SERMON: Funeral of Mark Phythian-Adams

SERMON: Funeral of Mark Phythian-Adams

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley on the occasion of the funeral of Mark Phythian-Adams by Andrew McKearney on 24th August 2023

The vision contained in chapters 21 and 22 of the Book of Revelation are important to help us understand the physical location where Mark now rests amongst us.

Mark saw the layout of this church as a route map for the spiritual life, beginning with the baptistry at the west, and concluding with the altar at the east. The narrowing of the church and the rising floor levels towards the east were thought by Mark to be best interpreted as a metaphor for life’s pilgrimage towards the Almighty – Mark’s favourite word for our place of ultimate rest in the arms of God.

In that understanding of the layout of this church, the huge arches of the tower are in effect ‘the gate of heaven’, the entrance to the sanctuary where the altar would originally have been, and where Mark now lies.

And the symbolism of the boss directly above Mark’s closed eyes, reflects the visions of Ezekiel and, following him, Saint John from whom we’ve just read: ‘And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding forth out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.’

The four rivers of Paradise, flowing along the ribs of the vault above Mark, are symbols of God’s overflowing mercy and grace, cascading over Mark as he now lies at rest, held as he is in our love, and the strong love of God.

But the arches of the tower, those ‘gates of heaven’, also feature four black octagonal Tournai marble shafts signifying, as we’ve just sung in that paraphrase by George Herbert of Psalm 23, that in the midst of life we are in death:

       ‘Yea, in death’s shady black abode

       well may I walk, not fear…’

In the weeks before his operation some have said that they felt Mark had begun to come to terms with what was a deeply difficult prognosis, and that he was quite philosophical about the possible outcomes. We can only pray that something of the truth of those words from Psalm 23 were alive in Mark’s own soul:

       ‘Yea, in death’s shady black abode

       well may I walk, not fear;

       for thou art with me, and thy rod

       to guide, thy staff to bear.’

Mark’s death is such loss – he was a dear man. But despite our loss we too can still walk on:

       ‘for thou art with me, and thy rod

       to guide, thy staff to bear.’

Mark’s heart was in the hills of Cumbria, evoked so beautifully by William Wordsworth: ‘Ye Mountains and Ye Lakes, and sounding Cataracts! Ye Mists and Winds that dwell among the hills where I was born’.

His heart too was very much with the family, in particular with Anne and with James, Alexander, Harry and all the other family members now gathered around Mark.

And his heart was also here amongst us. For nearly 40 years, Mark was part of the fabric of this village and this church, and the fabric of this church was part of him.

He was often present at events and meetings in the church hall, sometimes organising, sometimes speaking, sometimes participating. Whatever he turned to he gave it his all. Many will recall the drama productions he was part of – Bill Sykes in Oliver – and more recently events with the Friends of St Mary’s, the Church or other village groupings.

Mark had a great gift for friendship and this extended to visiting people, giving lifts, ringing people up to find out how they were. He and Anne were generous hosts both here in Iffley and in his belovèd Cumbria.

Mark was incredibly knowledgeable about this church, its history and, as I’ve already indicated, its symbolic significance. The church Guide Book, which he wrote in 2018 with Geoffrey Tyack’s assistance, is a window into the depth of Mark’s learning. He would attend courses and lectures to further his knowledge, but one often felt that really he could have given the lecture himself or led the course.

Mark’s faith was rooted in traditional Anglicanism, its liturgy and sacraments, its generosity and its profound respect for the early church fathers of whom Mark was particularly knowledgeable. Whilst deeply respecting the tradition of the church, Mark’s faith was never settled, his mind never closed. He was always searching, probing, questioning: ‘faith seeking understanding’ as Saint Anselm put it.

Mark could be impatient with what he thought were weak or shallow arguments. Sometimes he reacted perhaps a little too quickly to our human frailties and foibles, though he had a wonderful sense of the absurd. But there was always so much more to him than his initial reaction, and that twinkle in his eye spoke volumes.

Throughout most of my time here Mark was on the Parochial Church Council and for six and a half years he was churchwarden. As churchwarden Mark excelled. There wasn’t a single area of the life of this church to which he didn’t contribute. His financial and legal skills, his love of this church, both the building and its people, and his sharp mind and warm heart, all came together with his thoughtful faith. And a key part of that faith was a hope that can face and even transcend death.

Mark was too theologically aware to say very much about what a belief in life after death might mean. Rather it was to poetry, art, music and architecture that he would turn to express his trust in the Almighty’s good purposes for us.

So, it’s with another poet that I want to conclude, a poet who had a deep love for God and the hills, not this time of Cumbria but of Wales. At the end of a poem on ‘the comfort of the Resurrection’, Gerard Manley Hopkins writes:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.