Writing to Father Brian Walton, the chaplain of Morden College, Blackheath, on 25 November, the eve of the fortieth day since the repose of Father Michael Robson, Abba Seraphim noted that his passing marked the end of the bi-monthly celebrations of the Divine Liturgy, which had been held in the College Chapel since 2010. He felt that this was an appropriate occasion to express his profound appreciation (and also that of Father Peter Farrington, who had shared this ministry) and thanks to the College for this privilege and for so generously making the Chapel available for the Orthodox Liturgy. He wrote of the unfailing support they had received from the chaplains and for the spiritual comfort and fraternal love shown to Father Michael throughout his time at Morden College. “The supportive attendance of other members of the College whenever we celebrated the Liturgy was a witness to their love and respect for Father Michael, but also a manifestation of a deeply prayerful ecumenism … [which] expressed the love of Christ which infuses all that we do in His name.” In conclusion he said that although the time of ministry at Morden College had now come to an end, they were left with such strong feelings of respect and affection for both the institution and those who are its living members, that they will continue to pray for the prosperity and maintenance of the remarkable way it serves those who come under its protective covering.
The funeral of Father Michael Robson took place on 3 November following the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the chapel of Morden College, Blackheath, where he had lived and died. Abba Seraphim was the celebrant, assisted by Father Peter Farrington (who delivered the homily) and Subdeacons Michael Kennedy, Antony-Paul Holland and Trevor-James Maskery. Also participating was The Right Rev’d Michael Colclough (formerly Bishop of Kensington) as assistant chaplain to Morden College. Bishop Michael was with Father Michael when he died and had said the Prayers of Commendation at his passing. Mourners included Father Michael’s family, many who had travelled up from the West Country; friends, members of the Orthodox Church and other residents of Morden College.
In his address Father Peter drew on St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians (1 Cor. I: 25-29) about how God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.
“Father Michael Robson was my parish priest. He passed away two weeks ago while I was away from home, engaged in ministry in Italy. The last time I saw him was at the regular Liturgy we have been celebrating at Morden College, where he had been living for the past 14 or 15 years. He had been looking increasingly frail over the last year or so, yet seemed most alert during the liturgical prayers which had formed so much the focus of his own spiritual life.
I remember well the first time that I met him. It was perhaps 25 years ago. I had begun my journey towards Orthodoxy and had been reading many books. Eventually it seemed right to make contact with the Orthodox Church. I happened to send a letter to Abba Seraphim, the man who became my bishop and received me into the Orthodox Church 20 years ago. He invited me to Stacklands Retreat Centre, not too far out into the countryside in North-West Kent.
I spent the evening with my own father, with Metropolitan Seraphim and Father Michael. We walked in the grounds of Stacklands Retreat Centre, where he was the Administrator for over 20 years, and then shared in a meal together. I was touched immediately by his gentle spirit and humble manner of conversation.
In the years that followed that first meeting I met him often, and then together with Subdeacon Michael Kennedy, as we continued our journey towards Orthodoxy. He celebrated the Orthodox Liturgy at Stacklands every six weeks, usually with Metropolitan Seraphim, so that we could have an experience of Orthodox worship.
In 1994 I became Orthodox, and a few of us began to pray together in Maidstone. When the opportunity came to use the Chapel at the Maidstone Cemetery, Father Michael began to celebrate the Liturgy with us, and for 15 years or so he served as the priest of our Community of St Alban, worshipping first in Maidstone at the Cemetery Chapel, and then in our own little church of St Alban in Chatham.
Father Michael was a man of prayer, and a priest who celebrated the Liturgy with great care and reverence. His service at the altar was both the foundation and the fruit of his personal spirituality. He was one of those spiritual fathers who led by example, a true pastor. How often he would remember some anniversary and send a little greeting. And at every Liturgy there was a list of his own intercessions on the altar. Over the years I worshipped with him I saw his appreciation and understanding of our own Orthodox spirituality flourish and become an important aspect of his own preaching.
He had attempted to become ordained within the Church of England on several occasions in his life, and his own biographical notes record how committed he had been to service of God in the Church from his earliest years.
The passage from the letter to the Corinthians which I have chosen as the theme of this homily perhaps applies well to Father Michael. He was no fool by any means, but in the eyes of the world it had seemed that he did not have the qualifications preferred for service as a priest. He failed various academic tests on various occasions and these became obstacles in the fulfilment of his vocation.
But in fact the ways of God are not the ways of the world. And in the will of God he found himself the Administrator of a Retreat Centre, and able to lead that life of prayer and quiet pastoral care towards which he had always been attracted. I am sure that it was his years at Stacklands, over 20 of them, which prepared him more for his service as a priest and pastor than the several interrupted attempts at gaining academic qualifications.
He was not mighty by any means, nor was he considered academically wise by the standards of the world, but he had a spiritual strength which sustained him, not least in the long illness at the end of his life. And he had a spiritual wisdom about him, which was the fruit of years of prayer and pastoral care.
Outwardly speaking, Father Michael was one of the weak, one of those chosen by God to confound the world. He relied in humility on the grace and strength of God, and so was able to be used by God in the service of others.
There is a danger for each of us that we approach our service to God and others as if we were strong in our own strength and abilities, and so were offering God something of which he had need. But there is in us no good thing apart from the grace of God. All of our abilities and skills are of no value, indeed they are harmful to us and to others, when we treat them as something we have that makes us strong and wise in our own strength.
How are we to serve God and others? It is surely with a humble sense that we are indeed weak, and that even our sense of being strong and capable is an aspect of that self-delusion to which we are prey. We should not pretend that we are weak while actually believing we are strong. Rather we should confess gratefully that every good gift, every talent, every ability, is already given by God and properly belongs to God who gave it.
It seems to me that Father Michael lived in such a manner. He was well aware of his limitations, but gave his whole life over to God to be used as He willed. And receiving that sacrifice, offered in humility, God used Father Michael to bring peace and grace and life to all those he served as priest and pastor.
He visited Egypt with Metropolitan Seraphim, and was very touched by the crowds who gathered around him seeking a blessing. He would not have thought himself worthy of such attention, but the faithful Orthodox in Egypt appreciated his gentle spirit and the savour of the Holy Spirit which was upon him.
Nearly six years ago, after many years of faithful service as a priest, Father Michael became suddenly very ill, and almost entirely debilitated overnight. I remember the last time that he stood at the altar in our little Church of St Alban, being supported by myself and Subdeacon Michael Kennedy. It was too much for him even to hold the chalice. Yet even in the last years of his life he would remember family and friends by name and ask after them. He continued to show that pastors care as far as his condition allowed him. He never ceased to be a priest, becoming most alert during times of prayer and worship.
What should we say? From a worldly point of view he had failed to become a priest until well advanced in age, and then had to retire from an active service during the last years of his life. Everything about him seemed to represent weakness according to the values of the world as St Paul writes. Yet he was manifestly used by God in ways that he had not expected or imagined.
It is unlikely that I would have become Orthodox myself without his faithful and humble witness. It is unlikely that our community in Maidstone and then in Chatham would have persevered to the present day without his faithful and humble service. To a very great extent my own service as a priest is rooted in his own ministry and example, and I stand as fruit of his own ministry over many years of quiet and selfless commitment to those in his care.
It must have seemed to Father Michael that he lacked those abilities which the world requires in those who are considered successful. He was turned away from ordination on several occasions. But God had other plans and views us all from a different perspective. Hidden away from the world as Administrator of a Retreat Centre, God was nurturing those qualities which were later to be so important in his ministry as a priest. He became strong in faith and wise in the Spirit through years of prayer and service. Offering that which he was, however humble in the eyes of the world, he became one of those worthy of honour in the world to come.
He was, to many of us, a father and friend, a spiritual man, an example of faith. May he rest in peace, having laid up a treasure in heaven, and rise to eternal life.
Father Michael Robson, Memory Eternal! Memory Eternal! Memory Eternal!”
It is with regret that we announce the death of Father Michael Robson at Morden College, Blackheath, on 17 October 2014. Father Michael had been suffering from bronchitis for a few days and had been unable to attend the celebration of the Orthodox Liturgy in Morden College Chapel on 7 October, although Abba Seraphim and Subdeacon Michael Kennedy took Holy Communion to him and he also received the anointing for the sick. His health deteriorated suddenly the morning of his death and he died peacefully in the afternoon.
Father Michael was born in Manchester in 1933 and was ordained a celibate priest in 1978. His secular work had been as working for a number of charities, concluding with running a Christian Retreat Centre in Kent, which he did for twenty-five years until his retirement in 1998. For a number of years he served as a General Priest, assisting with services in London, but he began to host occasional services of the North Kent Mission, which eventually grew into the Chatham Parish. He served faithfully as its first priest until poor health forced him to retire in 2009. When he became too frail to travel to church services, arrangements were made to hold services at Morden College, since when they have been celebrated there regularly.
Abba Seraphim was once again a guest at the annual garden party held at Morden College, Blackheath, on 16 July. This gathering of friends of the residents and those closely associated with the work of the College usually serves as an Open Day for the College’s beautiful gardens and historic building, but the intermittent rain which has characterised this summer meant that people stayed in the large marquee, where they were entertained to a lavish tea and music played by the band, resplendent in scarlet uniforms at which the Lord Mayor of London was an honoured guest. It is always a convivial gathering and characterised by the warm welcome accorded to visitors as well as the care and respect shown to the residents. Father Michael Robson was on good form and Abba Seraphim sat on the Chaplain’s table along with a number of other clergy friends of the College.
As one of their Lenten speakers, the chaplaincy of Morden College, Blackheath, invited Abba Seraphim to reflect on the current situation 0f Christians in the Middle East. Addressing a large audience on 8 March, Abba Seraphim outlined the problems of Christians in Iraq, Syria and Egypt since the Millennium and took the decline in the historic Christian communities in Iraq as a warning to the Christian world of how fragile they have now become. The problems faced by each country were each quite distinctive and owed much to their respective histories since the break up of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of militant fundamentalists. He emphasised the significance of Egypt, with the largest Christian community in the Middle East and the dynamic life of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the face of continuing sectarian attacks. Following a number of thoughtful questions from the audience, the Rev’d Nick Woodcock, chaplain, invited Abba Seraphim to lead the audience in prayer for the Christians of the Middle East.