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Tribute paid to Lord Carswell at Memorial Service

Tribute paid to Lord Carswell at Memorial Service

Archbishop John McDowell preached a homily in tribute to the Rt Hon the Lord Carswell of Killeen, at a memorial service held in St Mark’s, Dundela, East Belfast, this afternoon (Friday, 15th September).  Lord Carswell, who was formerly Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland and a former Chancellor of the Diocese of Armagh and the Diocese of Down and Dromore, died on 4th May this year.

Archbishop McDowell’s remarks from the service are below:

As you might expect, Bob Carswell was not a soul–baring sort of person. Although I never found him “buttoned up” (in fact quite the opposite when it came to offering words of encouragement) he had what might be called a judicious self–containment when it came to the things of the spirit. But if he did not bare his soul, he certainly demonstrated his commitment to God and His Church by the work which he did for it. As has been amply demonstrated in the testimony of Bob’s family, love grows chiefly by its deeds and not by its words, and in his deeds Bob exerted himself also in the service of the Church.

He acted as Chancellor in the Diocese of Down and Dromore and in the Diocese of Armagh when my colleague Lord Eames was respectively Bishop, then Primate. Bob also acted as the Primate’s Assessor at the General Synod on a number of occasions, offering advice on procedural matters. A Diocesan Chancellor is strictly speaking the Bishop’s adviser on the workings of the Constitution of the Church of Ireland, and I have no doubt that he carried out his duties in that respect with his usual diligence, accuracy and cheerfulness.

However, there are times when bishopping can be a lonely calling, especially when technical constitutional matters require decisions which may have considerable personal consequences. So to have had someone like Bob Carswell with his wide knowledge of human affairs, but also his insight into the human heart, to turn to for confidential advice would have been, literally, a Godsend. It is hardly surprising that the memory of him will bring to mind for so many of us “… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…”

I have often thought that judges lead a paradoxical life. Long periods of being silent when they are listening to evidence and to the arguments advanced by Counsel. Followed then by a prodigious river of words as he or she writes a judgement, only too well aware that each word will be mercilessly scrutinised. Yet, blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

Silence and words, and the lives of ordinary people, make up their daily toil and perhaps there was no one better equipped than Bob Carswell to live out that vocation. His education in Classics gave him not only a feel for the precision, form and flow of the written word, but who could have read the Orestia of Aeschylus about the murder of Agamemnon and not been moved to sympathy and understanding of the tragedy of the human condition and of our frailties.

Bob’s knowledge of Greek could also be a little disconcerting. I once had a mercifully brief conversation with him about the participle used in the great “I am” (ego heimi) passages in John’s Gospel, which he felt would have been better translated as the much more emphatic “I myself am…”

Yet he was no pedant. He had a deep feeling for the steady cadences of Cranmer’s Prayer Book with their simple, memorable words. He cared greatly about their meaning too, and was not far from being outraged when, in the Prayer of the Church Militant in the Communion Service, the Prayer Book revisers replaced the Tudor word “indifferent” with the word “impartial”. He felt that the modern word was unable to carry the variety of connotation and nuance which the older word had achieved. He cared about the words of the liturgy because, imperfect as they are, words are the ultimate conveyors of truth.

Bob was a listener, and as I’ve said to some of the family, my keenest memory of him is sitting up here in choir stalls when we used the old monastic Office of Compline; his head leaning slightly to one side, listening, and looking for all the world like a benign eagle. I remember having a discussion with him after one of those services and him telling me that he loved Compline. Of all the Offices in the Western Catholic Tradition, it is the one that was changed least at the time of the sixteenth century reformation. Perhaps above all else it is and service of comfort and reassurance before sleep, but it is also a service which appreciates the dangers and difficulties and messiness of life.

Its opening words are stern enough: “Brethren, be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary, the Devil, roameth about seeking whom he may devour; whom resist, steadfast in the faith”.

But its characteristic spirit is one of calm reassurance and quiet faith: “We will lay us down and take our rest; for it is thou Lord only that maketh us dwell in safety”. How soothing it must have been to think on  those eternal words words during the dark days of the 1970s and 80s.

Perhaps judges above all people are exposed more than most  to the unpleasant underbelly of life in all its forms – personal, institutional, corporate – and it would be a temptation in such circumstances to lose a sense of balance and perspective. I am pretty sure that Bob’s deeply embedded faith, was a major factor in preventing that from happening.

We are made for greatness and often, we achieve it. Great art, great empires, great intellects, great industries, great faith, great commitment, great love. Yet the little cloud no bigger than a man’s hand gathers on the horizon, and we halt in our stride, and the greatness of mankind seems clearer in the greatness of our misery than in the magnificence of our achievements. The high seems low, and our brief candle is out; and what is man that he is to be accounted of?

What has been said and sung and prayed in this service is that the life of Robert Douglas Carswell, hidden with Christ in God, is to be accounted of because it is the ultimate reality.

From the Office of Compline:

Preserve us, O Lord while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

And so, Romayne, Catherine, Patricia and all the family… after all the words, truly, truly his soul is at rest in silence and in peace.


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