Mourning “the people’s parson”

From the U.K, here’s an obit about a clergyman who clearly had an impact:

The Reverend John Lambourne, who has died aged 76, was an old-fashioned country parson of a type now rarely to be found in the Church of England — a man who filled the pews, not with force of intellect, but with a sunny disposition, an unfeigned enjoyment of good company and a sympathy with the rhythms of rural life.

As vicar of St Mary’s Salehurst, Sussex, Lambourne described himself as a “traditionalist” with no time for “all this modern stuff”, and his impatience with Church bureaucracy often exasperated his superiors in the hierarchy.

His sermons, meanwhile, were brisk (he claimed that no one could be expected to concentrate for more than four minutes) and notable for his use of sporting metaphors to explain complex matters of doctrine. The Trinity, he liked to say, was like a set of cricket stumps: from the bowler’s end they would appear as three; from square leg they would be seen as one.

A keen rugby fan, Lambourne served as chaplain to a number of rugby clubs and was a popular after-dinner speaker, even if the content of his jokes at such events sometimes brought a dressing-down from the bishop.

For some time he also rejoiced in the title Chaplain of Agriculture for the County of East Sussex — an acknowledgement of his standing among farmers and others involved in making a living from the land. During the foot-and-mouth outbreak, it was to Lambourne that the Bishop of Chichester turned when he needed to find out how farmers were dealing with the crisis.

Lambourne provided comfort to the sick and bereaved, and there were few people in the parish of Salehurst and Robertsbridge whose lives he did not touch . A major part of his ministry, however, was conducted over a pint at the local pub, where he encouraged all sorts of unlikely people to become regular churchgoers — even to attending “bring-a-bottle” confirmation classes.

One parishioner recalls how at one Midnight Mass, held after a convivial evening in the pub, Lambourne embarked on his sermon but soon found himself struggling with the word “vicissitude”. After three valiant attempts he gave up with a “we’ll leave it there, I think”. At the same service the following year he began his sermon with “vicissitude” and continued where he had left off.

Although Lambourne more than doubled the size of his congregation, filling his large medieval church every Sunday, people who turned up in church only at Christmas or Easter were never made to feel that they were falling short of the Christian ideal. He once observed in a sermon that a lot of people go to church without really knowing why and feel better for having done so; all were welcome whatever their state of belief or disbelief, and once people came to his church they tended to stay.

One exception was the journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge, a great friend, whom he was able to coax away from atheism, but unable to prevent making his much-publicised conversion to Roman Catholicism. He was saddened by Muggeridge’s defection, he told an interviewer, but had replaced him with a nice St Bernard dog.

The parish of Salehurst and Robertsbridge under Lambourne’s benign leadership was a notably happy community. At an emotional service to mark his retirement in 2006, 600 people from all walks of life turned up to wish him well, afterwards adjourning to a neighbouring farm for a huge picnic.

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