MY MINISTRY began in a fruit bowl, in a home on the edge of Romney Marsh. A certain type of cleric reacts in horror to this: baptisms happen at a 10 a.m. parish mass, or not at all. But mine didn’t. I first put on Christ when I was a couple of months old, in the dining-room of my parent’s house, where the fruit bowl stood in for a font.
I was going into hospital not long afterwards, and so it was rather a rushed affair. Only my parents and one set of grandparents could attend in person — my other grandmother wept down a phone held into the ether. In this age of Zoom, it all seems rather like ancient history.
Open-heart surgery on a baby of that age is a tricky, tragic thing. My parents had selected the teddy bear with which I was going to be buried. I still have him, kept in a cupboard, owing to my own vanity and pretensions to adulthood. He’s difficult to explain as a memento mori.
But the surgery happened, and I didn’t die. Much as I value my baptism — the moment my life in Christ began — I don’t believe it was that dousing from the fruit bowl which saved my life in medical terms. That was due to the work of the surgeons involved, who were acting on the crucial imaging found by a device called an echo cardiogram. It had mapped the malformed shape of my tiny heart, and so allowed the surgeons to enter quickly and precisely, to stitch and to heal rather than to diagnose invasively.
THIRTY years later, the ministry that began in the depths of the fruit bowl on the edge of Romney Marsh has brought me, via many peaks and troughs, to Putney Vale Crematorium, to take a funeral for a parish in interregnum. I confess I approached it with some weariness of heart; it is the last funeral I shall take for a while, possibly ever. No room at the inn — or, at least, no job in the area, and, when you’ve just turned 30, with the prospect of no home staring you in the face, that means looking for other employment. Finality always hangs in the air at the crem.
Talking before the service to the next of kin, I learned that the deceased was a reserved, gentle man, whose main hobbies were an enthusiasm for Georgian architecture, and collecting harpsichords. His passion was his professional life, and so a colleague had been asked to give a eulogy on his contribution to cardiology.
The link raised a hint of recognition — but then I, like so many clergy, have commended many people to God whose lives could conceivably have touched my own: soldiers who served with my father; patients treated by my mother; and, of course, countless children of the same God who knew and loved those places dear to me.
AS THE eulogy progressed, it became clear that this connection was a deeper one. Dr Derek Gibson was the father of the physiological echo and had made possible, in particular, its use in congenital cases. He had been a stalwart at the Royal Brompton Hospital, where my surgery and the preparations for it had taken place; he knew those corridors along which I’d been wheeled when small. They’d always seemed so cavernous to me: long and whitewashed, like the nave of a Dutch kerk. Dr Gibson’s energy, research, and fierce intelligence had advanced cardio-technology in leaps and bounds — with each leap, lives saved. Lives like mine.
Afterwards, as we stood outside in the crisp, January air, a mourner came up to me. I recognised the face instantly; for I had stared up into it over many bored hours of medical procedure. Manjit Gosen had been a pupil of Dr Gibson’s, and had also been my paediatric echo cardiographer. I can still remember his cold hands, and the Thomas the Tank Engine noises he would make to cover the strange yell of the machine as it scanned my heart. He’d recognised my name, preposterous as it is, from the order of service. “I knew you were either a patient,” he told me, “or an international rugby player.”
We chatted and reminisced about the Brompton — those corridors again — and about the echo, the things it had made possible, and the man who had been responsible for them.
“Do you think that he saved my life?” I asked.
“Yes,” Manjit said, “he probably did.”
IT IS not only finality that hangs in the air at the crem, but circularity, too. Being the priest who commended the man who had saved my life to meet his Maker was small thanks for so great a gift; yet it drew together life and death in a way that gave hope during this lacuna in my ministry.
The Book of Common Prayer’s burial service reminds us that “In the midst of life we are in death.” I’ve always thought it a more comforting verse than it first appears; for it reminds us of the echo of its counter truth — essential to Christianity — that even in the midst of death we are in life. The life of Christ. A blessed circularity.
My life in Christ began in a fruit bowl, but my earthly life continued because of Dr Gibson, and to commend him to the hope of eternal life was a great privilege and a blessing.
The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a priest and a writer.
Listen to him read this article on the Church Times Podcast