Dying to live

by
01 December 2017

On World AIDS Day, we publish an edited extract from Rosemary Bailey’s memoir of her brother Simon, Rector of the pit village of Dinnington, who became known as “the Vicar with AIDS” after he was the subject of an Everyman television programme. The extract includes a reflection by Simon himself

Simon Bailey archive

A royal priesthood: the Revd Simon Bailey after his ordination

A royal priesthood: the Revd Simon Bailey after his ordination

THERE was such a feeling in the last few months [of Simon’s life] of this being extra time, and how best to use it. It had its down side, of course, the waiting that we were not as trained for as Simon had become.

But there were many good things to remember, “kingfisher days” to squirrel away in the memory for many people. Perhaps Simon may even have been conscious of doing that as he went on trips with different people, spent time with all the people he loved and who loved him.

He was very conscious of the idea of memory, and of memorials. A vast tome of a book he bought that year, a revisionist history of the English Church before the Reformation, has a chapter on “Last things”. Perhaps it’s the only one Simon read; it is certainly the only place he has marked: the importance of remembrance and memorials. “What late-medieval English men and women at the point of death seem most to have wanted was that their names should be kept constantly in the memory and thus in the prayers of the living.” Bequests for the vessels of the eucharist were a favourite way of securing remembrance.

With the small fee Simon received from the BBC, he commissioned a ciborium to be made, a silver chalice with a lid in which is kept the reserved sacrament, ready-blessed bread. The ciborium took a long time to make and wasn’t finished before Simon died, but I am sure he intended it as his memorial anyway. It is now inscribed with his name and kept permanently in the aumbry next to the altar at St Leonard’s, ready to be used to take communion to the sick. It seems an exquisitely appropriate memorial.

In the commonplace book he gave to Margaret Selby, he ended the book with the words of St Monica: “All I ask of you is that whoever you may be, you will always remember me at the altar of God.”

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AMONG Simon’s papers I found a description of funerals, in which he describes people’s need to talk about the death: “This shaping of the material into a story is a recurrent ritual of grief rendering the events more endurable, graspable, controllable.” For me, reading this a few weeks after Simon died was like a gift, providing such a positive affirmation of my own desire to recreate the story of his death.

One of my most precious encounters was meeting someone else on the same path as Simon. David Randall was the Anglican priest who started CARA, a programme providing education and pastoral care for those with HIV/AIDS, who had talked publicly about being HIV-positive on television. He was blind and close to death when I went see him at the London Lighthouse a few weeks after Simon died, and I expected it to be a difficult and painful experience. Instead, it reinforced for me the value of learning from those who have prepared themselves for death.

Like Simon, David had discovered that it was in his suffering that his priesthood had the greatest meaning, progressing beyond his ministering to others, realising his own need. “Nothing is invalid as a result of this virus, let alone your priesthood,” David said. He described to me a visit he had received from the Bishop of London, who said Jesus’s major ministry was not when he was teaching or healing — it was in his Passion and death. “Being a priest with AIDS is a bit like that — how can you have true sympathy unless you are in there with them?” David died about six months later, in August 1996.

I began to see that this was the key to Simon’s death: that by sharing his suffering he had found a way through his illness and dying, and thus had most profoundly fulfilled his vocation. A priest’s role is not simply to teach, heal, and soothe, but to enable a constant exchange both of suffering and of love: the eternal mystical exchange that Simon had tried to explain to me so long before.

What was also clear was that Simon did it, at least in part, because he was homosexual. Perhaps he did have a natural vocation, a natural gentleness, spirituality, and empathy with others, but it was also out of his very oppression that he could find a way to make something meaningful of AIDS. He was already in the crucible when AIDS came along. He had already suffered in secret simply for being homosexual. In an odd way, it prepared him. And it began a process into which he drew many people, not least me.

 

GOD doesn’t go away — not for me — but draws closer and closer. In Passiontide this year I found myself accompanying Jesus in his pilgrimage towards dying more intensely, more personally, than I have ever done and he was — is — accompanying me. At the time, I was in hospital for a blood transfusion . . . the resonances and ironies only grow stronger. And at the heart of this intensity of living for me is the eucharist, receiving it, presiding at it. “The body of Christ,” “The blood of Christ” — the words reverberate in me ever deeper and deeper down. All the implications of being part — organically integrated into — the body of Christ become more and more powerfully significant. In that body, in all its manifestations, with my virus, is where I am alive.

Before I was instituted as Rector in Dinnington, I made a retreat which included a visit to what, for me, is one of the holiest places in England: the shrine of St Cuthbert, in Durham Cathedral. As I sat there in the silence I heard, felt, a message that there was nothing to be afraid of. It was a deep reassurance. I applied it then, of course, to the Institution and my first living. It did apply to that. But when I got home I found waiting for me the letter which urged me to contact the hospital which led to my positive diagnosis. And now, of course, I hear the message in this situation, too. “There is nothing to be afraid of.”

I don’t know where courage comes from; I don’t know why some seem to have it (like Dennis Potter, in his extraordinary last interview, who said he hadn’t had a moment’s terror in his illness) and others don’t. It is what I pray for. The Breton Fisherman’s Prayer has become one of my favourites, not least for its brevity: “Help me God, the sea is so vast, my boat is so small.”

I feel like a boat in dock, being built, repaired. The tide is slowly coming in. . . One by one the props are knocked away, sometimes more than one at once. . . I rock, uncertain, unsteady. It feels destructive, deeply threatening, unstable, unbalancing. . . But the tide is swirling in and I shall discover that the props have to go if I’m going into that great swelling ocean in my little boat, into the ocean that I’m made for. . .

“Everything is going to be all right.” One of the modem versions uses that phrase to translate Mother Julian’s “All shall be well. . .” in her Revelations. I am praying for the courage to believe it and to live it.

Simon Bailey

 

Scarlet Ribbons: A priest with AIDS by Rosemary Bailey is published by Jorvik Press at £15.95 (CT Bookshop £14.35).

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