An address given by the Dean of Melbourne, at the Funeral of Neville Finney (13 January 1934—20 May 2023), Lay Clerk Emeritus of St Paul’s Cathedral, on 26 May 2023
Neville loved magic. For many years, after the first Christmas Carol Service at St Paul’s Cathedral, the choir would gather at Bishopscourt for their end of year celebration. After the barbeque the boys (in those days the girls’ voices had not yet been established) would be allowed to kick their footy across the hallowed lawns of the Archbishop’s house, while the lay clerks, clergy and parents enjoyed a glass of wine in the summer sun.
Then it was time to head into the Drawing Room for the choristers’ treats—choir boys receiving commendations and gifts—after which Neville would step into the ring and magic coins out of thin air and make them disappear in front of everyone’s eyes. A silk handkerchief would be produced—see: only one handkerchief—and turn into a vibrantly, colourful length of silk scarves. Cut ropes were magically restored to their full length. Coins would be pushed through the tabletop. In Neville’s hands, the impossible became possible and seemed effortless. A magical performance to conclude the choir year, that matched the magic of music which had gladdened the hearts of those attending that year’s Christmas Carol Service at St Paul’s only an hour or so earlier.
Neville was an integral part of music-making at St Paul’s Cathedral for 40 years, just as he had previously been at All Saints’ East St Kilda as a treble, then as head treble, and then an alto. He brought the same magic of making the effortful seem effortless, that was a hallmark of his performances as a magician, to his commitment to music. A cornerstone of the choir back row, at St Paul’s Neville sang at multiple Evensongs a week.
Neville not only sang music but set it, so that others might sing with him. In an age when computers meant hard-coding, and people knew ‘Sibelius’ to be a Finnish composer and not a universally accessible music notation program, he put his hand to music notation, for instance by setting the psalter composed by his wife Dr June Nixon, which is still in daily use at St Paul’s. Twice a year, Neville would put together and publish the Music Foundation Newsletter, sharing the choir’s accomplishments, and those of Australia’s first (and only—thus far) woman Director of Music, with a faithful and generous cohort of supporters.
Neville was devoted to June, and her music-making: it was at his suggestion that she took on leading the choir here at All Saints’ in 1965. At St Paul’s, it was he who set her compositions for performance and arranged for them to be published. Neville organised their regular international recital tours and overseas visits; taking care of each detail. Recordings of the Cathedral Choir were produced by Neville, first as vinyl—a 7-inch EP, The Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral: AE Floyd remembered; June’s tribute, a year after taking on her role as Director of Music, to an illustrious predecessor organist and composer—later Neville would help produce the choir’s CDs.
Without Neville’s magic of making the effortful seem effortless, Cathedral music at St Paul’s would have been all the poorer. As it was, Neville magicked sheet music and recordings out of thin air—or so it seemed to those who did not recognise the hard work that went into making things look effortless. Unless you knew the trick, it all seemed magic because so much happened out of sight, unseen.
There’s another magic that happens unseen: the power of new life where death had reigned. The author CS Lewis called the resurrection a ‘deeper magic from before the dawn of time’ (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, London: Geoffrey Bless, 1950). Lewis called the new life wrought by the resurrection ‘magic’ because it, too, happened out of sight. Unseen by any witnesses, in the dark before the dawn of Easter Day, Jesus Christ rose from the dead so that we might not have to fear death anymore.
God’s life-giving action at Easter is hidden; only the incredible result is visible. We only ever see the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, the folded grave-clothes and the messenger witnessing to the event. We never see the actual resurrection itself. However intently we examine the facts, we will only ever see the result of the resurrection: new life where there had been death; an empty tomb where the crucified Jesus had lain; a risen, living Saviour, greeting his friends in the garden of the resurrection.
Now, I don’t want to spoil Neville’s magic tricks—so if you want to maintain the illusion, now is the time to cover your ears. Neville worked with props and practised hard to make things appear and disappear out of thin air. I am not sure whether he’d show you the magic box he used, or the clever device—‘Slydini’s own “Coins Thru Table”’—that enabled him to press a coin into a table, only to vanish. Neville’s magic was based on props and a lifetime of experience as a showman—like his music making, his magical career started precociously early: he began practising with a children’s magic set aged four. But Neville’s magic was practised, was a clever illusion.
The reason why CS Lewis speaks of the power of the resurrection as a ‘deeper magic’ is because it is not an illusion. Jesus truly did rise; his disciples saw, touched and held him, and spoke with him. And because of this profoundly life-changing, incredible action we need not fear death when it comes to us. Death does come to all of us. Indeed, for Neville, and his family who cared for him, in these past months the shadow of death was never far away. Neville’s health deteriorated, and his physical strength gave way. His care was intensified until last Saturday, when he died, on the birthday of his beloved June.
The patron of St Paul’s Cathedral, the apostle Paul, wrote these words to the church in Corinth: ‘Behold, I show you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet’ (1 Cor 15.51). Because of God’s ‘deeper magic’—the incredible power of the resurrection—life will come to all who died. We will change, will be restored, when Christ brings his new life to all who believe: ‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ will all be made alive’ (15.20-22). Our grave-clothes will be rolled up, and we, the perishable, will be clothed with imperishability, and the mortal with immortality, because ‘death has been swallowed up in victory’ once and for all, when Christ rose from the dead at Easter (15.54).
When life comes to all; when the resurrection of all those who have died takes place, what happened unseen on the first Easter Day will be signalled by unmissable music. The trumpet will sound, and all the dead will be raised, and the world will join in Christ’s death-defying anthem: ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ (1 Cor 15.55-58). The great trumpet will sound, to signal that death is defeated and all are alive.
I never was able to talk with Neville about his own confidence in what Lewis called the ‘deeper magic’ of resurrection. But I know that he and June understood well the symbolism of the clarion call of resurrection: when the great organ at St Paul’s was restored in 1990, they both donated a new organ stop—the Tuba Magna, the ‘great Trumpet’. Our own musical herald of the resurrection, forever embedded among the bombarde stops of the mighty Lewis organ in St Paul’s.
Until that other Tuba Magna, heaven’s great trumpet, sounds for all of us, we live in hope and faith. We have to make do with the symbols of resurrection in our midst—the Tuba Magna adding lustre to our organ playing in St Paul’s, the life-giving power of music-making, the joy-giving power of magic—symbols by which we may remember Neville and comfort one another in our grief. As we entrust him to the ‘deeper magic from before the dawn of time’ today, I do so in the firm and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life that Christ has wrought for Neville and all of us. May he rest in peace and share in God’s ‘one equal music’ (John Donne, Bring us O Lord God), until the great trumpet sounds to summon all who rest in Christ to life imperishable.
© Andreas Loewe 2023