Address preached by the Revd. Julian Barker at the Funeral Service of the Very Revd. Michael Till, Dean of Winchester 1996 – 2005, on Friday 14th December 2012.
As I was trying to work out how I could possibly say something worthwhile about Michael in the brief time allotted to me, the churchwarden of Egdean, the little country parish attached to Petworth, reminded me of his almost invariable introduction to discussion of any new project, “What would it be like if we were to …?” followed by some imaginative suggestion. Any of you who have worked with him must remember it well. So, ‘What would it be like if’ I were to try to outline some of his inimitable qualities, ignore all but the skeleton of his outstanding career, and tell a couple of stories.
One of the greatest joys and privileges in life is friendship. When, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples “I have called you friends” (Jn 15:14) he could hardly have given them a greater reassurance. For me, and I expect for many of you, Michael’s gift for friendship was certainly one of his most endearing qualities. This will be why we shall miss him most of all. Not quite so intensely perhaps as Tessa and Tobias and Sophie, but his going will leave a huge gap for many, many people. That hospitable warmth and friendliness may have been rooted in his relationship with his father who was manager of the Grosvenor Hotel in London and then the Metropole at Brighton.
And the gap will be so huge, in part, because Michael was in every sense such a large man. Big hearted, big physically and in many other ways, he always managed to seem a little larger than life. The first thing was his endless chuckling sense of humour. He managed to see the comical in the most unexpected places. Spending time with him invariably involved laughing. And he was frequently both witty and profound.
When he was Chaplain of King’s he was in the JCR one evening at about this time of year. There was a great list up on the board showing the places of all the people who would be taking part in the Carol Service procession: choir, lesson readers, candle bearers, clergy and so on. The captain of boats pointed it out and showed him where some wag had inserted “God Esq.” in the middle of the procession. Michael looked very black, took a pen, scrubbed it out, and saying “When will they ever learn. We’ve been trying for centuries to teach them about the Trinity,” inserted “Messrs God.”
Another splendid story illustrating his imaginative teaching is also from St John’s Wood days. It was just before Christmas. Michael was preaching about welcoming the stranger and ‘no room at the inn’. Halfway through the sermon, as planned, John Drury, heavily disguised and dressed in rags as a dosser or tramp, came into the back of the church shouting and generally causing a disturbance. He was quickly collared by the sidesmen and ejected. It made for an unusual and provoking sermon illustration.
His enjoyment of life included appreciation of all the best things in art, in food and wine of course, (the most exotic glass I ever drank was from a bottle of 18 something Madeira he had been given), in music, in craftsmanship, and above all in people.
But he wasn’t just someone who appreciated other people’s work. He himself was immensely talented in all sorts of ways. When he was at King’s he painted the staircase in Don Cupitt’s house with murals of Jonah and the whale and the seven deadly sins. In David Isitt’s Vicarage at Haslingfield he did a mural of saints and devils climbing up the wall in the lavatory. The house was sold and new occupants painted it over, but subsequent owners had the paint removed, so he was one of the few contemporary artists to have had his work restored as if it was an historic relic. Wherever he went he took his sketchbook, always full of imaginative detail. He was no mean craftsman either. The doll’s house he built, intended for Sophie, but finally completed for her daughter Faye, is a scale model of Tessa’s parents’ house and a triumph of detail and skill. Imagination and creativity were two of his most notable qualities.
That imaginativeness was there too in his skill as a pastor, never judgemental and always getting you to see things in a slightly different perspective. Much of his attitude is summed up in that quotation from his final address as Dean here which is printed at the back of your service sheet. “No-one is a triumph and no-one is a disaster. We are put together to get on as best we may. It¹s all pilgrimage.” I’m sure many of you here will have found him a hugely helpful person with whom to discuss problems.
This pastoral skill was apparent in all his jobs, as curate in St John’s Wood, Chaplain and then Dean of King’s, Vicar of All Saints, Fulham, Archdeacon of Canterbury, and finally Dean here at Winchester where among many other things he even managed to leave the Cathedral accounts in credit. Retirement brought no let up. For two years he held the fort at Petworth and Egdean during an interregnum. Typically that involved far more than just keeping things going. His input was huge. At Egdean he turned a little rural church round from the 20th to the 21st century with a immensely popular family service and a Carol Service which became so crowded that people could scarcely get through the door. A farmer with a tractor and trailer would pick people up from outside the pub and unload them to a welcoming Michael! For another two years he was Chairman of the Petworth Festival and put a immense effort into making it a success.
Michael’s intelligence too was an imaginative delight. He has one of the few people from whose company you always come away stimulated and buzzing. He wasn’t exactly an academic. He was, I suspect, the only man ever to become Dean of King’s College, Cambridge on the basis of what I believe was a fourth at Oxford, a qualification he shared with a number of other distinguished people including J. H. Newman. He was also the only person I ever knew who managed to fail the General Ordination Exam. Not because he couldn’t answer the questions, but because he wrote essays suggesting that they were foolish questions to have asked.
His theology was, how shall I put it, mainstream, even conservative. The resurrection was a fact. Quite what happened or how was up for discussion, but the fact that his disciples had met Jesus again after his death and burial was the single reason for the transformation of their lives and the existence of the Church. And of course it meant that for us too death was not the end, but the beginning of something gloriously and unimaginably new.
God knows we shall all miss him, but I hope our sadness will be tempered by the delight of having known someone so special, who believed wholeheartedly, as I do, in what that wonderful if sometimes neglected prayer, the General Thanksgiving, calls “the hope of glory.”
Rest eternal grant unto him, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace.