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Good Companions

I have been thinking a great deal this week about former Vicars of Great St Mary's.

Two reasons: first, on Monday one came to preach; second, today is the anniversary of his predecessor's death. I am a great admirer of both men.

The Right Reverend David Conner KCVO was Vicar of Great St Mary's 1987-1994, since when he has served for the last 22 years as Dean of Windsor and Domestic Chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen. David was here to give the address at a service of thanksgiving for the life of Richard Wright. Richard had been a member of Great St Mary's for more than half of his 92 years, and I got to know him well, together with his wife Angela, who died in July. David is a gracious and good man, and has shown me enormous kindness - he is always good company.

His predecessor, who died on this day in 2006, was the Very Reverend Michael Mayne KCVO, who served as Vicar from 1979-1986. Michael left Great St Mary's to be Dean of Westminster, a role he transformed through his own fusion (to reference last week's article) of holy humanity and whole humanity. His writing resonates still, has shaped me, and shapes me still. I find it hard to countenance that it is 14 years today since he died. I well remember our first encounter at Westminster when I was running a church on a housing estate  in the suburbs of Stafford: he and Alison made a 27-year-old Team Vicar feel loved and special in the shadow of the Abbey. Encouragement and affection like that is never forgotten. I never dreamt for a second that I would succeed him here - be, so to speak, in his company.

When we use the word 'company' we tend to think industrially. But its origins are very different. A companion is someone you break bread with; and a company is a gathering of companions. As Christians, we find ourselves, quite literally, in good company - a community of the broken, sharing that which is broken. Michael loved to quote Teilhard de Chardin: 'the incarnation realised in each individual, through the Eucharist'.

That's why many of you, unable to receive communion for so long, feel the acute pain of it - because you know that you belong to a company, and bread-sharing is at the heart of what we do. We mean all that we say and teach about spiritual communion, truly - but I know it's not the same.

Archbishop Justin tells an amazing story which may help, and inspire. He tells of Cardinal Van Thuan, held prisoner in Vietnam after the Communists seized Hanoi in 1974.  “While he was in prison,” says Justin "every day he managed to celebrate mass, putting himself in communion with Christians around the world and with the living presence of Christ. Through he had no books, he celebrated using the liturgy that he had memorised over the years.  Typically he took one grain of rice and a few drops of rice wine, offering them up in the palm of his hand.  [He] found himself embraced every day by the generosity of God in a grain of rice and a mere taste of rice wine, unfolding the whole presence of the creator of the universe.”

I am deeply thankful today for Michael Mayne, and for David, for Justin, for Cardinal Van Thuan, for angels and archangels and - we say it every week - all the company of heaven. And I am thankful for all of you. My good companions.

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