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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

In memoriam Joy Sykes

In one way, it’s a bitter thing that just a few weeks after saying farewell to Stephen in this Cathedral, we are here again, this time for Joy. We feel for all the members of their family in their double bereavement. It is poignant that the retirement they had looked forward to was so cut short by illness. But as Richard put it in a recent message, we can be glad that they were separated by death for such a short time. ‘In life and in death they were not divided.’ And that is a beautiful and comforting thought.

The vocation of a senior clergy wife is not, I imagine, an easy one. I did not know Joy in Ely days. But I can imagine her adopting a thoroughly down to earth style in the Bishop’s House: hospitable, supportive, practical, not above saying (or at any rate thinking) ‘come off it Stephen!’ I think bishops need this kind of well-grounded practicality in their spouses; deans certainly do. In their Durham years, not least latterly when Stephen needed so much looking after, her devotion and care shone through.

And her joy. Anyone with such a theological name must be challenged to live up to it. But Joy had a genuine gift for lighting up the lives of others – not in any conscious way but simply because of the person she was. She loved life and it showed in ways that endeared her to all her friends. And her family of course, so cherished and loved. She was one of those people who is naturally generous with her affections and loyalties. Stephen’s moving tribute in an anniversary card is quoted in the introduction to the service sheet: he thanks her for ‘a lifetime of fun, adventure, travel, child rearing and, for the last five years, simply astonishing resilience in the face of an extraordinary disease in yours truly. I simply could not have managed, and been managed, without your steady love.’ Their children Richard, Juliet and Joanna and grandchildren Ella, Rebecca, Matthew and Shannon, all know how much they owe to her.

Wildlife, pets and the garden were important to her all her life. The family recall how they were never without pets, most notably dogs of which her favourite breed was the Pekingese because of its ‘independent and feisty spirit.’ In temperament, like recognising like perhaps? At one point the menagerie numbered 13 and included dogs, a cat, a horse, gerbils, hamsters, a rabbit and Torty the tortoise, her long-lived companion for over 60 years. In gardening she found recreation of mind and spirit. Every house she lived in had to have a decent garden for her to work in, to the point where she chose Ingleside, their last home here in Durham without Stephen having even seen it. Along with Rosie the labradoodle, she leaves behind Irish thoroughbred Sweet William who gave her such pleasure in her last months, and whom she loved to ride when she could.

Joy's intimacy with human beings and with the natural world means that her leaving us is all the more keenly felt. We wouldn’t be human if we did not need to be held at times of loss – by our memories, by one another, by God. This is what today’s service gives us: the opportunity to find strength by celebrating a life of goodness and joy, by helping one another in our sadness; and by giving back to God the person he lent us for a while. In all this we draw hope and strength from the prayers, the scriptures and the music.

What do they say to us today?

In the gospel, Jesus urges us: ‘do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God: believe also in me’. Of course, it’s precisely when our hearts are troubled and afraid that we can find it hardest to believe. Yet what Jesus invites us to do is not to make some colossal effort to believe when we have so many questions, rather it is to trust in the essential truth of things, that it is love that moves the sun and the stars. This is, I think, what Joy would want for us, because it was how she was in herself. In her lifetime, she had found that despite all its changes and chances, there is a deep-down trustworthiness in the universe. She loved life, and inhabited the world she felt at home in. She knew, and we know, that we are cared for, believed in, embraced, held, loved.

And this is the theme St Paul warms to at the climax of the great eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans that we also heard. ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’ He lists some candidates: ‘hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword?’ And a thousand other risks and perils that we face simply because we are alive in a precarious world? Shall these hazards have the last word? No, he says, rising to one of the greatest acts of faith in the Bible. ‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’

‘More than conquerors.’ Joy she seemed to know the truth of those words during her final illness. It was such a cruel disease. It deprived her of the years she had every reason to look forward to enjoying. Who would not be disappointed, angry even? But I never heard Joy complain or feel sorry for herself. Week by week she was with Stephen here at the Sunday eucharist, and we had many a conversation at the back of the Cathedral afterwards. She would be confident and calm, her wry laughter somehow defying worry and disease to do their worst. I don’t say that she did not struggle with it at times: the cancer and the treatment both took their toll. I am saying that they did not get the better of her. She practised courage throughout her life and did so in the face of suffering. She died as she had lived: in the end, she was the victor, not her illness. This is what we celebrate in this eucharist. Here we remember the goodness and mercy of God as we lay on the altar our dearest and our best. We do this with heavy yet thankful hearts, knowing that nothing is lost, and ‘all in the end is harvest’.

So we say farewell and allow Joy’s spirit to return to the God who gave it. William Blake has a beautiful epigram that plays on her name. It’s about being grateful for a precious gift, allowing ourselves to let go, and in that very act discovering that we are bathed in the unexpected radiance of golden memories. We find that paradoxically, loss brings with it not so much absence but a deeper presence, and that an eternal dimension breaks through our transience and illuminates our lives and our loves.

He that bends to himself a Joy
Doth the wing├Ęd life destroy.
He who kisses the Joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

St Paul says: ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Eternity’s sunrise, indeed.

At the funeral of Joy Sykes, Durham Cathedral, 4 December 2014
Romans 8. 28-end, John 14.1-6, 27.

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