His full title was: The Very Reverend Father Jack, Dean Emeritus of the Antiochan Orthodox Church in New Zealand.
I had missed his celebration of 40 years of ordination - the first ten as an Anglican minister - on 21st October, so I'm glad that I made the effort to pop in to the Deanery late on the Ashley Church's saints' day after I had set off borer bombs in the church - 28th October is the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, but also my mental marker for woodworm treatment.
Father Jack was saintly material himself. He and his family came to live in the village about thirty years ago, adopting the neighbouring inter-denominational church as the seat of worship for a far-flung Eastern Orthodox congregation. Father Jack and Julia, his wife, developed a community garden and hosted many young people who were floundering in life. This work was tireless and selfless and quite often it seemed to me thankless. Father Jack was as devout as he was practical and the arcane business of daily offices, complete with robes, chants, bells and censer not only fascinated me but gave life to a little country church that would otherwise have been an empty shell. I almost take for granted the icons and bright altar cloths but how remarkable to walk into the vaulted Anglican architecture of Benjamin Mountfort and find Christ the Pantokrator, and his attendant images, basking in the afternoon sunbeams, or to spot Father Jack swishing through hip-high cocksfoot along the country roadside, in black robes, purple satin and his stovepipe hat.
Of course he would have loved me to join his flock, but although I probably exasperated him, he treated my personal brand of atheism with good humour and once when there was no congregation about, I stopped mowing, kicked off my gumboots and read the refrains for him. He didn't appreciate being interrupted mid-office however, and I remember slipping away once rather than disturbing him, only to find that he had been saying a Requiem Mass for Elwin. I wish I had been bolder that day.
Father Jack was a scholar and when I asked him to say a final committal in Latin for Elwin's otherwise secular funeral, he asked me whether I wanted German pronunciation or not. He could have come up with any dialect I thought of, I'm sure. I rather envied him his scholarship since I used to fancy myself translating ancient texts in my own ivory tower, which I never imagined could be here in rural North Canterbury. In recent years he worked on translating the Monastic Office, aquiring texts dating back to 1703 in order to translate the reference into current idiom, so that modern priests might no longer "be tied to the innovations of the 1925 edition." More prosaically Father Jack compiled an extensive history of the Ashley Church of St Simon and St Jude, which is a valuable addition to local archives.
His departure also means the loss of the Orthodox tenancy, but there is no hurry to remove its presence. As this door closes another will open when the time is right. In the meantime I remember that I had my first lesson in dressing the altar at Father Jack's funeral. I learnt in no uncertain terms that one should "never cover the tabernacle with black," and I think the priest who did, will never forget that!
But Advent is here and maybe Julia and I can dress the altar in violet.
Father Jack's was the most elaborately religious funeral I have ever been to, proscribed and full of ritual. It was also the truest religious funeral I have been to. It was Father Jack.
There was nothing false at all about him and his eulogy which likened him to Tolkien's Niggle from Leaf by Niggle summed up his character perfectly. I will miss him.