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Seventy-five today.

2018 January 30
by Gordon Reid



My three-quarter of a century birthday seems like a good time to give thanks for “all the blessings of this life”, as the General Thanksgiving puts it.

I have, in fact, written an autobiography, a memoir of these 75 years, but also an attempt to get down on paper some of the beliefs that have grown within me, especially those concerned with my priesthood, since this year is also my 50th anniversary of priestly ordination (we were almost all ordained at 25 in those days – no nonsense about getting some experience of “life” first – as if there were no life-experiences at school, university and seminary!). The tentative title of this book is “Have Biretta, Will Travel”.

The “travel”  in the title is there because in these seventy-five years, I have had the great good fortune to travel to dozens of countries in every continent except Australia. The “biretta” is there, because for most of my life I have been an Anglo-Catholic of the rather extreme sort who does not feel they have worshipped God well unless they come away from church reeking of incense and uplifted by Mozart Masses and glorious vestments!

But my gentle readers will be glad to hear (well, most of you) that my seventy-five years have taught me that people are much the same, whether they live in Stavanger, Norway, or Ulan Bator, Mongolia, both of which have English churches within my old diocese, the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe. And my years as Vicar-General of that wonderful Diocese have taught me that God can be worshipped just as devoutly and effectively in churches with no birettas or incense – or even maniples. (Most of you surely won’t have to look that up!). So as I enter my second childhood, I now know a great many things that would have been quite useful in my first, and indeed in all my life

It has been a full one. I lived till I was seventeen in two towns in the Scottish Borders, south of Edinburgh. I then got a great deal of “life-experience” during three years at Edinburgh University, a year at the Scottish Episcopal Seminary in Edinburgh, two years at Oxford University, and one year at Cuddesdon College, a Church of England theological college outside Oxford. This all led up to my  ordination by the Bishop of Edinburgh and my assignment to be assistant priest at St Salvador’s Church, Edinburgh. The main prison for the East of Scotland was in our parish, so the Rector and I were the Episcopalian Chaplains to the prison. This led to my having to confess to the Bishop that once, during the Rector’s absence on sick-leave, I had heard the confession of a prisoner and (being at that time only a deacon) had absolved him with the words  ”… and by His authority, which is about to be committed unto me, I absolve thee from all thy sins…” The ultra-liberal but deeply spiritual Bishop Carey pretended to be aghast, but then offered me a sherry and said “Well, I suppose now I will HAVE to ordain you priest, so that that absolution takes effect”.

Then I travelled south for the second time to be Chaplain of Salisbury Theological College, where I taught New Testament Greek and Moral Theology. Three years in the Cathedral Close were a wonderful experience, especially the daily Mass in the College chapel and daily Evensong in that glorious Cathedral. But after three years, Bishop Carey asked me to become Rector of the most Anglo-Catholic church in Scotland, St Michael & All Saints, in the centre of Edinburgh. (I seem to have made a habit of this, since I have just retired from being Rector of St Clement’s, Philadelphia, arguable the most Anglo-Catholic church in America). I well remember walking in a cloth of gold cope and biretta through the streets of my parish in an Assumptiontide procession and overhearing one old Edinburgh lady say to another as we passed them, “That Father Reid thinks he’s in Italy”!

After twelve years in Edinburgh,  I was appointed Provost of Inverness Cathedral (the equivalent of Dean in England and the USA) by the Bishop of Moray, Ross & Caithness, three pre-Reformation dioceses now merged into one and covering all the Scottish Highlands and Islands. After four years, the Bishop and I failed to see eye to eye on our views of gay rights and so I accepted an invitation from an old friend, the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, to be his Vicar-General. Before I took up this job in London, I went to have experience of the life of the Diocese in two British Embassy churches, St Nicolas’, Ankara, and St Peter & St Sigfrid’s, Stockholm. From them I visited many more Chaplaincies, and then returned to London to the job of Vicar-General based in the Diocesan office, first in Kensington and then in Westminster. Two amusing incidents from my time in Ankara: soon after I arrived I learned that Ankara was in fact in the old region of Galatia, and so the next Sunday I took as my text St Paul’s rather tactless way of addressing the early Christians there “O foolish Galatians”. I thought my sermon wasn’t that bad, but the Ambassador’s wife came up to me afterwards and said “Oh, Fr Gordon,  we are so tired of visiting preachers hectoring us with this text”! A happier outcome of another sermon, one on Good Friday, on the victory of Christ’s cross, was when I finished off with “And so you see, after all that suffering, God won”.  Then to my astonishment, I heard myself add “The Devil nil”. Very un-Good Friday-like roars from the young soccer-loving military attaches erupted.

During my five years as Vicar-General in the Diocese in Europe’s London offices, I must have visited at least three-quarters of our English churches on the Continent. The Diocese stretches from Iceland to Turkey, and from Moscow to the Canary Islands. Congregations range from many hundreds to a  small handful of expatriate Brits. Every English-speaking country was represented and, although proselytizing was forbidden, nevertheless we never stopped members of other denominations joining out chaplaincies. Ecumenical relations were wonderful, so that we used, for example, scores of Roman Catholic churches in France, Spain and Italy, Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and Germany,( but not Orthodox churches in Russia or Greece). I amassed an astonishing number of air miles.

My next move was to become Dean of the Cathedral of our diocese in Gibraltar, that little bit of Britain stuck on to the southern tip of Spain. The thirty thousand or so population of Gibraltar are a marvelously friendly lot, and I was instantly at home. The Deanery was lovely, having been built as the officers’ mess for the Royal Engineers Regiment when they were stationed there in the 19th century to make the miles of tunnels  which now honeycomb the Rock. It was vast, but had lovely internal courtyards and a beautiful palm-fringed garden. The formal dining room could seat twenty, and often did, and there was room for a hundred at a cocktail party inside or out. Of course I could not have entertained like this on my own, but the Royal Navy was always very happy to supply a group of sailors, who would cook, wait on table, and clear up afterwards.  Gibraltar being situated where it is, I was also able to explore southern Spain, whose frontier was just a mile or so from the Deanery, and also Tangier in Morocco, just across the Straits of Gibraltar, whose city lights could be seen on a clear night from the Rock. I needed my biretta there to keep the sun off, though I admit a sombrero would have been more use.

Too soon for my liking, but because of an emergency, the Bishop asked me to go and take up the position of Archdeacon of Italy and Malta. This I was to do from the Chaplaincy in Milan where the present Archdeacon had decided to go over to Rome and return to Australia at the same time. (I forget the name of the figure of speech in a sentence such as “She left in tears and a taxi”, but it was a bit like that!) So I tore myself away from Gibraltar and spent the next four years in Milan, though when I say “in Milan”, I was as often in Rome or Sicily or Malta (or London) doing the duties of an Archdeacon. Two never to be forgotten experiences: there was a plane crash of an S.A.S. airplane in Milan airport, killing over a hundred people. Half the passengers were Italian and therefore RC; the other half were either Swedish or English.  Cardinal  Martini, the wonderful Jesuit Archbishop of Milan, invited me to share the Requiem Mass for the victims in the Duomo, and asked me to sing the Gospel in English. I had often taken part in services there, but had never been in its pulpit before. There were 5000 people in the Cathedral and I felt as though I were a mile up in the air in this vast pulpit with plenty of room for the four acolytes and a thurifer who climbed up into it with me.

The second unforgettable experience was when I accompanied the Archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams) on his first visit to Rome to meet Pope John Paul II. There were eight or nine of us who were taken to the Pope’s apartments and, after the Pope had had a short time alone with the Archbishop, the Archbishop introduced us all one by one and we kissed the Pope’s ring, and he gave us all pectoral crosses. I have a lovely picture taken just as the Archbishop was saying to the Pope something like “And this is Fr Gordon Reid, our Archdeacon of Italy and Malta”. Pope John Paul was already very ill by this date, but he gave me a slightly puzzled look, and I expect he just hadn’t heard the little word “our”! But he was very gracious and made a speech in English which was moving in that he could hardly speak, and all I heard was “Welcome, Welcome”.

And so to these United States of America, where, after eleven years as Rector of St Clement’s, Philadelphia, I am living in retirement. But as I have written before, I was surprised (and delighted) to have been elected Dean of the City Center churches, the Southwark Deanery of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, which keeps me busy. I also spent three months this summer standing in for the Dean of Gibraltar. But 75 is a sort of landmark, so maybe I’ll learn to slow down a bit. Watch this space.




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