A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the memorial service of the Reverend Professor James Thomas Rigney, at St James’ King Street, Sydney, on 10 March 2017:
‘Pray then, in this way’, Jesus teaches his disciples in today’s gospel reading. And he gives them the prayer that has become the heart-beat of the church, for we pray it at every liturgy. Jesus’ disciples asked him to give them a prayer to say, in the same way in which John the Baptist had taught his disciples. A prayer that they could say when their own words failed them, perhaps. A prayer they could say together.
Words failed me when news reached me that my colleague and college friend James had died unexpectedly in the prime of life, and at such an important crossroads in his own vocation as a scholar, teacher and priest. James and I trained together at Westcott House Cambridge, and served our first incumbencies together in Cambridge. We taught and examined students together at the Divinity Faculty, and followed one another to Australia – he to become Dean of Newcastle and then Warden of St John’s College Brisbane, I to become Chaplain and Senior Lecturer at Trinity College Melbourne and then Dean. Pray then in this way when words fail you, Jesus had taught his disciples: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’.
God knows what we need, Matthew assures us in his gospel. We do not need to ask anything of him. This prayer, then, is not for God to change things for us. It is a prayer that enables us to change, because of what God does, and has done for us. James was a man of prayer, and profound spirituality. He drew deeply from the roots of knowledge and, whenever I had the privilege of sharing with him in worship, I knew that he was drawing strength from prayerful pools of silence. James was a man who ‘went into his room and shut the door and prayed to his Father who is in secret’. The qualities of James’ withdrawing into communing with the Father who is unseen shone through his public prayer, his love for well-ordered, meaning-full liturgy. Prayer for James was never the ‘heaping up of many words our gospel censures, but rather giving space in liturgy for the Word of God to permeate both the silences and the words of our worship.
The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples changed them. Teaching others to pray will transform them. James knew about the transformational power of learning. He was generous with his time in helping others to grow in wisdom, insight and understanding of themselves. Whether that was in teaching them about transformational events of the past – the reformation, the reception of Calvin’s Geneva, the early modern art of preaching the Word – or the transformation of the modern church – by helping to envisage the Church of England the ministry of women in the episcopate, James was courteous, and generous with his time and his knowledge.
James taught others that prayer transforms us. Taught students, fellow clergy, parishioners to pray about what God wanted them to do in their lives: he nurtured vocations, and helped shape the spiritual lives of those among whom he ministered. James would have told us that the prayer that stands at the heart of our gospel is a beginning of our journey with God, on which we can build our own prayer lives. ‘Pray then in this way’.
And the petitions that Jesus teaches us are there to change us: they acknowledge that God is sovereign in heaven but has adopted us as his children; that God already rules on earth but needs us to help share the values of the kingdom his Son has brought us; that God delights in feeding us with daily food for our lives – the food we share at table, and the bread we break to share in our being Christ’s body on earth; that God forgives when we are forgiving, and that God has delivered us from evil, once and for all, and will not test us beyond our strength.
When words failed me on hearing that my college friend James had died, I prayed. I prayed that we might find strength in our strong and certain hope in the resurrection life Christ has brought. I prayed that God would comfort Anne and Cressida, and all of us, who miss James’ presence with us so badly. I prayed that someone would say words at James’ memorial that might give us the chance to find meaning and purpose. Then I did not expect to be offering those words to you today.
‘Your Father knows what you need before you ask him’. God knows all our needs. Yet he delights in being asked, and for us to share in his presence. In his life, James had spent much time in withdrawing into ‘his room to pray to his Father who is in secret’. The door to this prayer-filled room of the self was always slightly ajar to enable others to share in his life of prayer. Now he has followed Jesus’ command to his disciples: he has shut the door to share in praying to his Father in the place where the Father is no longer secret, but known even as we are fully known; that place where we no longer see through a glass darkly, but where we behold God face to face.
Thanks be to God for giving us the victory through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.