Father Michael Robson, died at Morden College, Blackheath, on 17 October 2014, aged 81 years.
Bryan Michael Robson was born at Urmston, Manchester, on 26 September 1933. His maternal family were Lancastrians but paternal ancestry was Northumbrian. He was baptised in the Congregational Church when he was a month old. He was educated at the local Council school until he was eight, when he transferred to the local Church of England School. By then Britain was at war and his school air raid shelters were spoken of as “the best in town”. He distinctly recalled collecting “sixpences for spitfires” and his father reading the Manchester Evening News at their garden gate by the light of Manchester burning, some 8 miles away. His father changed from the home guard to the army and as bombing came closer to home he was sent off as a boarder to Heversham Grammar School in South Westmoreland, Cumbria. At first he hated the change but after a couple of terms he “could appreciate the sense of this arrangement” and there were compensations such as joining the Parish Church Choir and becoming Props Master for the annual School Play. It was whilst at Heversham that he was confirmed by the Bishop of Penrith. However, the birth of a sister and brother in the post-war years added considerably to the family expenses, so in 1949 he left school and began work as a Medical Records Clerk in the outpatient department of Manchester Royal Infirmary. After 18 months he was promoted to dealing with inpatient records and became a voluntary member of the Association of Medical Record Officers (AMRO).
Sadly, this congenial employment ended before Christmas 1951 when he began his national service at Fullwood Barracks, the regimental depôt of the East Lancashire Regiment. Having refused the offer to be considered for the OTC he was sent on a six week course at the Infantry Clerks’ Training Centre at Chichester. The eruption of the Suez crisis in May 1952 led to his embarkation from Liverpool to Port Said and his employment there in the Battalion Orderly Room, where his clerical training once again proved of service. The highlights of his national service including leave in Cyprus and in Port Said, an Army Ordinand’s Course in the Holy Land during Holy Week 1953 and the Coronation Parade in the desert for Queen Elizabeth II with the strange sight of an Admiral riding an Army horse down an RAF runway brushed of sand.
He returned from leave to find that the Chaplain had been posted elsewhere and that in his absence the CO (a Lieutenant-Colonel) had appointed him as acting Chaplain and that the Sunday morning service was to be replaced by a church parade. When he ventured to tell him that he had no authority to make such an appointment and that he did not favour the change of services, he was threatened with a charge of insubordination but they finally settled for “an Anglican compromise” by which a different company each week would make a special effort to attend the morning prayer, whilst the CO agreed to ring the Senior Chaplain to the Division to obtain his authorisation for what he was proposing to do. When it came to return to Britain his duties consisted of conducting Morning Prayer in the Officers’ Lounge of the troopship on the two Sunday mornings.
The newly demobbed Private Robson was like many others whose wartime and National Service experience had led them towards Holy Orders, but whose education was insufficient for admission to a university or a theological college. It was decided, therefore, to establish two centres, one in the north of England, the other in the south, to raise the education of these men to the required standard. In 1952 the privately wealthy Canon David Stewart-Smith donated his home, Brasted Place in Kent, to serve as the southern Pre-Theological College and the day following Michael’s 21st birthday (1954) he arrived there as a student. Stewart-Smith, who became its first warden, was a somewhat old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic in which faithfulness to the sacraments, prayer and pastoral ministry had the highest priority. This ethos proved a lasting influence on the future Father Michael.
He had been offered places at both Wells and Ely Theological Colleges, but had chosen Wells as being nearer to his family, who had relocated to Cornwall while he was in Egypt. The recent tragic death of his father meant that he wanted to be as near as possible to provide support. Unfortunately, he had made the wrong choice, as Wells catered almost exclusively for Oxbridge graduates, which – on his own admission – left him “standing”. Although his tutors were helpful and sympathetic (he was excused new Testament Greek) and he appreciated the ambiance of both college and cathedral worship and the practical experience of preaching in local country churches and Evensong on Sundays, he still managed to fail his first set of exams in 1957. As his studies were financed by a grant from Cornwall County Council and I t was August when officials were away on holiday, his grant was stopped and in September 1957 he had to find employment. This proved to be temporary clerical work with Bristol City Council. This was a hard time for him but Providence sent him the pastoral support of the Chaplain of All Saints’ Choir School in Clifton who helped him to come to terms with the new situation in which he found himself. A short while later he received a letter from his former CEO from Egypt days, announcing that he was retiring from the Army to run the Northamptonshire Rural Community Council (now known as ACRE: Action with Communities in Rural England), a countywide, independent charitable organisation working with rural communities to improve their quality of life, especially for the disadvantaged, and offering him a job. In July 1960 he was appointed Deputy Secretary, on condition he learned to drive! The job included providing secretarial services for parish councils, village halls, TB After-Care committee and work with the elderly, King George V Playing Fields and the Northamptonshire Churches Group, for which he edited a handbook of social services, both statutory and charitable, which led him to discover that he had a flair for organising conferences and training sessions.
In 1962 his appointment came to an end and, on returning to Cornwall he filled a temporary clerical vacancy in the staff of the ancient Cornish Borough of Lostwithiel. Working with the Town Clerk, he found himself involved in the ancient ceremony of the Mayor-choosing and was surprised when the new mayor, who was an evangelical clergyman, asked him to arrange matters on the grounds that he was a ritualist and knew how to do things like this. The Town Clerk, who also doubled up as Registrar to the Archdeacon, was more than happy (as was the Archdeacon) to leave the preparation of all the day-to-day administration relating to Faculties and Archdeacon Certificates in the hands of his new clerk. They even encouraged him to take articles or train as a Legal Executive, but he felt this was not really his calling.
In the Spring of 1965 Michael took up post as Administrator’s Assistant with Help the Aged in Central London, during which time the highlight was meeting with Mother Theresa. Living in London proved expensive, so he returned to the West Country in 1966 as Resident Deputy Warden of the House of St. Martin, near Taunton, Somerset. This was a rehabilitation unit for homeless men as part of the social outreach of London’s famous St. Martin-in-the-Fields. It was a very demanding ministry as the roots of their homelessness were many, with various social and personal problems. In 1967 he returned to London on being appointed Deputy Secretary of the Association of London Housing Estates, a community development project founded by the London Council of Social Services. His particular brief was work for the elderly.
Throughout all this time Michael had not lost his sense of a vocation and in 1973 he was recommended by the diocese of Rochester, who sent him for a selection conference, which he failed with many others, as most of them were directed towards the Auxiliary Pastoral Ministry (non-stipendiary) although none of the selectors knew anything about such training. In 1975 he was again recommended by Rochester diocese and again the selection conference refused him on the grounds of instability. This was due to his being on the electoral role of a parish in the diocese of Truro; of being a churchwarden, deanery Synod member and diocesan Synod member all the diocese of London, although he was actually living and working in the diocese Rochester.
In September 1972 he was appointed as Lay Administrator of Stackland’s Retreat House at West Kingsdown in North Kent and six was later he was also appointed Company Secretary/Treasurer of the Society of Retreat Conductors, a Registered Charity and a Limited Company. The post was residential and he loved every moment of the work. The society had been founded by Anglicans in the early 1920s, the intention being to train retreat conductors, to build retreat houses and to encourage the study and practice of the Ignatian spirituality.
By this time Michael was beginning to feel unhappy with the direction of Anglicanism and began looking for another church home. In 1977 he joined the Catholic Episcopal Church, an independent Old Catholic jurisdiction under Bishop Francis Glenn, who had been consecrated by the late Metropolitan Georgius to oversee an Orthodox Western rite, although relations between them soon deteriorated. In November 1978 Michael was ordained priest by Bishop Francis. After the death of Metropolitan Georgius, Abba Seraphim re-established cordial relations and Father Michael was attracted to British Orthodoxy. As his jurisdiction was almost moribund, from November 1985, with the blessing of Bishop Francis, Father Michael there was permitted to officiate within the Orthodox Church of the British Isles. He was subsequently released and incardinated into the church prior to its reception into the Coptic Patriarchate in 1994.
In 1991 a small group of people (who included Peter Farrington and Michael Kennedy), wanting to learn more about Orthodoxy, began meeting with Abba Seraphim and Fr. Michael at Stacklands. This progressed to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at Stacklands at six weekly intervals to enable interested persons to experience Orthodox worship. These began at the beginning of 1992 and Abba Seraphim and Father Michael maintained this pattern until 1998 when services were transferred to the Sutton Road Cemetery Chapel at Maidstone for the Mission of St. Athanasius the Apostolic. From here, in 2002, the worship moved to Chatham with the purchase of the present church.
Fr. Michael continued to work at the retreat house until his retirement in September 1998, but his departure marked the effective end of Stacklands. Not long after this the house was closed and with no one resident there, it soon fell into disrepair and was vandalised. The buildings and surrounding woodlands were sold for more than two million pounds and a planning application has been made to demolish the house and use the site for residential development.
In September 1998 Fr. Michael moved to Ralph Perring Court in Beckenham, part of the Morden College estate and in July 1999 formally took up residence at Morden College, Blackheath, which he loved. He entered fully into the spirit of the College and made many friends who showed their love and respect for him right to the end. He became a faithful pastor of the Maidstone/Chatham congregation and was much loved by all the people. In June 2004 Father Michael accompanied Abba Seraphim to Egypt, where he visited the holy places and was received by the late Pope Shenouda. It was a moving experience to return to Egypt after more than half a century, but this time not as a soldier but as a pilgrim and priest of the Coptic Patriarchate. In late 2007 Father Michael began suffering from general weakness and lack of mobility and was unable to officiate at Chatham. At first arrangements were made to transport him to the celebration of the liturgy, either at Charlton or at Chatham, but this soon became too tiring for him and Abba Seraphim began visiting regularly with the reserved sacrament. Concerned that he was unable to attend the liturgy the then chaplain of Morden College invited Abba Seraphim and Father Peter to celebrate the Orthodox liturgy in the College Chapel and this was done bi-monthly from 2010 until shortly before his death.
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.
Joyce Alice Edwards, the oldest member of the British Orthodox Church and mother of Abba Seraphim, died at Greenwich, on 15 December 2014, aged 100 years.
Joyce Alice Lewis was born in Camberwell on 22 February 1914, the daughter of William Horace & Alice Sarah Lavinia (neé Newman) Lewis. She was the first child of a very happy marriage which lasted 61 years. She grew up in a tight network of first cousins – all of whom she outlived – but stayed in touch with them all and valued regular contact with them and their descendants as an important link with her past and with her family. One of these was her maternal first cousin, Hugh George de Willmott Newman, who served as Metropolitan of Glastonbury 1944-1979.
Her earliest memory was of bombing during a zeppelin raid. On 19 October 1917, a 600 kg bomb destroyed 3 houses in the next road, Albany Road, Walworth (a fish & chip shop & doctor’s surgery), killed 10, injured 4. She distinctly remembered being given sweets by a nun in the church where they were sheltering (now the Peckham Mosque).
In 1928 the family moved to a new development in what was anciently Brockley Green, but came to be known as Crofton Park after the railway station. At that time there were still fields and a farm surrounding Brockley Hall, which was eventually demolished in 1931. She now had a younger brother, Dennis, two years her junior and in 1932 a second brother was born when she was 18. Although it was a very happy family life, she suffered teenage depression and was only shaken out of it by the tragic death of her younger brother in 1934.
On first leaving school she worked as a telephonist in London but during her holidays started to travel. A trip to Berlin in 1937 took her through Essen, where Hitler’s factories were working throughout the night making armaments. Having missed the coronation of King George VI, she and a friend went to a Berlin cinema to watch it on the news. Shocked when the audience sniggered when the king appeared to totter under the weight of the crown, the two young women pointedly stood to attention during the playing of “God save the King.” A holiday cruise to Madeira during the Spanish Civil War, when the passengers were required to hurriedly re-embark, was another sign that the world around her was spiralling into war.
On 23 December 1939, three months after the outbreak of the second world war, she married John James (Jack) Norton, an officer in the Metropolitan Police. Once again war came close to home when her parents’ house was bombed in a rocket attack. Miraculously both parents survived, although their neighbours on each side were killed. She was evacuated to Hertfordshire for the birth of her first son, Howard, in 1941, although the family lived in London throughout the Blitz with Jack in the forefront of supporting the civilian population throughout the air raids. Jack died suddenly n 15 March 1952 at the early age of 37, leaving her with two sons, William (the future Abba Seraphim) having been born in 1948. Being a widow meant that she had to return to work, initially as a post office counter clerk. Her parents proved very supportive and played a significant part in the upbringing of their grandsons.
In 1965 William, through contact with Joyce’s cousin, Metropolitan Georgius of Glastonbury, joined the Orthodox Church and was subsequently ordained as deacon, priest and bishop. In 1979 he succeeded his cousin as Metropolitan of Glastonbury. Joyce had always been supportive of Abba Seraphim’s church work and knew all the clergy and laity well, many of whom became friends to her and Peter. Howard was also ordained, in the Church of England in 1980 and served in the diocese of Southwark until eventually returning to teaching at Cranbrook School, until his retirement in 2001
Having been a widow for almost sixteen years, she married secondly, on 20 July 1968, Peter George Edwards. He was a Devonian who, after military service in North Africa, worked for the control commission in Berlin, then later as a printer for Odhams Press at Watford. She moved to live with Peter, but was a frequent visitor to London because both her parents lived to good ages, her mother died in 1973 and her father in 1977, when she was in her sixth decade.
When Peter retired in May 1981 they moved to Haslemere in Surrey and then in October 1982 to Liphook in Hampshire. Peter was every inch a countryman, having been brought up on a farm, whereas Joyce was thoroughly urbanised. During walks in the country she was immaculately attired and in smart but inappropriate shoes and complaining that the undergrowth besides the paths had laddered her stockings. Her organisational abilities and sociability found an outlet with the Passfield & District Women’s Institute where she held every office in succession: Secretary, Treasurer, Chairman, President. Her fellow committee members were a tight-knit cabal of cheerful but determined ladies, easily located by the good humoured chatter and laughter which always surrounded them.
After a long illness, Peter died of prostate cancer on 24 July 1993. Joyce gave him the support and loving care he needed and remained calm and strong throughout. He died just a few days after their 25 wedding anniversary. Typical of her kindness, she went straight from his funeral to see Archdeacon James Goddard, who was dying in hospital. It was while staying at Cusworth in 1994 that she decided to join the Orthodox Church, taking the name Damaris. She had a firm faith in God and His active love for His creation and was a strong believer in the power of prayer. However, when an Anglican bishop admiringly commenting to her about having both her sons in Christian ministry, she wryly responded, “It’s nothing to do with me,” almost as if she was referring to a contagious illness !
At this period her health began to falter and, at Abba Seraphim’s suggestion, she moved back to London in 1999 to live with him at the Church Secretariat, where she stayed until November 2007 when she moved to St. Joseph’s Court nearby. She was an active member of the BOC Parish at Charlton and was always happy to meet visiting clergy and church members. Although she became frail after reaching her centenary, her mental faculties were undimmed and her interest in current affairs remained strong.
She suffered a cerebral haemorrhage on 6 November 2014, which paralysed her left arm and was admitted to the specialist Stroke Unit of the Princess Royal University Hospital at Farnborough, Kent. Initially her entire left arm was paralysed, but over the next few days she began to move the upper arm and hand. She suffered no other paralysis and her speech and intellectual powers remained unimpaired. On 10 November she was transferred to the Stroke Unit at Lewisham Hospital, but as she was unable to continue living alone and was temporarily staying at the Bevan Rehabilitation Unit in West Thamesmead. She had entered the Unit suffering from pneumonia but responded well to the treatment given there and her general health had been showing signs of improvement. A sudden change in her breathing caused concern and she was transferred to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Woolwich, where her condition rapidly deteriorated and she lapsed into unconsciousness. She passed away as Abba Seraphim was arriving at the hospital but he was able to pray the commendatory prayers over her and took the last kiss.
Following her death in London on 15 December, she was transferred to Bournemouth for her burial in a church plot there. A Requiem Liturgy was held at the British Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour in Osborne Road, Winton, celebrated by Abba Seraphim, assisted by Father Simon Smyth and Father Sergius Scott (who also personally represented His Grace Bishop Antony), Deacon Daniel Malyon and subdeacons John Morgan and Antony-Paul Holland. The Church was packed with family, friends and church members who stood around the open coffin in the centre of the church.
After the Liturgy, the burial service took place at the Wimborne Road Cemetery, conducted by Father Simon. The weather the day before had been windy with torrential showers, but the day of the funeral, through the goodness of God, was dry, sunny and mild. Tea was served afterwards at the Norfolk Royale Hotel.
Abba Seraphim said that he and other members of the family were much heartened by the many messages of condolence received, but also by the knowledge that prayers for his mother’s repose were being offered in a number of churches around the world. Among the many condolences received were those from Their Graces Bishop Serapion, of Los Angeles; H.G. Bishop Kyrillos of Milan and Papal Deputy; H.G. Bishop Youannes of BLESS; Bishop Theophilus of the Red Sea; H.G. Bishop Antony of Scotland, Ireland & N.E. England; H.G. Bishop Missael of Birmingham and Bishop Christopher Chessum of the Anglican Diocese of Southwark. H.G. Bishop Angaelos had written to Abba Seraphim: “God strengthened her through a valiant fight and blessed her with a good and full life” whilst His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette wrote, “Your beloved mother with a life time of one complete century is a great treasure in our time. This should be recorded in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church especially that her son is one of the distinct metropolitans in this historical ancient church of Alexandria/Egypt where the most amazing civilization has existed in the history of humanity. May our merciful God repose her lovely soul through the intercession of our common and most high mother Saint Mary the Mother of God.” His Eminence Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateria & Great Britain (Ecumenical Patriarchate) wrote, “I understand that she was a distinguished and gracious lady who was independently-minded, being blessed with excellent health and mental agility even in her tenth decade, and who (for example) was not even then averse to setting off on holidays abroad despite being of an age when most people would have had neither the stamina nor the courage to do so. It goes without saying that she will have been a great support to you in ways that only a mother can be; and I am told that she became the ‘Mother’ to your Flock as she gathered around her the Faithful for whom you have pastoral care. You must give thanks to the Triune God for her life and for the long years that she lived, as well as for having had the privilege of her being with you for so many years, accompanying you and guiding you in your sacred ministry.” Messages and a floral tribute were also received from the priests, deacons and faithful of the UK subdiocese of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo diocese of Europe as well as a number of Coptic Orthodox clergy in the UK, including Father Moussa Roshdy of Rotherham, Father Antonius Negeb of Bromley, Father Bishoy Naguib of Manchester and Father Seraphim Mina.
Dr. Helmy Guirguis died in Birmingham on 31 January 2015, aged 71 years.
It was with sorrow that we learned of the death of Dr. Helmy Guirguis after an extended period of ill health. Dr. Guirguis was a long-standing advocate of oppressed Coptic Christians and the founder of the UK Coptic Association, now known as UK Copts. Both Abba Seraphim and Dr. Guirguis served for a number of years as advisors to SAT7, the first satellite television channel specialising in Christian broadcasts to the Middle East, as well as working together to support Coptic Christians seeking asylum. Although a highly respected medical practitioner, he was committed to a wide range of religious charities, making a significant contribution of time, energy and personal resources, all of which he gave so generously. For many years he was one of the principal archons of the Coptic community in Birmingham and a devout supporter of the church. He was a man of firm conviction and the highest integrity and his passing is a great loss to the many religious and charitable bodies he actively supported. Abba Seraphim regrets that he was unable to attend the funeral at Lapworth on 7 February as he was celebrating the Divine Liturgy in Shadwell that morning, before travelling to Bournemouth in the afternoon. Prayers were said for Dr. Guirguis at the altar and Abba Seraphim sent a floral tribute to the funeral inscribed to “A courageous and loyal friend to those in need.”