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11 July 2014


BITTERSWEET is an over-used word. It is the only one that will do, however, to summarise my experience of the past two weeks or so.

Our curate went on his pre-priesting retreat, and I was full of expectation, urging all and sundry to make their diaries clear for his ordination on the Saturday afternoon. The ordination itself went well, despite terrible rain and lightning stopping the trains to Ely, so that five of us threw ourselves into a taxi and careered round tight corners of Cambridgeshire villages in the hope of making it to the cathedral on time.

We did, and the ordination was lovely. The only error I made was to forget I was holding the safety pin that I'd removed from the curate's stole when I rearranged it priest-wise, and so promptly impaled myself on it when it came to the Peace. Otherwise, all passed off happily and without controversy. I felt very proud of Fr Max and the parish.

THIS pride only swelled at his first mass on the Monday night, but, for rather more terrible reasons than I'd imagined. Not only did he have the stress of celebrating the eucharist for the first time as a priest, with all his friends and family there, but there was another and tragic dimension.

The night before, a priest who helped us out in the parish a lot, someone who was a former pastoral assistant in the parish, and now a distinguished Cambridge academic, died. Fr John Hughes was killed in a car accident, aged 35. He is (or was, I fear I should now say) my best friend.

There was no question of cancelling the first mass, and, given Fr John's close connections both with our parish and so many of Fr Max's friends, people would want to be together anyway. At a most basic level, the alternative was to sit at home and be inconsolable, and so being with others to share our grief was definitely better. Even more, there is nowhere better to be when encountering the death of someone we love than at the altar, where, in the eucharist, heaven and earth are united.

As the day wore on, increasing numbers of people said that they were cancelling engagements in order to be present, and, by the beginning of the mass, more than 200 people were crammed into church.

Before the service began, I told everyone what had happened - although it seemed almost everyone already knew - and said a prayer. Already I could feel a profound and intense atmosphere. Fr John loved nothing more than ordinations and first masses. While most of us went to one or two each year, he criss-crossed the country to support new deacons and priests who had been through his hands at Jesus College or Westcott House.

He was killed on his way back from an ordination in Salisbury, heading to Cambridge for a first mass. Most of us who are clergy become a wee bit suspicious of announcements that actions x and y are "what he would have wanted'"; but I could say with pretty good confidence that a keeping of our curate's first mass with the joy of the resurrection as much as the sadness of mourning was something that Fr John would have not only understood, but insisted on.

NOTHING prepared me, however, for what happened next. I was worried that, although the preacher (who knew John as well as Max) had changed his sermon, nothing else in the liturgy had been altered. Perhaps it would jar, I thought. Maybe people would not want to sing joyful hymns or celebrate in this context? Perhaps the whole tone would seem ill-judged or insensitive?

In fact, it worked wonderfully. The sermon (fortunately not by me, who would have wept through most of it) was brilliant and theological and moving, and the singing was amazing. Not only did the choir sound stunning, but the congregation sang their hearts out. Providentially, Fr Max had chosen "Jerusalem the golden" as the offertory hymn, and the last lines - "Exult, O dust and ashes! The Lord shall be thy part: His only, his for ever, Thou shalt be, and thou art!" - lifted the church roof off.

The anthem at communion was a setting of a poem by George Herbert, one of Fr John's heroes, and accompanied our sharing in the Bread of Life perfectly.

IN FACT, nothing went wrong. Fr Max sang the mass beautifully, concelebrants and servers (executing a liturgy they were not used to) moved flawlessly, and there was no doubt that Max's invocation of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of his priestly ministry was a prayer profoundly answered that night.

It was also a lesson that I should not have needed to be taught, but which I have taken to heart once again: that the sacramental life of the Church is the most tremendous gift to us. God's grace can mysteriously hold together both the joy of a young priest at the altar for the first time and the sense of enormous loss at the death of a young priest in tragic circumstances.

What else does holy communion do but show forth Jesus's death and proclaim his resurrection until he comes again? And, when he does come again, I trust humbly that John Hughes will be with him. Until then, may he rest in peace.

The Revd Robert Mackley is Vicar of Little St Mary's, Cambridge.


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