Joyce Webster 1919-2010

Sermon at her funeral by the Revd Doug Bannermann, 15 November 2010.

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Greetings to you all. My name is Doug Bannerman and I spent some time at St Philip's as rector. Thank you, Rebecca for receiving me as guest of your parish today.

My first impressions of Joyce Webster were to be lasting ones. Firstly, she reminded me of my auntie Flo, which, I realize on reflection, is about as high a compliment as I can offer to one who is older than I. Secondly, I thought to myself, "this is a formidable woman." Joyce had a commanding presence, which perhaps belied the same tender vulnerabilities to which we are all subject.

And her sensitivity is exemplified in the choices of text she made for her funeral service. It seems to me that Joyce, the Commander, ordered her funeral with the same depth and precision as she ordered her life. Her detailed instructions included the reading of Tennyson's Crossing the Bar, which Tennyson wrote shortly after a serious illness at sea; and many commentators suggest that he thought of it as his own elegy.[1] So, too, I believe, did Joyce.

A very English person, at least to a Scot like me. A lady. Determinedly independent. Devoted to her family, who can and could do no wrong — mostly. A keen reader of English history and historical novels of the Elizabethan period, and of seafaring, including Alexander Kent's Bolitho novels. A true and kindly heart. Walked everywhere, to church, to town and to Dickson. A great gusto for life and celebration. One could say that she had champagne tastes — that is to say champagne for normal celebrations and the best of pure malts for really special occasions. An assiduous volunteer until well into her eighties. St Philip's has a most beautifully hemstitched and embroidered altar cloth crafted by Joyce from a length of fair linen the centrepiece of which is a satin stitched Canterbury Cross.

In my ken, seagoing metaphors were significant in much of Joyce's thinking, as if sea going were a subtext of her life; and she liked to make sure that seagoing folk were properly remembered in our prayers. At Michelmas, she would remind me to add the prayer for the safety of those at sea, and the grand lines from the great psalm for pilgrims readily came to her lips. [2]

[23] They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
[24] These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

I shared with Joyce a liking for St Michael, who, in Scottish lore, was described by Alexander Carmichael as the "Neptune of the Gael." St Michael, wrote Carmichael, "is the Patron Saint of the sea, and of maritime lands, of boats and boatmen … " [3] So, too, the coast of England is dotted with parish churches whose patron saint is the Archangel Michael, one of the seven angels who go in and out before the Glory of the Holy One.

One of my other heroes of biblical yore is St Thomas, who figured in the reading from St John's gospel. The reading itself expresses the core of St John's thinking, plumbing the depths of being as it does; but it also expresses the conundrum of our faith, the paradox we inhabit as self-conscious beings.

On the one hand, almost in harmony with the seven angels that go in and out before the glory of the Holy One, we find Jesus uttering one of the seven "I am" sayings reported by St John, [4] which lead us into deep territory. "I am the way, the truth and the life."

"I am," of course, recalls the story in Exodus when Moses asks God what his name is. This was a reasonable question at the time when the world was essentially polytheistic. You had to careful with whom you conversed. But God's response to Moses was as baffling as Jesus' response to Thomas. "I am that I am." Period. The implied predicate, "God", hangs in the air as it were, but God would not be God if God offered a name as a predicate. I am. Period.

That's one side of the question.

On the other hand, Thomas has also asked a reasonable question — "Hey. You've said we know where you are going; but we don't. We do not where you are going, so how can we know the way?" In today's world, he would be asking for a Google maps reference with perhaps a few alternative routes from which to choose.

But "I am," even if we have been offered a predicate in the form of "the way, the truth and the life," still has a sense of the ineffable. [5] So the psalmist declared (in the psalm reading today),

"Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. [6]

This, then, is an article of faith, [7] which many of us bolster with metaphors of one kind and another that are embedded in every day life situations. I wonder what your pet metaphors are? Certainly, it would seem to me, that one of Joyce's was given perfect expression by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

For though from out our borne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed that bar.

Joyce was in a hurry and no wonder; her life did not end as she wished; another Commander at the helm. But I think it no coincidence that next Sunday is the celebration of Christ the King.

In the Hebrides, it is still the belief that upon one's death, the good St Michael will come himself, arrayed in dazzling white, and conduct the soul to the place of rest. So I close with a Hebridean Blessing for Joyce.

SINCE Thou Christ it was who didst buy the soul
At the time of yielding the life, …
Be its peace upon Thine own ingathering;
Jesus Christ Son of gentle Mary,

And may Michael white kindly,
High king of the holy angels,
Take possession of the beloved soul,
And shield it home to the Three of surpassing love,
Oh! to the Three of surpassing love.

So indeed, may the souls of all the faithful departed, in the mercy of God, rest in peace, and light perpetual shine on them. And may we all know grace upon grace through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


1. Certainly, shortly before he died, he instructed his son, Hallam, to put Crossing the Bar at the end of all editions of his poetry.
2. Psalm 107.23f.
3. Alexander Carmichael (1900) Carmina Gadelica, Note 77 Micheal Nam Buaidh, p 198. In passing, I note with pleasure that he is also the Patron Saint of Grocers.
4. the bread of life 6.35, the light of the world 8.12, the gate of the sheep 10.7, the good shepherd 10.11, the resurrection and the life 11.25, the way, the truth, and the life 14.6, the real vine 15.1
5. ineffable: adjective, too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words: the ineffable natural beauty of … , not to be uttered : the ineffable Hebrew name that gentiles write as Jehovah.
6. Psalm 139.6
7. containing a tension between our concrete existence and the otherness of the infinite.


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