Ghosts of ministers past

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Like Shakespeare's Earl of Salisbury most of us occasionally want to call back yesterday, but it sometimes happens that yesterday calls us back instead, in a kind of collision of time. This happened to me last week when I received a letter from a widow who happens to read Eureka Street: I knew her when I was very young, but have met her only once in 60 years.

Greek Orthodox priestShe was writing to tell me that her husband, a Presbyterian minister, had died recently. He was quite old, and there are obviously fewer of his ilk around these days, for the church has changed a great deal in the last five decades. And so had the man himself changed, for he had become a minister of the Uniting Church.

But when I was a small child, Presbyterians and their ministers, including my great-uncle Jack, seemed to be everywhere. So did the vocabulary that went with them: the Assembly, the Moderator, the Session Clerk. I had only a vague idea of what these labels meant, but I did know that my schoolteacher grandfather was always Session Clerk.

They march through memory, my ministers: soberly suited, dog-collared, determinedly cheerful and often dull, although Old Jack preached a fiery sermon, and could well have taken to the stage instead of the pulpit.

They were eventually replaced in my life by a procession of Greek Orthodox priests, who seemed very exotic as they strode along the village streets with their black robes flapping and their stove-pipe hats by some miracle staying glued to their heads. As figures of power and authority, they would extend their hands to be kissed in a gesture that my nonconformist soul used to find quite shocking.

In my young life there was no escape from Protestantism. Even though my siblings and I attended state schools there was the weekly period of religious instruction to be endured. I had almost forgotten the particular men of the cloth who taught the subject, but I do remember two: one was an evangelical battler who had little idea of classroom teaching, used as he was to an enthusiastic congregation and not a bored captive audience. The other was a Lutheran of great good sense, who taught interesting lessons about the biblical canon, and was very enlightening on the topic of Superman comics, then very popular. 'Man's yearning to be God,' he said, matter-of-factly, thereby introducing the class to a novel thought.

The minister's widow wrote of a life of dedication: her husband had served in 11 full-time parishes in Australia, America and Scotland, and then filled locums for 19 years after his retirement. She wrote that there had been several speakers at the thanksgiving service: one spoke about the deceased's ministry and his unfailing pastoral care. She herself paid tribute to 66 years of marriage and 'true partnership'.

 

"I was touched by this letter, and struck by the thoughtfulness and grace of it. I had received a totally unexpected present, one that had catapulted me back in time in the best possible way."

 

She said she had finished with a little story. On one occasion the Session Clerk and his wife, whom she remembered as always being very kind and helpful, called at the manse to say goodbye before leaving on their annual summer holiday. 'As he got into his car, the man turned and called to me: "Now you take good care of the minister. He's a good man."' The woman finished her comments by saying that her husband was a good man, she had tried to take care of him, and would miss him.

She then wrote: 'This perceptive man was your grandfather.' Another good man, I think: dead for more than 40 years, but clearly remembered, and not just by me. I was touched by this letter, and struck by the thoughtfulness and grace of it, for in a very real sense I had received a totally unexpected present, one that had catapulted me back in time in the best possible way.

Some people boast that they never look back. But I think we should look back with gratitude if we can manage it, and with a view to learning. The concept of nostalgia gets a mixed press, but I have always valued the last line of The Great Gatsby: 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'

  


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

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A beautiful and evocative little remembrance of good people. Thank you Gillian.
Peter Higgins | 05 July 2017


And that tide - it turns - of course - and then the flow is with us! Indeed - what a lovely memory from that elderly friend on a good man! Of your grand-father. I'm back in the rural NSW town where I was raised - house-sitting for my brother - now with his wife visiting her family in Loir-et-Cher. I am filled with memories at every turn - my primary school - and three significant and good teachers - I want to name them: Gladys McLEAN, Joe SHANAHAN; Richmond T TORRENS. My secondary school: Brian G NEILL. Helen GILLARD. A mentor Ernest HIGGINBOTHAM. Kinfolk of some prominence. I have just finished reading the biography of one of the local and recent great Independent politicians of the nation - Tony WINDSOR (historian Ruth RAE) - his place now taken by a kind of clown - even as I write now jumping up-and-down with his equivalent "all the way with the war-mongering USA" re the paranoia being whipped up over NKorea. The difference between your grand-father's friend and this era could not be more stark. This is why we need to be taken back - to reflect on the difference!
Jim KABLE | 06 July 2017


What a lovely recollection. How lucky we are to share these journeys into the past.
Maggie | 06 July 2017


It is wonderful how your grandfather's kind words were remembered for so long. Your story gives a glimpse of the relationship between your grandparents and the minister and his wife. Beautiful!
Stephen Hicks | 06 July 2017


The time you write about that excellent Presbyterian clergyman and your father and his relationship with the Kirk is something which, as you note, has well and truly passed into History. Some things which existed in the various Christian denominations in this country in the past were not a bad thing. Personal integrity was not a bad thing. It is seen in some of the very greatest Australian sporting heroes, such as the incomparable Bill Woodfull, whose father was a Methodist minister. Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop, the Burma Railway hero, was of Presbyterian background. If the Uniting Church of today inherits anything of value from its Methodist and Presbyterian predecessors I would say it is the spirit of men and women such as these. In an age where many are sceptical of Christianity after the appalling incidents chronicled by the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse, it is good to remember these people who had no part in those crimes and would have abhorred them. As the Scottish Rugby anthem goes:'...When will we see, your like again?'
Edward Fido | 08 July 2017


A relative recently sent me a photo of my great grandfather's gravestone in the UK. He was a noted Methodist lay preacher and the gravestone simply noted: He was a good man.
Margaret | 08 July 2017