Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Lawrence Gray RIP: Address at the Funeral Service, St Wilfrid, Halton, Leeds, on 26th February 2018

Lawrence Gray has been my friend since 1984. “Lawrence” was what his wife, Maureen, called him when he had overstepped her mark. But he was unmistakably himself to us, always the person, the character, that he was: Laurie.

When I was first ordained in Leeds, it was Laurie and Maureen who took me under their wing, made sure I was never lonely as I started out, fed me, and gave me four years of laughter, joy, friendship - and a regard and understanding that I never deserved, but which held me up in good times and bad. I have never been worthy of the welcome I had into that family, and their encouragement then has lived with me to this day. Laurie had been a gifted footballer with a promising career ahead, which he gave up to marry Maureen and raise their large family. He is the hardest worker I ever met; and his dedication to the task in hand, and to what he felt mattered for people, inspired the same in others. He had no respect for those who didn’t measure up, and if you were out of favour, you were out until you proved yourself again. Then you were back in – just!

But he was patient of human nature, too, and understood you had to make your way by trial and error and there was no shame in it, just a determination to win through. And so, if you liked and respected him for who he was, he liked you back. The highest accolade was a torrent of mockery and humour at your expense. A mere “Thank you very much, that was lovely” to Maureen, for yet another huge and delicious meal of Yorkshires, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, swede, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and beef, followed by the guilty pleasure of a Viennetta, was shot straight down with, “You soft-soaping Lancashire bxxxxr, Father.” Or, quoting Billy Connolly, “Another custard cream, Father?”

After work in the Leeds metal and engineering industry (I think it was electroplating and that it badly affected his health and eyesight), Laurie was a much loved conductor on the Leeds buses, always ready with a laugh on the No 2 from the Corn Exchange to Belle Isle and Middleton, I think it was. He would do anything for you; and, as was always the Leeds way, everyone was “love”. When the conductors were phased out, the company was keen to keep him on, and they tried to train him as a driver; but a mix of poor eyesight and not feeling confident it was right for him meant in the end that he took on the management of the uniform stores. When he retired, he gave me his stout leather driver-conductor’s lockable float-and-ticket machine bag, which I still use regularly.

It was at Church that the Laurie I knew was his truest self. He was hugely proud that his eldest son, Paul, was a chorister at Leeds Parish Church; and his own devout churchgoing was serious, devout, loyal, and unstinting. Our Church, St Wilfrid’s, Halton, was (and is) a lively and mixed “village” church in the midst of east Leeds, set on the rise of Selby Road, a “city set on a hill” serving the remains of the old hamlet near the great Temple Newsam House, the post-war owner-occupier houses, the interwar suburban houses and bungalows, the long terrace of Victorian town houses on the ridge, where Laurie and Maureen lived, as did I, and the Halton Moor council housing estate. This was “The Parish that Came Alive” under the visionary Ernie Southcott, an energetic laboratory for his take on the “Parish Communion Movement” of pastoral liturgy that placed the Eucharist at the heart of the life and activity of the parish’s people and their homes. But it was under the steady hand and more traditional approach of Canon Kenneth Stapleton that Laurie drank deep of the Faith, and raised his family in the heart and life of the Church. Laurie on Sunday was no different from any other day, except intense and focused at Church, where he served on the altar, when he was not a sidesman or warden. He used to tell me that it meant everything that there was Christ on the altar, then the priest, then him, then the people in a clear line of connection at communion “without a doubt” (as he would say), no one in Church more than three steps from heaven itself.

What a faith! It took him all through the week, though he never wore a religious heart on his sleeve: “I am not a Christian,” he would say. “One day, perhaps, I can hold myself up and say so, without it all being a facade.” He knew himself. He knew about the falling-outs and the arguments. No pretence, his humour and expressions were so gloriously ripe (though I do not ever remember him swearing - people didn’t much then anyway – at least, I don’t remember him swearing in front of me!). He didn’t suffer fools gladly and could tell you unmistakably why; and if he had been hurt, he could keep a grudge on principle for years. This was a man of complete personal rectitude and integrity, driven to overcome his own odds, yet wise and accepting of others who struggled. He gave himself with without reserve because of love for his family. And because he understood himself, he was compassionate about other people’s needs and shortcomings, the problems they found themselves in and the needs they had to be loved regardless - even if that sometimes meant the hurt of having to leave them be.

Sadly, in later years, changes in Church life and worship left him estranged, and that is a shame; but the belonging in which he had been formed did not leave him: they remained deep within his heart, still sustained through close family bonds, and by friends and neighbours too. These things do not go far away; and nor do we, in God who is understanding of us always.

At the very centre of his service at St Wilfrid’s, something he loved deeply, were young people. He was completely committed to the Scout movement, and took it as seriously as serving in Church. Teaching, leading, inspiring young lads was in his bones, and they loved him for it, because they could see he was giving them everything of himself. He could be stern and demanding, and how they would moan; but it only increased your assurance. You would not want to cross him - not because of his wrath, but because no one would want to disappoint him. He had your back, and young people had no better protector. The walks, the canoes, the camps in the Lakes, the fell-walking with Wainwright and the treks in the Dales: it was unforgettable. He had everything covered and he opened up new worlds and possibilities to anyone willing to go along with him, to learn and play their part too. I also think that up in the dales and fells he felt the awe and wonder giving their dimension to his soul: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help,” resonated with him. He didn’t say much about these things, but that spoke volumes.

The sheer determination that carried him through life was nowhere better seen than in his unstoppable drive to build a dedicated new scout and guides hut - Laurie was the relentless fund-raiser and the builder too. He charmed the rich, and won the confidence of those with much less that it would all happen and it was worth their unstinting contribution too. It was all on, and no one could fail to be involved. He even got me, of all people, to be the Group Scout Leader, so that he had all the official backing he needed to see it through. And he did.

These recollections are from long ago; but it has been so good to have been in touch all the years since, and continually find that the friendship was always the same, always such a laugh even when life took some hard turns, and always in the midst of the amazing Gray family. He drove them up the wall, and he loved doing it; but they gave us good as they got and loved him all the more back

There are many people with state honours who have not done a fraction of what Laurie did from his heart for young people. It is my deep belief that now he has the greatest honour of all: he knew his own shortcomings well, but now he possesses freedom from them – from everything that holds human beings back in this life from being all they could have been, and from the gift of his heart’s desire: the knowledge at last that he can call himself what his beloved mentor, Canon Stapleton, assured him he would be: a Christian.

Laurie, your journeys here included the No 2 bus to the Corn Exchange and the parish trips with the scouts to climb Ben Lomond. Everywhere you went in your imagination and wonder at creation is now your true homeland. Once you knew you were no more than three steps away from Christ on his altar. Now there are no more steps and He has you to His side. Well done, good and faithful Laurie: you got there, by God's grace. Now may you rest in peace.

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