Hells Angels funeral was a memorable send off to heaven
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Soon-to-retire Bishop of Lynn Jonathan Meyrick looks back on the highlights of his ministry
I am spending a fair amount of time thinking back: “What have been some of your highlights, Bishop?”, people want to know. I find that in addition to the highlights of this last 9½ years here in Norfolk or Papua New Guinea, my mind also goes back to earlier highlights of ministry.
I have been part of many wonderful communities during my ministry, and each of them has had major highlights, but one that stands out is a funeral I took in Exeter Cathedral when I was Dean.
I have served in cathedral ministry for 13 years, in Rochester and Exeter, and I’ve had close connections with a number of others: Salisbury, Christ Church, Oxford, Charleston, South Carolina and of course our own Norwich Cathedral.
They offer huge possibilities, and their worship can be sublime – lifting our hearts, minds and souls in a way that’s reflected in the soaring beauty of their buildings. One of my continuing involvements beyond retirement will be with cathedral buildings, and I rejoice in that.
But they can sometimes feel a little beyond us and too grand for ordinary people. So in those 13 years, both in Rochester and Exeter, I have tried to remedy that, saying 'yes' to requests when the expected answer was 'no'. I have always tried to say 'yes', and most of what regrets I have are to do with the times when I didn’t!
This particular funeral in Exeter was one of those unexpected 'yes' moments – and I was so glad about that. The phone call came from a local funeral director I knew quite well. He started by saying: “You’ll probably say 'no' to this one, and I think that’s what you ought to say, but I promised I’d ask."
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The funeral request was for a man in his early 50s who had had a sudden heart attack. “There’s no connection with the cathedral,” said the funeral director. “Well, hold on,” I said. ”They must have some reason for asking for it to be here!”
It turned out that they thought the local church might be too small for the expected number. That seemed to me to be a very good reason for coming to the cathedral. “Let’s talk dates, and see what’s possible,” I said. Cathedrals have, generally speaking, and out of Covid conditions, pretty full diaries, and finding space for funerals can often be difficult.
We did of course find a date, and I went round to see Doc’s immediate family. The ‘Doc’ nickname came from the fact that his surname was Beeching, and those of us of a certain age will remember that it was a Dr Beeching who closed all those railway lines.
He had a partner called Caroline and both his parents and hers were there too. They showed me a photo of him, which I recognised immediately. He worked for the city council as a litter collector, and his regular ‘beat’ included the area round the Cathedral. We had said hello to each other most mornings as I walked over to say morning prayers.
It turned out that he was, like most of us, a mixture of sinner and saint – a prominent member of a local Hells Angels biking club, a terroriser of the local population but also known for the way he’d give away his coat to the homeless on cold January mornings. In the end, we had a really memorable funeral service with over 1,300 people squeezed into the cathedral – no need for social distancing then, thank goodness.
The hearse arrived at the cathedral escorted by 300 Harley Davidsons, I have never experienced anything else quite like it, before or since – nor I think had the mourners, many of whom had never been inside the cathedral before.
It reaffirmed my determination that whenever possible, I would try to say 'yes'. After all, the whole of the Christian church, its past, its present and its future is based on the premise that God says 'yes' to us.