Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Past Vicars of St Peter's (4) - John Abdy

Rev John Abdy (RIP) - Vicar of St Peter's 1985-1991
Faith, hope and love. John had them all. They informed the way he lived, they shaped his outlook on life, and each one of us who had the privilege of knowing John has been enriched by the faith and hope and love that made John who he was.

John came from a very musical family. His mother had trained as a pianist at the Royal Academy and John was taught piano and cello. His love of music was further developed through singing, a love which was with him throughout his life. As a boy he went to boarding school and then to Lancing College. While John was here Trevor Huddleston who was to become Archbishop of the Indian ocean stayed. Lancing was his alma mater and he returned exhausted from his anti-apartheid work in SA to recuperate.

John was intensely inspired by Dr Huddleston’s work in South Africa and his vocation grew from that moment. John read Theology at Nottingham university, then went to Cuddesdon Theological College when Robert Runcie was the principal. John’s first curacy was at St Luke’s, Leagrave in Luton, and the second curacy was in North Mimms, Herts. It was here that John met Sheila at the wedding of a friend of hers. John had officiated and they found themselves sitting at the same table. A whirlwind romance followed and Robert Runcie married them at North Mimms in 1970.

A year later they left for John’s first parish King’s Walden with Preston in Herts. From there they went to Chelmsford Diocese, to South Woodham Ferrers which at the time was a village of 7000 but which was due to grow to about 20,000 in a few years. A combined Anglican Methodist & Roman Catholic church was to be built. John had always had a heart for ecumenism and his commitment and drive to this project were a major factor in making it work so successfully.

After six happy years at South Woodham John was invited by the Bishop of Chelmsford to look at another parish – St Peter’s in the Forest in Walthamstow. This was a pioneering church which was very involved socially in the community. The church was very broad in outlook and managed to hold together people who were often on the margins of society. There were difficult times and John’s commitment to social justice held him in good stead. John and Sheila’s next move was to Burrington, C L & S.

John wanted to work in a rural setting and the four churches each with their different churchmanship and styles of worship seemed like an ecumenical project in itself. John soon began to develop a vision for the four churches. He was very much a man who wanted there to be strong links between church and community. He initiated a mutual support group of local GPs and clergy which met informally in someone’s home; he was a hardworking governor of Burrington and Churchill schools and regularly took worship in these and also Sandford school. He developed strong links with Churchill community school and initiated a sixth form carol service at St John’s where the young people were blasted with rock music as they entered the church. Not the experience they had anticipated no doubt.

This desire to connect with young people manifested itself in confirmation classes and in encouraging youngsters to join the various choirs in the benefice. Music was such a vital part of John’s life and he had long held hopes of developing a strong musical tradition in the benefice. That came to fruition when Sarah Josky was appointed deputy head of Churchill primary and John discovered that Sarah’s husband Jeremy Martin was a highly accomplished organist. He was in there like a shot. And his tenacity resulted in the formation of The Trinity Singers which, under Jeremy’s leadership has gone from strength to strength and has a well deserved reputation throughout the area.

John was very much an enabler. Where he had the vision but knew he wasn’t the one to carry it out he was humble enough to facilitate others. John would set aside his own agenda, preferences and ideals where necessary so that the work of the Holy Spirit could flourish in unexpected ways. This was especially true at St Mary’s Langford, where a strong lay leadership team wanted to take the church further away from the mainstream traditional worship. John could have easily pulled in the reins. He knew that the change would not be welcomed by everyone but he saw the strength in having diversity across the benefice. It was a risk and it paid off and those who weren’t so enamoured graciously accepted John’s vision of one mission church reaching out to the families in the area.

Another risk was when a 15 year old member of All Saints Sandford, Catherine, wanted to bring in some friends and hold a rock communion in the church. Again, John took the risk and said yes. I don’t know what it did for the ears of the worshipping community in Sandford but it showed Catherine and her friends that she was an equally valued member of the church. John’s passion for ecumenism reached a peak when the Local Ecumenical Partnership was signed between Sandford Methodist church and All saints Church Sandford. John greatly valued having John James as a colleague and friend and would often look to him for advice and a different perspective on things.

A lot of ecumenical work took place in the benefice. One of the highlights for me was a joint Easter Sunrise service on Cowslip Green, followed by a breakfast at Alan and Janet Brown’s.

Having John as a training incumbent was often unpredictable! He had his weaknesses as well as his strengths. I think John’s weaknesses are probably pretty well known and he would be the first to admit them – namely administration and personal organisation. A diary crammed full of pieces of paper covered in almost illegible writing didn’t make for the greatest efficiency. I remember once in my first year during one of our meetings at the Parsonage John went off to search for a document or book from his study. Ten minutes later he hadn’t been able to find the document, but he did return with an LP of Alan Bennett’s anecdotes and instead we listened to Bennet’s spoof sermon on Genesis 27: ‘Esau was an hairy man.’ Well, if you haven’t heard it I thoroughly recommend it. It was hilarious and after almost crying with laughter we both forgot about the training session.

The sheaf of handwritten notes accompanied John into the pulpit. Sometimes they were in the right order and the sermon went smoothly. Sometimes they weren’t. You sometimes got the impression that the sermon had been rather hastily prepared. And then you discovered that John had spent half the night sitting at the bedside of someone who was dying, or had been visiting someone in hospital late into the evening. Sermons were important, but people were much more important. Someone said his visiting went far beyond the bounds of duty.

Personally I don’t think duty even came into it for John. He was never motivated by duty, but by compassion. John cared deeply about people. Whilst John and Sheila were at the Parsonage in Langford they offered hospitality to a young vet student from Kenya by the name of Daniel Masega. Dan lived with them for 2 years and naturally became part of the family. John, Sheila and the family visited him in Kenya and stayed with Dan’s family in the bush. John returned to Kenya for a long sabbatical in 1998 where he attended Nairobi Theological college and then stayed in Limuru and other parishes, a fairly remote part of Kenya, where he helped out with services. When John came back to England after 4 months away he found it hard to adjust. He commented how Africans were so spiritually rich but materially poor, whilst we are so materially rich and spiritually poor.

John’s deep commitment to all things ecumenical was behind the vision that led to the setting up of a local ministry group which involved all the churches and communities within the Churchill Community School catchment area. This enabled the original benefice of B,C,L & S to be dissolved in a positive light rather than seeing it as a reason for sadness. The new LMG was undergirded with prayer as the 7 ministers from all denoms would meet at 7am every Friday for prayers and breakfast, and John was one of the most regular members, despite his poor health at that time. Matthew Thomson says: ‘There was a sense of fellowship and friendship that enabled new ideas and redrawing of boundaries and all the other things that so caused consternation in other places to be made possible, and much of this was down to John, his character and his determination’.

John retired in 2006 and settled down to a fulfilling retirement in Musbury. He loved the cottage and the view from it. He had a deep appreciation of beauty and he and Sheila enjoyed walking on the hills and surrounding area. John’s passion for music found an outlet in the area. He joined a jazz choir which met in Colyton and he sang in the Exeter Bach Society. In fact the piece that Jeremy played while the coffin was coming into church was from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a work that John was due to sing just a week ago. John was also on the committee of Seaton Music Society and he helped organise local concerts.

He took up the cello again, a gift Sheila had given him from her first pay packet as a teacher and which he hadn’t touched for 30 years. John soon became involved in the five churches of the benefice. He was especially a great help and support to the benefice during the long 18 month interregnum, and then recently to Hilary since her appointment as vicar at the end of June.

It is a mark of the respect and affection in which John was held that as this service is taking place a parallel service is being held in Musbury for those who wish to remember and give thanks for John but who can’t make the journey today.

John also played a part in his retirement in the wider mission of the church. He became involved in the Exeter Diocesan Link with Thika in Kenya as part of the group that organised events. John was instrumental in bringing over the Bishop of one of the Kenyan Dioceses for a visit. Because of his experience of and passion for Kenya John was able to be an invaluable source of information and advice about the culture and matters of etiquette. John’s passion for social justice and ecumenism never wavered.

John was a true priest and a good friend. As a training incumbent he taught me by his example what it means to be a faithful priest even though I have failed so many times to live up to his example. He was tireless in his work, he responded to someone’s need at the drop of a hat, he was deeply concerned in people’s lives, he had an amazing memory which stored conversations and personal details so that you always felt cared for, you felt that John was deeply interested in your life.

John delighted in people. As Clare said, he always saw the best in them, he looked for the best from them and so often enabled people to realise gifts they didn’t know they had. John had a quiet wisdom which sprang from his intelligence and great depth of spirituality and this wisdom was both wordly and spiritual, and taking counsel from John often made one feel unburdened. Yet John had the humility to make you feel that there was an equality in the conversation, that he benefited from it as much as you did. As someone has said: John had the extraordinary gift of being able to impart wisdom without making you feel daft! John has made a difference to many people’s lives, most of all of course to his family, to Sheila, Danny, Nick, Karen and Clare and grandchildren Tynisha, Tyreece, Leah and Caitlin, all of whom he loved deeply and dearly. John was very proud of each one – you could tell from the way his eyes lit up when he spoke about them. John had a photograph of all the family constantly at his bedside in hospital.

The greatest of all is love. John gave love and received love, from his family and friends, from his colleagues, from the communities in which he served, and above all, from God whose love cannot be destroyed even by death. And so as we give thanks for John let us also even in grief give thanks that John now rests in the love and peace of God.

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