Today I went up to my old Cambridge college – Jesus College – to attend a memorial service for Cameron Wilson. Cameron Wilson rose to become President of Jesus College, but when I first knew him in 1963 he was three years ahead of me, doing a PhD in Moliere. We had three things in common: I too was a modern linguist at Cambridge; both of us were members of the Robert Hall Society, the then Cambridge University Baptist student society, and both of us were members of Jesus College. We became friends, and in the first year often ate out together. If the truth be told, once I left Cambridge we had little to do with one another. Nonetheless, when the College announced they were holding a memorial service, I felt I should attend – a decision confirmed for me when, Charlotte (my daughter-in-law), who also did Modern Languages at Jesus, decided to accompany me.
It was one of those services which would only have been possible in an Oxbridge college. With candles burning, the organ playing, and the choir singing, it was a great aesthetic experience. Although translations were provided in the order of service, two of the three readings were in French and German – the former was the fable of the Cicada and the Ant by Jean de la Fontaine, and the latter a beautiful ‘evening song’ by Gottfried Keller. The fulsome tribute by one of Cameron’s former colleagues was in essence a secular address – I was glad, however, to note that the importance of Cameron’s Christian faith was illustrated by the way in which Cameron constantly went out of his way to give a second chance to wayward students.
But what would have pleased my friend Cameron was that the Christian faith undergirded and encompassed everything.
The service began with the choir singing to music composed by Purcell words from the Book of Common Prayer:
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not they merciful ears unto our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and mot merciful Saviour, Thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
We sang two great hymns: “I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘Come unto me and rest’; and “Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy, whose trust ever child-like, no cares could destroy”.
The Master of the College read the great ‘purple passage’ in Rom 8.31-39, where Paul declares, “I am sure that neither death, nor life…. nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”; the choir sang a Bach chorale based on Isaiah 57.1-2, where the prophet speaks of the peace which God gives to the righteous; and the Dean in his prayers articulated the difference that Jesus makes to dying,
For me, however, the piece-de-resistance was provided in a passage taken from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where Mister Valiant-for-Truth faces death. I confess that when I first had to read Pilgrim’s Progress as an eleven-year old school boy, I found it ‘boring’. But in the context of this memorial service these words, set to music by Vaughan Williams, stirred my soul as we remembered another Mister Valiant-for-Truth:
After this it was noised abroad, that Mister Valiant-for-Truth was taken with a summons and had this for a token that the summons was true, ‘That his pitcher was broken at the fountain’. When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, ‘I am going to my Father’s, and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword, I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill, to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, a witness for me, that I have fought, who now will be my rewarded. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the riverside, into which, as he went, he said, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’. And as he went down deeper, he said, ‘Grave where is thy victory?’ So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
What a wonderful way to end a memorial service: “So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side”!