Sermon at Memorial Eucharist For Eric Symes Abbott
at Lincoln Theological College
The Reverend John Robson. Chaplain of Wellington College, Berkshire
Wednesday, 12th June 1985 at 12.00 PM
I met Eric in 1955. At the time I was an Exhibitioner at an Oxford College, but having some real difficulty settling in. I was advised by a friend, who was a student at Kings College, London, to go to see the Dean of Kings, one Eric Abbott. I think it is nothing but the truth to say that Eric saved me. I went to see him in some fear and trembling, but found myself spilling out all sorts of things which I had never dreamt I would be able to discuss with anyone. At one point Eric gently kicked the sole of my foot with his toe-cap, saying Dont worry, boy, Im not going to send you home in your underpants! As a result of that encounter, with some relief but also real regret, I left Oxford and went to Kings. No sooner had I arrived than, such are lifes ironies, Eric was appointed to be Warden of Keble College at Oxford! So I had just one term with him at Kings, but it was enough to establish a lifelong friendship.
People sometimes say to me, How wonderful it must be to have spent so much time with Eric Abbott to have been able constantly to discuss weighty matters of Spirituality and Theology. Well, through my association with Eric, I was present at three Royal Weddings and other great occasions mostly in Westminster Abbey; I was allowed to act as butler, so to speak, at private lunch or supper parties for many prominent men and women; I had the heady delight of being first taken to the Classical World by Eric, who knew and felt it all so deeply; and I also had the privilege of perhaps educating him a little, in keeping him up to date with many modernisms. It was a particular joy for me to be able to take so many Christs Hospital boys and Wellingtonians to meet him. These encounters were always moving, and marked particularly by great interest and growing respect on both sides. I am sure they helped to keep Eric young at heart and equally gave the boys a real experience of vision and depth. But Eric and I never really discussed Religion or Theology except incidentally, and certainly not his work. It was not like that. Over the past week I have been very conscious that my bereavement which is still real and painful is very much that of a son grieving for the most true, most viable father-figure he has ever had. And I believe it to be the case that for Eric, I perhaps became the nearest thing to being the son he never had albeit a problematic and difficult one! Certainly I was very close to him, and particularly so after his premature departure through ill health from the Abbey in 1974 to begin his long, painful exile of retirement.
I must mention Lincoln. Of course, I didnt know Eric when he was here, but I did have first-hand experience of its importance to him. When, after what he regarded as an almost indecently short period as Warden of Keble, he was urged in 1961 by Harold MacMillan to accept the Deanery of Westminster, he travelled home to Lincoln to consider his response. At his request, I came over from Huddersfield where I was a curate at the Parish Church, and stayed with him at the White Hart here for two days. Perhaps there was never any real doubt about what his decision would be, but I think he needed somehow to be in this beloved and significant place to make it. Ill health had forced him earlier to refuse the Bishopric of Lincoln, and to opt for the academic world, but now the answer to the call back into the mainstream Ministry of the Established Church was best arrived at here, and my real involvement made me realise, as never before, that I was the privileged participant in a very special relationship.
So, from that position, what can I most helpfully say today? Much has already be splendidly and truly said already there has been speculation. I would like to try to say something positive about Erics ill health and his last days, which I witnessed and indeed experienced at very close hand. I do this not in any way to be morbid but to suggest that a great man, whose spirituality did not seem sometimes at all contemporary, came nonetheless to and, I believe, through, a highly contemporary crisis of faith and being. And was this crisis perhaps subconsciously anticipated by Eric himself as a boy? He ended a sermon composed at the age of eleven, We must win in the struggle with Self and Ease.one of the best ways is to be a missionary and in that occupation live and work till health forbids you to go on longer in the work of converting the world.
In 1974 the anonymous author of the Preface to Crockford wrote in the section called Retiring Deans, Dr. Abbott retired from Westminster at the beginning of 1974, after a remarkable ministry carried on courageously and effectively in spite of grave ill health. The fact is that Erics ill health had become an important and significant part of his life and ministry not least because of the way he bore it and indeed transformed it into a real asset and blessing so that Michael Marshall, then Bishop of Woolwich, could describe it as the thing which above all else made Eric so accessible pastorally and so empathetic towards the vulnerabilities of others. And yet he never complained and he certainly never played on his weakness. In fact, he relentlessly drove himself on through it with increasingly adverse effects to himself so that visits to intensive care units became more and more frequent.
When I first met him, he had already had (in 1952) his first major coronary. I reckon that before his final illness there were some eight coronary and four cerebral incidents of varying degrees of seriousness We went to Greece on holiday in 1963 and were delayed by storms at Athens Airport on the way back, arriving at Heathrow at 3.00 in the morning. Eric found on his return to the Deanery 1100 personal letters awaiting his attention. He went to bed for three hours and got up to begin dealing with them. I went off to visit friends and feeling anxious, rang at lunchtime to find he had been taken to the Westminster suffering from his first stroke. A later one left him effectively with a blocked carotid artery, but fortunately the clots were in the brain stem and his mental capacities were unimpaired. But the weakness to his right side was established and particularly the lameness which worried him so much on big ceremonial occasions in the Abbey in front of TV cameras; lameness which could not be wholly hidden under the copes and the discreet use of his verger Algys shoulder as he ascended the steps of the Sacrarium. He confided to his doctor that he was always especially nervous of walking up the Abbey aisle with someone like Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who never steered a very straight course! But, not only did he not end up in a heap on television, I remember the BBC commentator at Princess Annes wedding speaking of the fine figure of the Dean of Westminster. Indeed it was astonishing how he maintained a truly strong physical presence at that time astonishing really that he was able to carry on with the burden at all. He left the medical side to his doctors, whom he trusted completely. He obeyed them in everything except instructions to ease up, and got on with the work. His wit sparkled as ever and his wisdom continued unabated to comfort and reassure and build up. Of course, the cover up fooled no-one, but it was essential, not just for him but for others as well. I believe there was no deep psychology involved, just a profoundly natural intuitive response to his vocation and the needs of others. In any case, it was the result that mattered, and that was wonderfully positive and creative. But a terrible price was to be paid.
Eric retired from the Deanery in 1974 at the age of sixty-seven and the acquisition of his flat in Vincent Square kept him still very much at the centre of things. He remained a Westminster figure, and the fact that a generous friend enabled him to keep his beloved little country cottage meant that he was able to live for a time a relatively busy life as guide, philosopher and friend and, of course, prolific correspondent and devotee of the cottage garden. As he assiduously dead-headed the roses, he would sometimes almost wistfully say, She (i.e Salome) was offered half a kingdom, but all she wanted was a dead head. He gave in to his lameness to the extent of effecting a walking stick which became a potent symbol of defiance a real extension of his personality. In the small flat and with the devoted help of Zillah Hislop, who did, and some lady cooks who kept the freezer stocked, he was able to manage without a housekeeper and to entertain in something of the old style. He also perfected the art of lying doggo when he was not actually working and giving out.
But illness would not be denied. It slowly but inexorably tightened its grip. He was in the I.T.U. at the Westminster Hospital in December 1980 and another heart do followed in November 1981. After that he went on to convalesce in Malvern, but was soon admitted to a coronary care unit in Worcester As soon as my term ended he demanded to return to London, and despite the fact that the long, hard winter had started and the only passable route through the snow was via the centre of Birmingham and the M1, we unplugged him and set off just the two of us - by car. The feeling amongst the doctor in the hospital at Worcester was that he wanted to go home to die, and I am sure that never having been a driver, he had no idea of the folly of attempting the journey. However, we made it, and he did not die. His poor old body, as he felt it to be, was so resilient, but he did spend that Christmas in the I.T.U. at the Westminster and on Christmas Day itself the doctors could not get his pulse rate below 150 all day. He survived that and was delighted when Bob Runcie called to spend a private hour with him just before going abroad a few days later. He was equally moved by a visit from Princess Margaret and from other dear, close friends shortly afterwards when he was back at Vincent Square. But by now it was obvious that he could not stay there on his own. There was much angsting, and when the offer of a lovely flat in a Friends of the Elderly Home at Haslemere came up, it could not be turned down. ButEric was very uneasy about the move from the first. Having a cottage in the country was fine, but living there, something else. The fact is that we should somehow have kept him in London. Despite everyones great kindness he felt without a city wall, and he could not in his debilitated state cope with it. The truly staggering view only made the imprisonment worse, for by now he could not get out and about and, of course, it was so much more difficult for friends and others to get to see him there. His angina (his father had died of it) got very bad and the somehow positive lying doggo changed to sitting for hours on end with his head in his hands, bearing the pain and enduring the fearful grimness of the depression that descended like a terrible, almost Satanic vengeance. It was terrible to witness and almost worse trying to help. I wrote to various people who were greatly concerned, but apparently quite unable to be of practical use. It was as though a spiritual director who, like Eric, had functioned from, so to speak, a great height or even pedestal, was not in a position to be himself ministered to. It was quite frightening. Some friends in the renewal movement wanted to provide healing; Eric politely but firmly resisted that. A nice Freudian analyst who lived locally went to see him; Eric politely but firmly rejected her! He did accept some anti-depressant drugs prescribed by his doctor, but they seemed to do little. He read and obviously approved of, but did not comment upon, a little booklet on Depression by Gonville Ffrench-Beytagh. He became very frail and woebegone. It was impossible really to know what was going on inside, and certainly Eric never wanted to talk about his mental or spiritual state he simply suffered it. Once, after I had been away on a potentially hazardous trip, Eric did vouchsafe that all he had been able to do by way of praying during my absence was to recite childrens hymns. But at least he did that, and his Office Book was always by him. The course of the depression was relentless and unremitting, and further collapse and hospitalisation early in 1983 presaged the end.
After he died, someone sent me a piece written by the Liberation Theologian, Daniel Berrigan. To those of us who loved Eric and just a little suffered the depression with him, it made sublime sense and tells, I am sure, how it was with him at that time. Berrigan says:
Suffering often takes the most personally humiliating and opaque
character. It incapacitates a man from the very good which was the cause of his greatness in the first place. He can no longer act with that spontaneity and clarity which had so won others. He is now thrown upon the mercy of others, a burden to himself. He cannot explain why or how he suffers; even though once he could reveal, winningly and joyfully, why life took the shape it did, why it was right and fitting that it did so. The scandal of such suffering, suffering that plucks the tongue from the head and the voice from the heart! even to the point that others are scandalised and bewildered. They had concluded over the years that whatever came to pass this man would never cease to be their oracle; the years would only confer on him a clearer, more communicable wisdom. But to be reduced to a deaf mute?
Cui bono? (To what advantage is it?) Man does not suffer that a world may be won; he does not suffer, even, that the will of God may be accomplished. He is, in fact, in the deepest suffering, evacuated of all real purpose at all. He is not suffering in order that. His anguish does not allow him to be carried beyond the fact of suffering. And this is true so that the truth of suffering, its value as a sign, may shine forth. But only for the few who are ready to read such a sign. Achievements, great moments, visible accomplishments, have always about them so much danger of distraction, egoism, ambiguity. But the sufferer who believes and takes his stand, not precisely on his suffering, nor on the quality of his faith, nor on the good he is doing, nor on the response of his friends, but on Christ alone . which is to say, on the living truth of things this man, perhaps for the first time, has become a true sign. He is the sign of the cross. There is quite possibly no other in the world today.
I could end there and it would be, in one sense, a wonderful place to do so. But it would not be true. I cannot see how Eric came through but I know he did, and I can only thank God.
On his 77th birthday, 26th May 1983, I took Eric to his cottage after a pub lunch. Despite the fact that the little house felt rather neglected and bleak, and the angina was bad, we had a good day and after a supper of fresh prawns and strawberries he tucked himself happily into bed. The following morning he went back to Haslemere with a bad cold, which worsened and was accompanied by what St. Paul would perhaps have called faintings more frequent. A doctor said that the supply of oxygen to his brain was impaired and, having had short shrift indeed from Eric when he, like everyone else, admired the view from the flat, sent him into the Royal Surrey at Guildford.
The fact is that as soon as he got to the hospital, and despite all the tests and traumas, the terrible mantle of depression lifted never to return. Perhaps Eric felt he was truly back amongst people and in the real world again. He was certainly always greatly at home with, and loved and accepted by, medical folk because, I think, of his respect for and acceptance of them and their profession, and which he did not attempt to understand or question. Perhaps, too, he knew he was going to die. The previous night he had said he thought he was at that point, and asked me to stay with him. But he did not then pop off, to use one of his favourite euphemisms; and indeed the next morning did not remember having mentioned it. Anyway, the dark night seemed to have been endured, and all through the last seven days in the Royal Surrey flags of dawn appeared.
At first, he rallied and the doctors were full of hope, but quite of what I never discovered. There is a point where recovery is a highly ambiguous term. A further crisis took Eric into a state where he fluctuated between a conscious relating to the world around and his own inner awareness and working. On two separate days, he thought he was first in Cheltenham and then Loughborough for a conference, but in between he asked me who had won the Derby and had I seen it. I was delighted to be able to tell him the name of the winner, and also that I had sneaked out of the I.T.U. to listen to it on the car radio!
The Hospital Chaplain came and offered to bring him Communion. Eric thanked him but also apologised and said he did not feel up to it. That was , I think, a very significant remark and I believe he had reached the point where Sacraments shall cease. The Chaplain said some prayers and I think he and I were astounded at the end by the sheer force of Erics Amen. (It was the following night that I found in the I.T.U. relatives room the only (coverless) book which was Elizabeth Bassets Anthology, Love Is My Meaning which contained the Amen passage which I read at Erics Memorial Service in Westminster Abbey.
The following morning I was summoned early to the hospital. I arrived to be told that they had had to resuscitate Eric ten times in two hours with electric shocks. The Registrar said how frightening it must have been for him as he was conscious all the time, but how brave he was. Later that day Eric wanted to get up. I told him he couldnt. Why not? he said, and I told him he wasnt strong enough. I am, I am, he said. Well, Eric, you are probably strong enough but your body is not. It is, it is, he said but rather less surely. At that, I swallowed hard and forced myself to say that of course he could go anywhere, but he would have to leave his body behind as well as the bed After some reflection he said, I would like to do that.
I stayed at the hospital from then on and could only really try prayerfully to help him on. But what more could I ask or want, after his great loving care for me?
The following morning, Eric was very uncomfortable with all the apparatus, and after a consultation the doctors decided to let him go. It was actually a great relief to see all the paraphernalia of masks and drips taken out and especially the electric shock machine.
Eric simply moved further and further away. He spent three hours just like a child playing on the seashore with sand or something. He could still be reached, and when the Sister asked him, he declared himself to be very peaceful and very happy. After that he became more abstracted and seemed intent only upon his body and need to push it away like sloughing off a worn-out skin. But, paradoxically, there was at the same time the feeling of coming to terms of acceptance.
For the last hour, all activity ceased. He was peacefully curled up like a child or as he slept on better days at the cottage, and the phenomenal heart of flesh finally packed it in at 1.55am on Monday 6th June 1983.
I am sure that all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side, and I believe that the echo of them is still there to be picked up now. There may well have been in Erics illness and darkness much of what Martin Israel (who Eric prepared for Ordination) would call, necessary suffering in the growth of the person, but I am sure, too, that his innate, basic, self-sacrificial, disciplined spirituality got him there in the end, albeit battered and bruised. And I received only last week a card from a holy lady which finished, I was feeling particularly low last week, but was much comforted by a visit from the invisible Eric.
So the work goes on.
All sit for the Reverend John Robson to read from
The Compassion of God and the Passion of Christ by Eric Abbott.
To God be the glory for ever and ever: Amen.” Let us then live, speak, work and pray, “to the greater glory of God”, “ad majorem Dei gloriam”. This will afford us the same motive as Christ our Lord had. This will direct all our work to an end beyond ourselves. This will afford us a worthy ambition – the glory of God and the Kingdom of God. It will also strengthen us when life seems to lack purpose, to lose its cogency. “Ad majorem Dei gloriam” will also lift us out of our self-centredness, to look beyond our own glory to God’s. It will give us a simple and salutary form of self-examination – “where is the glory I am seeking, in the things I do and say?” It will help us to see that we are instruments only in the hand of our Lord; to realise that we enjoy being used; but “not unto us, not unto us, but unto thy name give the praise”.
Then let us add to the glory that we seek to give to God, the very important word “Amen”. “To him be the glory: Amen”. “Amen” is our saying Yes to God’s will. “This,” says God, “is what must be”; and we say “Amen”. “Amen” is what Christ’s Mother said at the Annunciation. “Amen” is what all the saints have said to the demands our Lord has made upon them. “Amen” is what every Christian man and woman must say in accepting their particular vocation. “Amen” is what we say when things are hard but inevitable. It is not false passivity, it is active acceptance of God’s will. Try to say “Amen” to those things in your life which are clearly the will of God. Try not to say “Amen” to things which should not be accepted.
“Amen” is the last word to be spoken. Therefore in speaking it, we shall try to finish our work, finish the tasks that God has given us to do, believing that he will not summon us away from this world until we have had our chance to show him at least a token of what we would do for him perfectly, if only we could.
Then we realise that our life and our work can never be quite tidily finished. But this is only to say that the final “Amen” to our lives which alone can make them good, can only be spoken by God; by God who spoke the “Amen” to his beloved Son’s life on earth, raised him from the dead, and then by the Holy Spirit’s power made his life and his death endlessly fruitful for good, until the end of time.
When we come to the end, therefore, let us commend our spirits to God our Creator and Redeemer in faith, believing that he who raised Jesus from the dead will be able to take what we have done for him, whether explicitly or implicitly, and will gather it into his Kingdom, to be in that Kingdom that particular enrichment of the Kingdom’s glory which our particular life had to contribute.
For there is something which only you can bring into the Kingdom of God.
Therefore let us live this life to the greater glory of God, say our “Amen” when the end comes, and trust that Almighty God from his side will forgive us, will accept us in his beloved Son, and will himself pronounce upon our little life his own “Amen”.