I remember the first time I met John Petty. It was exactly thirty years ago. The Provostship at Coventry Cathedral was vacant. I had been Vice Provost there for just a few months. You can imagine that no one was more exercised than I was about who the new boss would be. The Bishop told me that his candidate would be coming to look us up and down, and that a colleague and I should go and meet him at the station and take care of his visit. They say first impressions count. Off the train he stepped energetically: lean, elegant, eager, expectant, and with a look of intelligent curiosity as if to say: I’m not taking anything for granted and neither must you. Let’s see how this goes, and what God might be saying to us about the future.
Not long afterwards, in January 1988, John was installed as Provost. No-one who was there will ever forget the great procession of people from St John’s, Hurst, streaming down the steps from the ruins led by their former and much-loved incumbent. It seemed that the entire town had turned out for the occasion. “This is the best job in the Church of England” announced John from the pulpit. Perhaps we should all feel like that about our ministry. I did at Durham, so John was only partly right. But I think everyone in Coventry Cathedral that day was heartened by the way he spoke about his new role and the enthusiasm he brought to it.
John came to Coventry with a long and solid experience of parish ministry. He was ordained priest in 1967, so this year marked his fiftieth anniversary. His curacies in Sheffield and south London formed him in the tough realities of urban life where the church has never had it easy or straightforward. So he relished the challenges of mission and ministry in Ashton Under Lyne and earned wide respect and affection for his complete commitment to the place and its people. He loved them and they him. Some of his parishioners were in tears at that great installation in Coventry. That sense of loss was both telling and moving.
This earthy parish experience John brought to Coventry. He was no armchair theoretician. He aspired, I think, to be a practitioner for whom Christian prayer, service, mission, pastoral care and lived human relationships were the best evidence of the gospel that he knew. John loved the Cathedral. He had big ambitions for it and from his first day set about realising them with both energy and flair. Whether it was the international ministry of reconciliation symbolised by the cross of nails, or the spirituality of the place nurtured by liturgy and daily prayer, whether it was outreach to civic leaders or day to day involvement with the lives of ordinary people, he gave everything. He grasped avidly every opportunity to champion the Cathedral in the wider world. Some of us wondered whether he could sustain this furious pace. As I got to know him, I realised that this was simply the way he lived – loving life so intensely, grasping it so joyously that he could not hold back from giving himself totally to it, in his work, his leisure, his relationships. We have heard earlier in this service about John the human being – the husband, father, friend. To see him cycling round Coventry said it all. As did the study light in the Provost’s House which would be on well after midnight every evening of the week bar Friday.
But it takes more than hard work to make a good leader in any walk of life, especially in the church. One of his colleagues said that what was remembered about John was his visibility in the Cathedral, walking the nave several times a day in his cassock to talk to the staff and volunteers whose names and the names of their families and even their pets he remembered with unerring accuracy. He was an instinctive, warm-hearted pastor who was genuinely interested in people and cared about them. He was a natural encourager. The residents and staff of Mount House here in Shrewsbury know this from his years as their chaplain. One of the personal commitments that lived this our was a project he initiated called Remember Our Child, a ministry of prayer and pastoral support for parents who had lost children. John enjoyed the big public ceremonies, but just as characteristic was John’s capacity to reach out in quiet intimacy to those who were hurting years and even decades after experiencing this most painful of all bereavements.
We who worked with John remember how his leadership style was to give space for his colleagues to flourish in their own roles. As his Precentor, I knew he completely trusted me with the Cathedral’s worship and music, even when it came to organising the Royal Maundy service in 1995 and many other events where my job was to put the Cathedral and him personally on a public stage with all the scrutiny this brought. He knew how to delegate. He was proud of his team and was lavish with his praise for them. He wrote copious letters in his unmistakeable blue felt-tip to thank people, cycling round to deposit them at the central post-office in the small hours to make sure they arrived next day.
Today we gather up the strands of John’s life both public and personal. We give thanks for him and celebrate all that he was and continues to be to us. In my mind as I remember him is what I heard him say a thousand times about Coventry Cathedral, that amazing place that holds together like no other place I know the brokenness of death and destruction with the healing, life-giving spirit of what has risen out of the ashes. “To walk from the ruins into the new Cathedral is to walk from Good Friday into Easter” he would say as he gazed at Graham Sutherland’s tapestry of Christ in Glory, in my view the greatest work of art in a building crammed with treasures of the twentieth century.
This funeral takes us on that same journey from Good Friday to Easter. For while we grieve John’s loss and feel our own mortality on a day when it’s natural and permitted to mourn, nevertheless we come here in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead. In our reading from Corinthians, St Paul speaks about this movement from transience to eternity, from glimpsing to seeing and knowing. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Paul is able to say this out of his conviction that while “faith, hope and love abide, the greatest of these is love”. Perhaps that’s how we need to remember those who have died, whom we love but see no longer: to allow the mercy and grace of God to shape the way we hold them in our hearts and memories. “What will survive of us is love” wrote Philip Larkin, the twentieth century Coventry-born poet. What sustains us all on our journeys is the love from which nothing can separate us, not even the final journey all mortals must make in the dark shadow of death.
This was John’s faith. He held it unwaveringly. It saw this good man through a lifetime of devoted service. It was his reason for living, his nourishment, his inspiration, his joy. It will not have failed him at the gate of death. May he rest in peace, and at the last be received in the outstretched arms of Christ in glory.
At St Chad’s Shrewsbury, 7 September 20171 Corinthians 13