Sermon at the funeral of The Revd David Parsons, given by his brother Robert
Holy Trinity Church, Street on Wednesday 22nd April 2009
The Bible Reading was 2 Corinthians 4
My theme is two men, David and Jesus. I will speak more about David, but the two are inseparable because he was a man, as the New Testament puts it, in Christ. He was united with him in baptism and by faith, so his story is part of the story of the people of God in Christ.
Inevitably for many of us, minds are full of the last three months, when David knew he had a limited time on earth, and he grew weaker day by day. Yet today we want to celebrate his whole life, 72 years well lived and purposeful. But when you think about it, these last weeks have summed up so much of what he loved and who he was. He made music - performing, recording and continuing to compose; he visited his school and his university; he said farewell - “valete” - to his Latin teaching colleagues, handing over their website; he worshipped (thank you to everyone here in the churches in Street, thank you Wells Cathedral, Bath Abbey, Kings College, Cambridge); he posted on his blog precious thoughts and feelings; he welcomed friends in person or by post or email or phone; he enjoyed beyond measure his family; he trusted God; . . . and he continued depending on other people tidying up after him! (Thank you, Chacquie.)
So if you can’t get these recent weeks out of your mind, you are probably thinking and thanking about the heart of the man. Let’s think about some of these things that were so precious to him.
The 14th of April, Easter Tuesday, was the day when David died. 73 years earlier in 1936 the 14th of April was also Easter Tuesday and on that day The Revd Martin Parsons and Miss Emily Wynne were married in Warsaw in the first-floor church in the mission house of the Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People. Their first home together was in a flat on a floor above, and it was there, some ten and a half months later, that David was born. Writing his life story, he began, “Yes, it’s really true that I was born on top of a church.”
They chose the name David. It was fitting that in their work among Jewish people in Warsaw, the baby should be given the name of the great King of Israel. I think he felt something of the connection later on when one of his poems in the Monktonian magazine went:
To crown green blades upon the sod,
Perfect in form and colour both,
A perfect crimson flower grew.
And painting, seeing it, praised its hue,
And science, seeing, praised its growth;
King David, seeing it, praised its God.
It was a poem about himself, of course.
From the start he was surrounded by love and prayer, and I believe that those two things were at the heart of how he related to all of us. Yes, of course there were other ingredients in the mix, but undergirding everything, he loved and he prayed, as I think we are all aware.
Not many of you remember his childhood in Dublin, but he enjoyed speaking of being a refugee from Hitler. During the comings and goings of those days he was left for some time with his grandmother in Foxrock (whose words we have heard already) and the two became close friends, age and infancy. He knew the great security of a loving family.
Dorothy and I were a bit younger than David, and we stood in awe of his abilities. He seemed so knowledgeable and quick-witted. So it was quite a relief when he was about 16 or 17 and we were living in Blackheath, that he showed he was not totally competent in everything. Both our mother and I had gone to bed with flu, and he took charge of the situation, carefully taking my temperature. He went to rinse the thermometer before doing the same for Mum, and came back looking rather sheepish, for he had held it under the hot tap, and the rapidly expanding mercury had burst the thing open. “We have this treasure in jars of clay” (verse 7). Another incident comes to mind, this time when David was a very small toddler. Mum was struggling to put shoes on his feet, when, with a disarming grasp of the situation, he said, “I’m not trying, that’s the worst of it!” Don’t you have to love a chap like that!
He really was a humble man, never seeking his own self-importance - though he was rather pleased that his portrait had been painted by a young man, a pupil of Sue’s, who later went on to paint the Queen!
It was obvious that David was academically bright. He has written, “I am good at learning what makes logic to me”, so Latin and Maths were a delight. His least favourite subject was Biology, which, he said, seemed too free and random for him to grasp.
He became a scholar of Queens’ College, Cambridge, and got a first class degree in classics. It needed a broad education and an agile mind to complete the Times crossword as a matter of course, sometimes done in the coffee break in a staff room. Later on, even to within a few days of his death, he would download the Guardian Crossword and complete it. David did have wide interests. Has anyone counted the books in his house? They cover a range of subjects, indicating his exploring mind - though the thermometer story leads me to observe that science is not heavily represented on the shelves!
Did you hear about when, with small children there was lots of washing, he pegged a book to the clothesline so that he could read as he hung things out to dry?
In one school report, Mr Lace, his housemaster, who was in charge of the corps, wrote simply, “He is not a military type”, which David later took as a compliment. David evidently wrote to him from his National Service in the RAF, for in Mr Lace’s autobiography, he mentioned some of the exploits that former members of the corps had achieved in their national service, and then: “I was amused that one non-military type managed to arrange that he spent most of his service learning Chinese; but even he during his real military training found that ‘the one disadvantage was that, with nothing to learn, the instruction periods were a bit of a bore.’” Non-military he may have been, but he remembered what he had learned as a cadet.
David used his learning as a teacher for 25 years of his life, in Edgarley Hall and Bruton School for Girls, but in more informal ways too, from his late teens, when he offered extra tuition in English to a schoolboy in Northwood to his helping an ordinand in Street with New Testament Greek.
He was a writer as well. He had several entries in the school magazine, poetry and prose, and carried on writing through his life. A gently erotic sonnet, written in his teaching days, when he drove each day from Locking to Glastonbury, appeared in his blog recently. And what a wonderful letter it is in the front of this month’s parish magazine. Are you aware of his well-researched history of Bruton School for Girls, “Gleam Flying Onward”? Even for those who are not familiar with the school, it makes a good read.
Then there was the music.
I remember learning that when David was a child, our father took him to the Christmas Carol Service at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, and Dad later suggested that the occasion might have been David’s introduction to the power of great music. Paul wrote, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (verse 6). For David music was a way to turn towards that light. A fridge magnet in his kitchen says, “When words fail, music speaks.” Early on in his life the piano became a great love. I remember going to bed in the evenings with Beethoven’s sonatas providing the lullaby. He told me that he once decided to give up the piano for Lent, but caved in within two or three days, and Mum said she had noticed he wasn’t playing, and wondered whether he could sustain the deprivation. The Monktonian of Christmas 1953 had a report of a school concert, saying, “Two things in this concert will be remembered above the others . . .” One of them was “David Parsons playing the Adagio movement from his own Sonatina for Piano. . . Written at the age of 15, it showed promise of greater things to come.” And he did go on composing till very recently, writing things for his visitors to play. How proud we were to hear him, in his last term, playing one of the pianos in Mozart’s concerto for two pianos with the school orchestra.
He didn’t take music exams until Grade 8 on the organ, when he passed with a distinction. Later on he got his ARCO, though not at the first attempt, nor even, (surprise, surprise!) the second.
Arriving at Cambridge he joined the fairly newly-formed Ichthyan Singers, whose aim was to sing to the glory of God in Christian Fellowship. He was tailor-made for it, and moved from singing bass to playing the organ to conducting. It was good experience for him, not only musically, but also in being creative about organising worship and leading a group of Christians.
He took advantage of the many musical opportunities that Cambridge presented. He moved on to Ridley Hall for training for ordained ministry. One morning, when he was due to play the organ for Morning Prayer in the chapel, he arrived late, just as they were beginning to say the Psalm, in the absence of the organist. It was Psalm 132: Lord, remember David: and all his trouble.
Did you know he gained notoriety in the North West as a curate who dared to play his guitar for some singing at a youth service in church? Possibly he was the first. That got him on to regional television. Or, as he quoted from a local paper, “My playing of the guitar in church raised revolt!”
I recall going up to Ormskirk to take part with David and Jill in a concert he organised in support of the Bible Society. Through his life there were many more. He believed in live music-making, even when the standard might not be as high as in the recorded music you could buy. But what pleasure he gave - and his standards were very high.
When he first came with the children to Locking he joined the Amateur Operatic Society at Worle and reviews spoke of his fine strong voice.
He has told of a concert in Downend: In 2007 he wrote, “A tenor called Paul Potts has won ITV's show, Britain's Got Talent. He was shown on the local news singing Nessun dorma. In 1999 I went down to a big Tesco in Bristol at midnight to see him and ask him to sing in Christ Church, Downend, in our Millennium concert, and he was charmingly eager to do so. He sang Nessun dorma then, too, and I accompanied him. He was a huge success, having a splendid voice. Now he's won £100,000, so doesn't work nights in Tesco - or do gigs for nothing!” I wonder if David’s invitation and encouragement helped this young man who was described as “cripplingly shy” to move forward in his career.
He wrote Christian songs for little children, words and music. Several appeared in a book, “Come and Sing”, published by Scripture Union. Although he could write some demanding music for the piano, these songs have accompaniments that even the most hesitant pianist can play.
I have been thinking so far of his early life, and how things that were begun then have developed. How do you remember him?
For some it is as a parish priest, in Ormskirk, Beccles, Woodbridge and Downend. You think of a pastor, whose love and prayer has been an inspiration and encouragement. He got involved with choirs. Perhaps you were with that group in Downend that went away for weekends, and for some of you a highlight was the pilgrimage to his beloved Ireland. You will be thinking of his preaching - delighting to explain whatever the Bible says and to apply it. “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (verse 5). I don’t think you ever felt threatened by him, but I believe you were often challenged by him. “We have renounced secret and shameful ways” (verse 2).
For some the memories are of a schoolmaster and school chaplain. And how he would work at those extra-curricular activities: taking pupils to Greece and Rome; helping to produce Britten’s Noye’s Fludde; making scenery for plays; Classics evenings and so on.
For some it was as a pillar of the Association for Latin Teaching, helping you to pray in Latin at conferences, and entertaining with musical wit on the final evenings. And running the website of course.
How many websites did he maintain?
Some of you will think of him as the one who developed our family tree. When I gave him a historical novel about the battle of Crecy, he set about discovering that we had ancestors on both sides, and he might well have wanted us to learn the lesson - that at some point the descendants of those who fought had married, so enemies don’t have to be enemies for ever.
Some of his travels included finding places where ancestors had lived and worked in Ireland and Germany. Glendalough was one of his favourite places on earth.
Perhaps you remember him as an enthusiast for the Street Society, doing all he could to help preserve the best in the village’s history.
Perhaps you remember him as a neighbour or member of the church communities here and in the mission church and at Walton.
Or a very good friend. And family: his marriage to Jill and the difficult times that brought it to an end - “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed” (verse 8); the loving companionship with Sue and her family. And I say, Hats off to David’s children and grandchildren, who have all in their own way been a huge strength.
We give thanks to God for him, a man of love and prayer.
We come to God also with our feelings of grief, our tears, our hugs, everything that cries out that this isn’t how it ought to be.
I believe you can say to God whatever is in your feelings. We could wish that David had lived longer; we could think, If only . . .; we could ask Why? Yes, we can do all those things; they can all be a part of the prayer that comes from the heart, a prayer that perhaps receives no obvious answer, but is surely heard, just as Jesus’ prayer was heard, when he said from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But let’s also go on loving and praying in hope. Twice we heard St Paul say, “We do not lose heart” (verses 1,16). David gave us all a fine example of this in his blog, choosing to post things that were important to him, revealing his love of life and his faith in God through his Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ. “I believed; therefore I have spoken” (verse 13). Death, which must come, soon or late, did not cause his spirit to shrink, but rather made him more of what he was - a man of love and prayer. It could truly be said of him as we heard from St Paul, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (verse 16).
On Easter Day, David was here, celebrating in word and sacrament the resurrection of his Lord and ours. Jesus, who pioneered the way through death, to live for us here and now, and beyond death, was the source of his hope of heaven. In 1937 on Easter Day [28th March] he was baptized when he was four and a half weeks old, dying with Christ and rising with him. The resurrection faith, in which our parents nurtured us, was what he longed for everyone to share. On this eve of St George’s Day, for the sake of our nation and the world, and for ourselves, let’s travel on, or even take the first steps, in that faith, in which he lived and in which he died.
This is a poem written by our grandmother, which David put in his blog. I printed it here but I did not use it at the service.
White hair growing thin,
Bright eyes growing dim,
A Pause—A Flash!
Eyes crystal clear,
Footsteps light as air,
Glad hands raised in joyous praise
Vindicating Heaven's ways—