variations on the unchanging theme of God's creative love'. Michael loved being alive; he loved being immersed in this splendid world, just as he delighted, at any opportunity, to plunge into water. On long country walks, his swimming kit was always in his knapsack. All Michael's theological reflection begins from the surprise of finding himself alive in this astonishing world. In This Sunrise of Wonder he wrote,
My subject is wonder, and my starting point is so obvious it often escapes us. It is me, sitting at a table looking out on the world. It is the fact that I exist, that there is anything at all. It is the givenness that astonishes: the fact that the mountains, the larch tree, the gentian, the jay, exist, and that someone called me is here to observe them. (p. 15)
Perhaps the most wonderful thing to Michael was communication: the words, the play, the painting through which, for a moment, we glimpse the vision of the poet, the playwright, the artist. He was himself a consummate communicator - some would say the best preacher they ever heard. In the Preface to A Year Lost and Found, he tells how guest speakers at the Great St Mary's Sunday evening service would sometimes ask for advice about how to give an address in such an awesome place - The Cambridge University Church. He says that the only advice he ever wanted to give is this: 'If it is in your nature to do so, be a little vulnerable. Don't be afraid to talk about yourself, your journey, your pain, your vision.' (p. 2). This is exactly what he did in each of his books and this is what touched people so deeply. In each of the books, from A Year Lost and Found, with its daily reflections on the illness that almost cost him the job at Westminster, to The Enduring Melody, with its clinically precise description of the surgery, and the frank account of his inner struggles as he went through the lacerating radiotherapy, he made himself more than a little vulnerable. The response was extraordinary. No other spiritual writer has a voice quite like his: diarist, essayist, mystic, wit - what he wrote was utterly English, with echoes of Donne and Traherne, Kilvert and Blythe - the range is extraordinary. His books draw us in because, like a trusted friend, he confides in his reader; no wonder so many readers confided in him.
If there was one event that underlay Michael's own vulnerability it was his father's suicide. Talking with him about this address, six months before he died, this was the one thing he wanted me to mention. He touches on it in each of his books. His most sustained reflection was in a sermon preached at the annual festival service for the Sons of the Clergy at St Paul's Cathedral in 1997. In that sermon Michael quotes a friend who was 10 when his father took his own life: 'The sadness is that you have lost a father whom you have never fully found. It's like a tune that ends before you have heard it out. Your whole life through, you search to catch the strain, and seek the face you have lost in strangers' faces'. Michael relished the love he found in Alison; Sarah and Dan; Mark and Joanie, and each of his grandchildren, but on that Saturday afternoon in May 1932 an unmistakeable note of loss was written into the cantus firmus. What followed for him was a bleak and solitary childhood in which books and the wireless and the cinema at Paignton provided diversion but there was a marked deficit in joy.
Somehow or other that deficit was turned into an extraordinary sympathy with those on the margin. Michael was comfortable with the great; he carried himself with distinction; he relished the pageantry of Westminster. But he was also one of the earliest and staunchest supporters of the hospice movement; he gave unstinting support to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture; one of his proudest achievements at the Abbey was the dedication of the Memorial to Innocent Victims, where Alison laid flowers this morning and her Majesty the Queen will lay flowers at the national service for the Bicententary of the Act that Abolished the Slave Trade. How important is that Memorial is to everything the Abbey now stands for.
In the days when little was known about HIV, and there was a great deal of fear of people living with AIDS, Michael began to invite them to evenings at the Abbey specially for them and their carers. Describing one such evening, 7 October 1996, he wrote:
Tonight there is one difference. For I have invited Diana, Princess of Wales, to come, and she does so, unaccompanied and without my warning those present. She arrives at eight, and I witness what so many have spoken of - her immediate and instinctive knowledge of what to do: whom to touch, whose hand to hold, and what to say. After half an hour we go into the Abbey for a relaxed tour of the empty, awesome building, ending in St Faith's Chapel for some moments of stillness and the briefest of night prayers and a blessing' (PLR p. 52).
What an extraordinary picture: the darkened Abbey, the stillness of St Faith's Chapel; Michael, the Princess, people with AIDS and their carers, all together - many of them, young and old, so close to passing from earthly shadow into God's eternal light. Michael ends his diary entry by reflecting on the evenings he spent in this way, 'And afterwards I always feel: "this is as close as we get to the heart of what we are for"' (p. 52). What he was talking about was, of course, the giving and receiving of love.
Without a doubt, Michael felt that what he was for was people. His gift, even in an administrative job at the BBC, was to spend time with colleagues and friends in pastoral need. Though the running of Great Saint Mary's, where he had willing but inadequate support, ground him down, finding time for individuals was always a priority. Though tea with the Dean might have been a bit of an ordeal for new members of the Abbey staff, the Dean's interest in them from day one was something they never forgot. This was a man for whom 'Love bade me welcome' became a way of life.
Michael loved liturgy. It brought out the actor in him. He stayed on at school to play Hamlet and continued to take demanding roles at Cambridge. But then his old headmaster (they don't make them like that any more) pointed him towards ordination, and a life in which his passion for drama was transmuted into a passion for well-crafted liturgy. Michael delighted in the preparation of Special Services such as this. I hope he is pleased with this one - he had better be. He planned most of it! What mattered was to get the right words, the right music, the right action, and all within the right time. Some of his happiest memories of the Abbey were of the great services at which he presided: the Memorial Service for Laurence Olivier, with a congregation made up of 'a complete Who's Who of the British Theatre'; the service for the readmission of South Africa to the Commonwealth when 'Desmond Tutu and Trevor Huddlestone embrace, and Tutu dances for joy in the Abbey forecourt'; the service for the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, when, following Japanese custom, British and Japanese children place 6000 multi-coloured paper cranes on the grave of the unknown warrior, and many of the veterans are in tears.
These were great memories, but the service that meant most to Michael was the parish eucharist and it was the parish eucharist he brought to Westminster Abbey, planting it at the centre of the life of this great national church. For Michael the eucharist was a shared act of remembering. He was fascinated by the way that memory is stored up within the brain, and the way that stored memory defines what it is to be 'me'. Through memory the past exists in the present. This is exactly, he wrote, how the early Christians remembered the living Jesus in the eucharist: 'For them every Eucharist bound together both past and future: the lakeside meals, the Maundy scene of footwashing, Golgotha and the Easter appearances, as well as the anticipation of what shall be: the whole Gospel is re-membered, re-present-ed, put together and made present again, in the 'now' of faith' (PLR, p.126). We remember, he says, that we may be re-membered: 'When the penitent thief says to Jesus: "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom"' I hear the words in the obvious sense, "Don't forget me". But I chose to hear him also saying something more profound: "Lord, re-member me, recreate me, make me anew, put me together again, but now in your own likeness as you have always intended me to be" (p. 128). For Michael, the eucharist is the place where Christians both remember and are re-membered. It was he who taught me Augustine's immortal words: 'As this [bread and wine] when you eat it, is changed into you, so you are changed into the Body of Christ ... . You are receiving that which you have begun to be' (p. 129).
In The Enduring Melody, Michael quotes Michael McCrum, his tutor at Corpus, Cambridge and lifelong friend: 'Imagine any piece of music that you love. At its creation it was written down by its composer and needed an instrument for its first performance. But once performed it has no further need of players or instruments. Its particular beauty is in the mind of whoever hears it, just as it was in the composer's mind. So, we might be thought to spend our lives, as it were composing a piece of music, ... and at our death, when the physical instruments which we have used for its composition decay, the music lives on to take its place in the divine orchestration.' What lives on in our treasured memories of Michael is the cantus firmus of a rich and faithful Christian life; and that cantus firmus now taken up in the 'one equal music' of God's unending love.