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.