17 Mar Father Freddie – A Tribute
My wife and I, along with our young son, had recently arrived back in Brighton, England. We had been living abroad for two years and were renting an apartment temporarily, while we looked for something more permanent. Two months after our return, my wife became ill with the flu; a day later, I also succumbed. Fortunately, our son was fine, but now there was one problem. We had run out of diapers.
Our apartment was around the corner from the local church – St Michael’s and All Angels. Nicknamed the “cathedral of the back streets” it was an imposing brick structure with a marble and gilt interior inspired by the churches of Rome. It identified as Anglo-Catholic i.e. as Anglican, but following Catholic liturgy, doctrine and ritual, including the use of incense and the ringing of bells.
The vicar of St Michaels was Father Freddie Jackson, who originally hailed from Liverpool. He served as Bishop’s chaplain in Chichester, and was then appointed vicar of St Michael’s, Brighton, where he served for nine years. The first time my wife and I attended St Michael’s we thought we had entered a Roman Catholic Church by mistake. Father Freddie presided at Mass, with clergy either side and a host of servers including acolytes, and a thurifer. We stayed until the end and, as we were leaving, noticed the sign outside which said “Church of England”. We decided to return next Sunday, mainly because of the warm welcome from the warden on that first visit.
It was during the time of flu sickness that Father Freddie telephoned. After hearing our tale of woe, he asked if we needed anything? “To be honest,” I replied, “the thing we need most of all is disposable nappies (diapers).” Father Freddie took it upon himself to get these for us, and walked to the Boots in town and bought a pack of Pampers, which he carried under his arm for the half mile journey back to our apartment. It was characteristically kind of him to do that – of course, he was wearing his clerical shirt and no doubt would have drawn some interesting looks as he walked along the busy street, especially if he had met any parishioners, who would have wondered why their single, celibate priest happened to be on a diaper run.
Under Father Freddie’s shepherding, St Michael’s was to have a major impact on the lives of those who attended the church. During that time, prayer and study groups flourished; there was an annual pilgrimage to Walsingham; children graduated from Sunday school to serving at the altar. In addition, five members of the congregation left to become ordained priests. In fact, more than five were called, but not all were chosen. In any event, that number was extraordinary, given that average Sunday attendance was less than 100.
As well as Father Freddie, St Michael’s was blessed with a number of retired clergy, one of whom was Prebendary Gerard Irvine, a personal friend of the poets John Betjeman and T.S Eliot, and author A.N. Wilson. All the clergy had their distinctive ways of preaching, and we were fed a rich and varied diet of sermons. I’m not sure we realized at the time how really blessed we were. In retrospect, it seemed as though the Holy Spirit was blowing through the church in a big way.
It came to an end, as all things do. In 1994 Father Freddie left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic church. He served in a church in London, and I lost touch with him. Last year he died at the age of 76, having suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for a number of years.
There isn’t space here to recount all the memories of that earlier time, but I have often wondered why God should have blessed our small congregation with such an abundance of spiritual riches. I keep coming back to Father Freddie’s example: a quietly spoken and personally fastidious man who took his vocation and prayer with the utmost dedication and seriousness. We all loved him for who he was, and he returned that love with the love of a true shepherd of God.
He instilled in me a love for the worship of the church, which is reflected in the words of the letter he wrote to the Catholic Diocese of Westminster in 1995. Presenting himself as a priest who wished to serve in the Catholic church, he wrote, with typical modesty: “I have no gifts. The Sacraments are my life and the Mass is everything to me.” He meant that, but in one respect he had it wrong – he did have gifts, of gentleness, kindness and a love for God.
I wonder if, before he died, Father Freddie was able to look back on that period in his life, and see what God was doing – giving us all a share in his Spirit, and enabling us to make sense of our lives with reference to God. The “gift” of Father Freddie was the gift of himself: in him, we could catch a glimpse of God, and also catch a glimpse of God in each other. With the benefit of hindsight, it has now become apparent how transformational that whole period was. I thank God for the gift of Freddie, and pray his soul now rests among the faithful in heaven.
With prayers and blessings