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Fr Ralph Martin SSM

08 April 2016

Expressed in Ghanaian culture: Fr Ralph Martin

Expressed in Ghanaian culture: Fr Ralph Martin

Canon Vincent Strudwick writes:

IT WAS in 1957 that the Revd Donald Martin, who died on 24 March, aged 85, arrived at Kelham, the mother house and theological college of the Society of the Sacred Mission, the religious community founded by Fr Herbert Kelly. A Canadian, one of a family of four brothers, he had a master’s degree in classics from the University of Toronto, and had served a curacy as a parish priest. Having read of Kelly’s theology, vision and the work of SSM, he arrived on trust to test his vocation, and stayed. Professed “Ralph” at Michaelmas 1960, he continued to teach in the theological college for the next 12 years; times of change, that Ralph himself described as “like living through a world-wide earthquake, which shattered the foundations of society”.

Ralph had discovered, however, in the community and its spirituality, the foundation for his life’s being and work. A shy and private man, with none of the skills of oratory associated with great preachers, his sermons were captivating by the very quality of his imagery and choice of words, and the direct common sense of what he offered. His eye for detail made his descriptions riveting, and his laconic style meant you had to lean forward to concentrate on what he said.

Ralph’s Greek language tuition included the imaginative re-creation of plays, with students participating as characters and chorus in the language (he insisted) they must learn well, to be understood in heaven. Perhaps most of all, the members of the Society and students discovered a rock-like capacity for understanding and friendship, which, as his pilgrim days began, extended to an international collection of “ordinary” people who recognised, in his Grace-ful humanity, something very special, that in being befriended by him they were opened to something more.

In 1972, the college at Kelham closed, and Ralph was elected Provincial (leader) of the Society in England. In the next year, he brought a group of brothers to Willen, part of the growing Milton Keynes new city, to explore how to re-create Kelly’s vision and ministry in the post-earthquake world.

His vision was of a core group of professed, with a widely diverse group of associates and others — men, women, and children — who could share the life and mission in varying degrees, without “being clamped in a 19th-century corset, or expected to perform five miracles a day before breakfast”, as he put it. “They changed the Society for ever in those years; they made us more human. . . learning to accept ourselves as human beings, battling our way along a rather baffling track through life like most other people; doing what we were able to do, and daily invigorated by the love we drew from one another”. Through many transitions, that ministry is still evolving, 43 years on, at St Michael’s Priory at Willen.

Ending his leadership role, Ralph was then sent by the Society to Japan. Ghana followed, where he developed a theological college, which he ran for eight years, based on Fr Kelly’s vision, but expressed in the Ghanaian culture. A spell in Tees-side, and following the first Gulf war, Kuwait, amidst its smoking oilfields; then Rome to assist at the Anglican chaplaincy; a spell in Canada, then Oxford, before going to Lesotho, to set up and lead a vibrant community of indigenous members of SSM. Pastoral work at Alice Springs in Australia preceded his return to Oxford, to live alongside the Sisters of All Saints, where he was especially involved with the young Eastern European residents, and those “off the streets” at the Porch drop-in centre for the homeless.

It was noted that he would leave Vespers very swiftly to watch The Simpsons, and, after supper, be first with his hands in the sink, washing up, and regaling all with its fun and wisdom. He was still in demand as a preacher, and in a busy Northamptonshire church dedicated to St Peter, spoke, at the Patronal Festival, of Christ calling Peter to walk on the water. Like Kelly, he had no time for biblical literalism, but said “Yes, I do believe it, because I find that I myself today am facing that very same walk, as many of you are facing it as well.” He spoke of the world situation, of personal sorrows and burdens, and how we can be “water-walkers” like Peter, by risking everything, and letting God’s unwavering love for us and all humanity be the wet-suit that keeps us warm and “risen” above all that would drag us down.

A series of strokes brought Ralph to a care home, where he continued to receive many friends with his courtesy and love. He also oversaw the publication of excerpts from his own translation of John Moschus’s Spiritual Meadow and later his life story, Towards a New Day.

Years ago, he wrote “God will go on loving us, and all his world, till all our foolishness has worn itself out like a child’s tantrum, and we are ready to accept his glory”. Ralph Martin died after a short illness on Maundy Thursday morning, accepting the glory, quietly and without fuss, loved into the Easter light.

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