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12 June 2012

John Pridmore

Remember me?

BROWSING through an old diary, I stumble on this entry: “Thabo, priest at the cathedral, speaks nine lan­guages fluently.” The entry was for Friday 15 June 1990. The cathedral was St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannes­burg. I was there to explore the pos­sibility of a link between the cathed­ral and St Martin-in-the-Fields, where I was looking after the church’s international work.

I spent a morning with Thabo. He took me round one of the sprawling “squatter camps” on the road to Soweto. He took me to homes that were hutches — shacks no bigger and far less substantial than the shed on our allotment. Everyone seemed to know Thabo, and everyone seemed to love him.

A lot has happened to Thabo since then. He is now the Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba. In April, I was back at St Martin’s for a service at which Archbishop Thabo was preaching.

We were celebrating the 25th wedding anniversary of Tricia Sib­bons and Douglas Board. For years, Tricia and Doug have worked with their countless friends in South Africa to bring nearer the day when the wounds of that lovely land will at last be healed. They are, as Thabo told us, shining lights.

I had not been in touch with Thabo since that morning 22 years ago. There was no way he would re­member me. But he did. “Hello, John,” he said, at the door of the church. Then he gave me a big hug.

Figure of hope

STEP into St Martin-in-the-Fields, and a remarkable bronze sculpture faces you. A tall figure carries a child’s body. You try to place where you’ve seen this image before. Then you remember. You recall the pic­ture, taken during the 1976 Soweto uprising, of the dying 13-year-old, Hector Pieterson, shot by the police, in the arms of a fellow student.

The sculpture is the church’s memorial to “the victims of violence and injustice in South Africa”. Ef­fec-tively, it is the nation’s memorial, too, such is the standing of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The memorial was dedicated on 25 October 1994. We won’t forget that night, but that is not surprising — dancing round the aisles with Archbishop Desmond Tutu stays with you.

The sculpture is the work of Chaim Stephenson, who for half a century has brooded in bronze and wood on the world’s anguish. A retrospective of his wonderful work was held recently, not at the Tate Modern — occupied at the time by pickled sharks and other meretri­cious tat — but at a small gallery in Sunbury.

Chaim and his wife, Lynne (the writer Lynne Reid Banks), are very dear to us. We went round the ex­hibition with them. Lynne asked me to write a comment in the gallery’s visitors’ book. I wrote what all who know Chaim’s work feel, that he “touches our eyes that we might see, and touches our hearts that we might love”.

His answer was ‘Yes’

I WAS chaplain to King Edward’s School, Witley, for 15 years. The headmaster who appointed me, John Hansford, died recently. I paid tribute to him at his funeral, and wrote his obituary for The Times.

John was an exceptionally selfless man. He seemed unaware that there could be a limit to his availability to all and sundry. John was one of those people — in three-quarters of a century I have met three or four of them — who simply take Jesus at his word, and do what he says. John’s capacity to say “Yes,” when only an utter fool or an authentic Christian would do so, was demonstrated five years after he retired.

There is more to the story than could be told in The Times, but what can be said is sufficiently astonish­ing. John was settled in Sedbergh, doing what he most enjoyed, making himself useful — giving old folk lifts, looking after the Scout hut, mowing the churchyard, and the like. Then, at the beginning of August 1985, he got a call from Christ’s Hospital.

The school was facing a crisis. Its headmaster had just resigned. In a week or two’s time, 200 girls from the Hospital’s sister foundation, in Hertford, were arriving as the two foundations merged. Would he take over the headship immediately? John accepted this invitation, and, in a sermon in the school chapel at the beginning of the new term, he ex­plained why.

He told the school that, at Christ’s Hospital, as a boy, he had given his life back to God, and that, ever since then, he had always worked on the principle that he would never re­fuse to go wherever God apparently called him.

John stayed at Christ’s Hospital for four terms, working 17 hours a day. He bequeathed to his successor a community in good heart. Then he went back to Sedbergh. By that time, the churchyard badly needed mow­ing.

Permission denied

ALONG the Sussex coast there is a rich sedimentary deposit of retired clergy. No doubt it can be seen from outer space. Many retired clerics have sought “permission to officiate” (PTO), as I think it’s called. I have not. Sometimes, you have to sit down and be counted. Clearly, bishops who refuse to ordain women, as ours do, thereby forfeit the right either to grant or to withhold PTO.

Words of farewell

A DYING friend asks me to visit him. Both of us long ago lost any sense of certainty about the faith we once were so sure about. Is there anyone there? We don’t know. But this we do know. At our departing, there is only one language to use. So I invite my friend to say: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And I respond: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton.

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