Directory: Churches and People

The late Revd Peter Garland

19 June 2015

The funeral for the late Revd Peter Garland was held at St John the Baptist church in Spalding, on Thursday 18th June.

The short sermon was given by Peter's spiritual advisor, The Rt Revd Dr Christopher Herbert, who said:

Ephesians 6, verse 14: “Stand fast, I say. Fasten on the belt of truth; for a breastplate put on integrity; let the shoes on your feet be the gospel of peace to give you firm footing…”

I want you to picture Peter Garland sitting in a chair opposite St Paul. St Paul has asked Peter for advice about a piece he has just written. So Peter gets out his notebook (I never saw Peter without a notebook) and, as Paul begins to read, makes notes…

St Paul launches forth and says (Ephesians 6, verse 14): “Stand fast, I say. Fasten on the belt of truth; for a breastplate put on integrity; let the shoes on your feet be the gospel of peace…” (And for all the clergy here, “Yes, I do know that some New Testament scholars say that the epistle might, just might, have been written by someone other than Paul…but stay with me…)

So Peter stops St Paul and says: “The trouble is, it all depends what you mean by the word aletheia/ truth, in that sentence…”

Of course, it’s a kind of fantasy, but I have chosen one of Peter’s favourite, if unconscious, conversational mannerisms, the phrase “the trouble is…”, because it hints at so much about him.

I used to meet with Peter about two or three times a year over very many years, acting, at his request, as his Spiritual Adviser. I first got to know him when he was a non-church-going librarian of the local Sixth-Form College and he was in my parish. Peter was a great debater, always wanting to wrestle some theological, ethical or political point to the ground. He was passionate, sometimes to the point of anger, about what was or might be true. Gradually, gradually, he began to develop a vocation to the priesthood…and what drew him in that direction, amongst other things, was his restless search for what was and is true.

Over the years he mellowed, as we all do, but accompanying that process was another and very beautiful side of him: his profound humility. He certainly never lost the desire to explore truth, but recognised more and more that truth is not always best expressed in propositional statements. It can be expressed through worship…what is prayer but the attempt to speak honestly with God and to listen as honestly as possible to him? And Peter, in his search for truth, also began to delve into great works of art, into poetry, and perhaps above all, into languages. He had always had a love of Greek and Latin, but now he spread his linguistic wings: a bit of Russian, some Polish, and most recently of all, in order to get more fully into the world of great Italian paintings of the Renaissance, he had begun to learn Italian.

Many of you here will know much better than I do his determination to be a pastor to the whole community. Whereas as a younger man he might have wanted to speak the language of God to that community, in his later years he had become even more conscious of the need to listen to what God was already saying in and through that community. It is a great, humble and lovely gift and one that the Church of England is in serious danger of losing. We always want to be on transmit, rather than learning the quiet and patient language of God’s love. Through his devoted pastoral work in the parish and in local hospitals, Peter tried to speak the language of God, paradoxically, through listening, through patient attention, and, though he himself was not aware of it, without saying much he became hesitantly but graciously eloquent.

He felt, and perhaps you are not aware of this, that sometimes the work of a priest was beyond him. If hard work alone could have cracked it, then Peter would have cracked it. It was much deeper than that: it was the sense that trying to learn and to speak the language of God, whether through sermons, through poetry, through art, through foreign languages, through listening pastorally to others, in that process he was only making slow progress, if any at all.

But that was what endeared Peter to the rest of us. It was his ability to acknowledge difficulty, even defeat, to face serious problems head on, and to struggle to come up with solutions. His honest uncertainty was what gave the rest of us room to also express our uncertainties…and yet, we sensed deep within his own struggles something of God’s essential nature.

Perhaps I may put it like this: Peter was a man for whom God’s language was very beautiful, very mysterious and very complex… and he recognised deeply within himself that the language of God is one which takes a lifetime to learn.

I want, if I may, to say one thing more: his indebtedness to Frances was something about which he often referred when talking with me. But he did so with reticence and firmness (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). His recognition was that you, Frances, provided the sheet anchor when he was in stormy seas, (and he was quite good at creating them himself!) and that your relationship, and the love you both had for your family, was for him part of God’s language, but a part that was rightly, too precious to speak about glibly…May I simply thank you and the boys/men for allowing the rest of us to share so much of Peter’s time. The cost to you, as all clergy spouses know from the inside, is not inconsiderable… and the many blessings we have received come partly from you. Thank you.

So…there is Peter sitting opposite St Paul. St Paul ignores Peter’s question about the nature of truth and instead repeats what he has already written. (It’s no wonder that Paul is regarded by many as an episcopal figure…) He declaims: “Stand fast, I say. Fasten on the belt of truth; for a breastplate put on integrity; let the shoes on your feet be the gospel of peace …”

Paul pauses, looks at Peter.

Peter lays down his pen and notepad…and with his head turned to one side looks out of the window with shy embarrassment, as Paul continues...” and that Peter Garland is you… you have been utterly steadfast, you have worn the belt of truth, you have put on the breastplate of integrity and the shoes on your feet have been the gospel of peace…”

With everyone here, I give thanks to God with all my heart for Peter, one of the faithful, devoted and understated heroes of our Church. May there be thousands more like him in the future…"