“Eulogy at Mervyn Kingston’s funeral”
It is a privilege to have been asked to speak publicly as we meet here today formally to express our sorrow at the death of our brother, friend, fellow-churchman, Mervyn, to thank God for his life and work, and to show our sympathy to those nearest and dearest to him, especially to Richard his partner.
George Mervyn Kingston was born in Florida Drive, East Belfast. In those difficult post-war yrs his twin sister Jill and he attended Nettlefield School and Willowfield Parish Ch. Both of these institutions were from the beginning important to Mervyn and I think he knew they were to influence, even determine, the course of his life. The PE school prepared him for Grosvenor High School on the other side of the city; and the parish church and its parochial halls were a wonderful outlet for this young boy. He thrived in the life of this big and busy Parish Church on My Lady’s Road; for the C of I of the time, it gave unusual prominence and opportunity to lay people in worship and parochial organisations. Many good parishioners participated hands-on in the day-to-day and Sunday by Sunday running of the parish. (The General Vestries were sometimes eye-opening.) These experiences gave Mervyn a vocation to the sacred ministry. I knew Mervyn in the first decade and a half of his life, but not well; a 12 yr old boy doesn’t have much in common with a 4 yr old who isn’t his brother and I left these shores in 1962 but I remember the pleasure of my parents in a blue aerogramme to me telling me the news: did I remember young Mervyn Kingston? well, he had been accepted for ordination. He would be going down to Dublin in September. My parents and everyone else around the church were delighted. There was a detail in this development which was indicative of something that would be seen again in the future. As a child and teenager Mervyn had quite a bad stammer which he had overcome; he didn’t give up easily. Also by then he was finding fulfilment in his work in Social Services; but he felt the call to the Ministry and the Church recognised and welcomed that in 1969.
The Revd Mr Kingston was ordained for the curacy of Comber Parish to learn the trade and the practice from Hammy Leckie (this was a good choice, he reckoned at the time and subsequently), then back in E Belfast he served in St Donard’s where he appreciated Pat Synnott as mentor, followed by Down Cathedral with particular concern for Ardglass. Later in the mid 80s he crossed the river to Connor and the housing estate at the top of the Shankill Road; then down to a spur of Armagh Diocese that curiously reaches the sea near Dundalk, a care of souls which includes Carlingford and Crossmaglen.
Obviously these locations are very diverse and varied in every way but in all these milieux Mervyn was a consistent cleric and pastor. He began during the most destructive and murderous years of the Troubles and that affected his perception of what he believed God was asking of his people. Mervyn never lost the mind-set, the aspirations and the vocabulary of evangelical churchmanship. He was an evangelical true to the Gospel. In later years he often gently queried his more radical friends and colleagues who tend to dismiss the evangelical tradition as a discredited and spent force, always in hock to biblical idolatry which precludes any sort of prophetic Xnity, and which had played its part in creating debased Irish Xnity. Mervyn rejected this emphatically remembering the good people of his youth. But he knew what the epistoler James had in mind when James derides faith that is not evidenced in practice or in life. Mervyn was by nature conciliatory, seeing the best in everyone, aware of reasons, explanations of bad attitudes and deeds; he understood the power of history and environment; he tried to explain, to educate, willing people to see something differently, to read the words of Our Lord with openness and insight (as if for the first time), to try to separate the gospel imperatives from local cultural assumptions, to be sure they were questioning the latter in the light of the former, as Jesus did continually. He respected others’ opinions even when he felt in conscience that there was a better way and that it was his parsonical duty at least to present an alternative Xn position. But he always laid it on the line when he was seeking a new post. The elephant in the room was identified starkly; if you choose me you are getting an ecumenical C of I rector. “Ourselves alone” is heretical; I will want to work with those of other traditions; I will work for rapport between them and us. Furthermore I will work with and for those on the edge, those at the margins, (as the Lord did); indeed the faithfulness of our Gospel will be determined by how successful we are in these two regards. These are not negotiable, they are sine qua nons of Xnity.
About 35 yrs ago quite a few young people were frequenting St Donard’s Church and its youth club and recently Mervyn mentioned with pleasure to me that altho’ sometimes they vigorously challenged or rejected some advice of their curate, the verdict of one of them was: “You made us think!” How many of us pastors have had that accolade?
In the mid 80s Mervyn’s institution in St Andrew’s at the top of the Shankill Road was attended by one of his friends Fr Joseph Campbell in his robes, (he had also attended his ordination 10 yrs earlier). Some months later his parishioners were enchanted by a sermon from a nun in their pulpit. This was the pattern throughout his incumbencies, contact with the other, encouraging the C of I faithful to be open to others, “the other side”. Mervyn believed in that and practiced it, no more fervently than in his last incumbency at Creggan and Ballymascanlon. Here was a conspicuous opportunity of living out that old Anglican adage about rectors being there for the benefit of all of the people physically in their cure. The rector of Creggan ministered to the small protestant minority who felt under pressure and also to all who lived there; he met, liaised with, negotiated, socialised with the local people, and their political representatives. This caused surprise at first but went down well when it became apparent that things got done, attitudes mellowed, to the benefit of the whole community.
Back in 1969 it had been a revelatory experience for a young school leaver from Florida Drive to work for 4 yrs out of a Supplementary Benefits office in west Belfast. He and his office became known for his understanding, non-judgmental approach, general humanity and sympathy. This was instinctive to Mervyn as the mindset natural to any follower of Jesus. I’m told that in the office the nickname for this junior civil servant was Santa Claus.
The other elephant in the room was caused by the increasing awareness during our lifetimes that not everyone is heterosexual. For many yrs Mervyn had been drawn to quiet involvement in mixed marriages, to help with, encourage and sometimes to offer private blessings for mixed couples, or for divorced couples not welcome in their own church who still wanted a Godly benediction on their union. Mervyn is among those who came, after much thought, study, prayerful consideration, to a similar openness towards same gender couples, those whose natural and only search for love, for mutual comfort help and society that the one should have of the other that the BCP so correctly stresses as the foundation of life among almost all of us. Xns who were gay were beginning to emerge from the shadows in the 1980s and Mervyn was among them. But there was a change of gear, a new burst of energy, with the setting up of Changing Attitude Ireland in 2007. Here for the first time was concerted public involvement by church men and women, gay and straight, within the C of I, and all other Irish Churches, pointing out simply the unjust and socially damaging and downright cruel nature of conventional Xn dismissal of the unhappiness and anxiety of gay Xns. You are welcome in the church only if you pretend you are not what you are. The founders and inspiration behind CAI were Mervyn and Richard O’Leary. I dare to say that future generations of our church, if not the present one, will recognise this enterprise and thank God for it.
In 2002 the rector of Creggan and Ballymascanlon was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the following year was incapable of full-time ministry. The Diocese recognised this, made him a minor canon of Armagh Cathedral with the title of Vicar Choral. (Music, ecclesiastical and other, singing was always a joy to Mervyn.) This obtained until 2007 when he retired.
Since then, Mervyn has been increasingly looked after and sustained by Richard. The professionals from the Hospice helped, the input of two individual carers went far beyond duty. This meant Mervyn has continued faithfully to fight the good fight to the very end, to fulfil his godly calling to leave this world, this country and his beloved church in a state more pleasing to the Almighty for his having been with us. The struggle goes on: from his labours may Mervyn rest in peace.