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

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

In Memoriam Bill Hugonin

Bill Hugonin was for many years one of the churchwardens at St Michael's, Alnwick, including the years I served there as vicar of the parish. He died in March 2022. He had asked me to speak at his funeral, not to give a formal eulogy (which was beautifully offered by one of his oldest friends) but to introduce the prayers by reflecting briefly on his faith and the part it played in his long and active life.


It is exactly 40 years ago this year that I first got to know Bill Hugonin. I came as the new, young and raw incumbent of this parish of Alnwick. How much I had to learn, and how good a mentor he proved to be! I wasn’t to know the importance he would come to have for me not only during my years here but in the decades that lay ahead. I owe him a very great debt of gratitude for being one of the key influences of my life. He would have laughed at the thought - and did, when I tried much later in life to thank him. But it is true.

Latterly, he spoke often about what he called the “end-game”. He was not afraid of death, though he hoped his dying would be gentle. He had wanted to live well, he said, to be a human being with integrity, to try to make some difference in the world. Which he did, as we’ve heard, with characteristic generosity, practicality and kindness. And he wanted to die well too, if that was possible. His funeral was worked over with great care: the hymns, the readings, the prayers. A good funeral, he said, must always celebrate a person’s life, give thanks for all that he or she meant to family, friends and the wider community. It should try to reflect character, values, what really mattered to that person. So Bill wanted this service to reflect the faith that was so central to his life. He saw his funeral as a ceremony in which we would give back to his Maker and ours a precious life that was lent to us for a while. Which is to say, today is first and foremost an act of worship, of celebration, of thanksgiving, of prayer, and of loving commendation to God.

Bill’s faith was understated and modest. In a very Church of England way, he was not given to extravagant displays of piety. He valued the quieter, more reflective spirit of Christian wisdom informed by the best insights of theology and literature, poetry and art. His faith went deep, very deep indeed, for Christianity had borne and shaped him, nurtured him, made him aware (one of his favourite words). But conviction was nuanced by what I would call his tentativeness. He was wary of religious certainties and of those who claim to know too much about “God’s will”, how God is involved in human history or the evolution of the cosmos. Religious faith is precisely not to have easy answers but to look for and glimpse God in the arena of life as it is lived in the real world. His was the journey of the relentless questioner, a seeker-after-truth. For him, soul-making was always a work in progress. He believed faith should expand our horizons, stretch our minds beyond what is comfortable or conventional or familiar. And he undertook this lifelong work of striving to become a human being who is fully alive.

You get a feel for his faith in the quotations at the end of this order of service. It’s in the spirit of the reading from T. S. Eliot that we heard: “we shall not cease from exploration” - or, as St Anselm said, "faith seeking understanding". He pondered life’s sorrowful mysteries: suffering, cruelty, injustice, for he felt and grieved deeply for the pain of the world. But at the same time, he had learned that even in dark times, all of life is gift, transfigured by goodness, truth and beauty. And by joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always” said St Paul in the Bible reading Bill chose. And transfigured above all by the love he knew surrounded him: in his family, in his many friendships, in the goodness of things, and supremely in “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars".

In this Holy Week of Jesus’ cross and passion, we face death in all its darkness, all its bitterness and loss. But, as Bill used to say to me at times when I faced worry or despondency, we remember that Christ Easters in us too, rises within us as the bringer of love and joy and peace. In a few days we shall celebrate this resurrection once again, and glimpse how it is love, not death, that speaks the final word.

To that great and everlasting Love we turn now in trust and thankfulness, in the words Bill chose for us. Let us pray.


The prayers that followed were all chosen by Bill, as were the Bible and poetry readings, hymns and a selection of texts printed in the service order that reflected his values and aspirations as a man of faith.

Sunday, 10 April 2022

In Memoriam Peter David Manning

Adolescent friendships can shape our lives. Peter and I were school friends back in the 1960s. We were close. He was a little older than me, which meant that he was a big influence in my teenage years. He encouraged me to audition as a chorister at Hampstead Parish Church where he already sang, a decision that had lifelong consequences for me as a cathedral precentor and dean. We did chemistry experiments together in the science sixth form, lightly supervised in those days, including trying to create an explosive detonating device (we didn’t succeed - the school is still standing). We cycled round north London, listened to choral music on our crystal-sets, and pottered with our reel-to-reel tape recorders (with his flare for electronics, he had built his own and my parents paid for me to have a replica). We played piano duets (he was a better musician than me because he practised properly) and listened to each other navigate Bach on the school organ. Peter taught me about isobars, occluded fronts and cloud forms. He had his own barograph, an exquisite device of which I was intensely envious, still I’m told performing faithfully in his and Liz’s home at Cornsay where he was honoured as the local village meteorologist.

His family had a house in the Cotswolds, and I spent happy weeks there in school holidays. I would take my bike on the train and we would enjoy days roaming the hills, visiting village churches, picnicking by streams and pondering the mystery of things at evocative sites like the nearby Rollright Stones. We laughed helplessly at The Navy Lark and The Clitheroe Kid on the Light Programme, and at Flanders and Swann (At the Drop of a Hat, At the Drop of Another Hat) on two scratchy LPs we must have listened to daily. We talked incessantly, as teenagers do, about God, the universe and everything. Given Peter’s legendary wine collection at Cornsay, I’m wondering if Bordeaux and Burgundies featured at the dining table at Over Norton. I don’t recall. But that cottage was always a place of welcome and warmth during the turmoils of adolescence. Even now, three quarters of a lifetime away, it holds fond memories.

One day Peter’s father asked us if we’d like a men’s day out in their stylish Triumph Vitesse (“0 to 60 in eight seconds”, Peter had told me proudly). The plan was to visit the Three Choirs Cathedrals of Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester. It didn’t end well. Taking a bend in the road too fast, the car struck the bank and careered off on the opposite side. Finding a lucky gap in the oncoming traffic, the Vitesse skimmed across a ditch, ploughed through a hedge, and turned over in a field. The three of us hung there upside down. There was a long silence. It was broken by Peter’s plaintive voice from behind, “O dad, what have you done?” Understated, seemingly unfazed, cool even. That was very Peter. Then, in the face of his father’s helplessness and mine, his practical instinct took over. He instructed us to extricate ourselves from the car and push it back upright. “Try starting it” he ordered. The ignition fired first time. We got back in and his father drove the off-piste Vitesse diffidently out of the field (through the gate this time). The rest of the journey was taken up with a discussion about tactics on getting home, for it was decided that on no account must his mother know what had happened. So a not very convincing story was concocted about an overhanging branch that gave way just as we were passing underneath it, which explained the dent in the car. She cross-examined me in private. Somehow, I held to the official line. I don’t know if she ever found out.

Our paths diverged after schooldays. Peter came to Durham to read music and stayed for the rest of his life. Who could blame him? Nearly four decades later, I followed him here. His was among the warmest of welcomes that greeted me when I arrived as Dean at the cathedral where he had sung as a choral scholar in undergraduate days. I’d followed his career from afar, so I knew he had become an internationally recognised expert on Electronic and Computer Music, to quote the title of his best-known book. What I found as I mingled with Durham’s music community was how respected, admired and even loved the Professor was by those whom he had taught, supervised, made music with and worked amongst. There’d always been that spark of inventiveness and creativity about him that had nudged me to think in new ways (that I never got the hang of things electro-acoustic is my fault, not his). But there was something else too: his capacity to focus on the task. He’d learned at school, the hard way I think, that imagination and flair are not enough: there need to be discipline and hard work to shape inspiration and ideas into productive teaching, writing and research. We honour his professional achievements. They are very significant and will endure.

But what I most want to celebrate today are Peter’s personal qualities. I’m thinking of what I already knew in our schoolboy friendship: generosity, patience, tolerance, care, a wry sense of humour, and yes - a capacity for forgiveness. The child was the father of the man: beneath the reserve, the slight but perhaps cultivated eccentricity, lay warmth, kindness, humanity, playfulness, gentleness of spirit. In later life when we got to know each other again, we had both changed of course. But those remembered aspects of his character were there - now shaped and sustained by a long and happy marriage and a rich family life. To have reached and celebrated their golden wedding last year was, I know, an event of great significance to Peter and Liz, Clare and David and their families. Marriages that endure into older age and yield their harvests of faith, hope and love are always beautiful and moving.

We treasure our memories and are the richer for them. Rest in peace Peter. God keep you in his care.