Community of the Sisters of the Church

Celebration of Sister Lydia's 90th Birthday

22 May 2009

Romans 12:3-13     Psalm 96:1-3, 7-8, 10     John 15:9-17

First I would very much like to thank Lydia for her kindness in inviting me to say a few words at her birthday celebration. I regard it as an honour to do so, and I hope that my words will say something about her and her life as a member of this community – a membership which takes us all the way back to 1937. 

Aging is a strange process of course. As a cricketer I tend to think of it in batting terms: 10 not out, OK so far, 20 not out - looking promising, 50 not out – in good shape, 90 not out, 

well on the way to becoming a ton-up kid! So perhaps today Lydia you should be looking forward. After all, when you think of the members of this community who have gone well beyond 

their three score and ten, there must be something about being a member of this religious order that is good for people…. 

The novelist P G Wodehouse thought a lot about age. He said of one person he had met that ‘he was either a man of about 150 who was rather young for his years, or a man of about 110 who 

had been aged by trouble’. And a noted literary figure when asked on his 100th birthday how he felt, replied: ‘If I’d known that I was going to live as long as this I would have taken better care of myself!’ 

Anyway, back to Lydia. 

When she asked me to speak – and I think that was partly because we came to Ham at the same time – in her case of course after her long ministry in Clevedon -  she said I wasn’t to go on too much about her life. And those of you who have known her for a long time will be aware that like the legendary Hilda, wife of Rumpole of the Bailey, Lydia is undoubtedly ‘she who must be obeyed’! 

And after all, the one reference to a Lydia in the Bible, in Acts 16, speaks of the seller of purple cloth, who invited Paul and Silas to stay at her house, and would accept no refusal… 

So I won’t dwell on the many aspects of her long ministry, in the convent at Kilburn, where she came as a postulant in 1937, where Sisters Scholastica and Dorothea were already in residence, and then at St Anne’s, where she cared for poor kids from my home town Birmingham, in the various children’s homes, such as St. Edith’s at Clevedon, as well as at St. Anne’s and Broadstairs. 

Or the famous occasion when a sister of this community, sitting quite close to me here, asked her one day if she would like to go to prison. To which she readily agreed, and so began her time 

of ‘porridge’ in Liverpool. (She was given 3 years in Liverpool men’s prison, but I don’t know what for!) And then the Social Services work in the girls’ remand and assessment centre. It was there that she met a friend of mine called Colin Oxenforth, the vicar of St. Margaret’s Princes Park in the notorious Liverpool 8 area round Toxteth, which became famous in the early 1980’s for its riots. And of course her years in Clevedon where I know she was very happy, studying at Bristol University and offering spiritual care to the many who came, and still come, to her. And more recently, in retirement, in inverted commas, taking over the management of our lovely garden. 

So it has been, up to now, a very mixed life, some of it as a fairly ‘conventional’  (!) nun living in the convent, attending mass and divine office. Much of it as a ‘free range’ sister, out and about in a variety of situations, mostly to do with human need, deprivation and crime. Much has been about listening and supporting 

others in her ‘mindfulness’ approach to spirituality and her determination to put responsibility where it belongs – she told me of an incident at one of the children’s homes where some bullying had gone on, with the result that one girl was badly enough hurt to have to go hospital; when Lydia found out what had happened she insisted that those responsible must organise this themselves. 

The readings chosen for this service reflect, I hope something of what Lydia’s life and ministry of adoration and action has been and will, I sincerely hope, continue to be for many years to come, even if she is not quite as sprightly as she was in 1937! 

They speak of the ways in which many vastly differing types of ministry come together in the church. They are all needed. No one ministry is any better or more important than any other. Like 

the human body, which Paul often used as a model of apostolic ministry, the various limbs and organs complement one another. If I am not doing one form of ministry, that doesn’t matter because someone else will be doing that. I can only attend to my vocation as I see it. And the whole is oriented to one thing only, the demonstration in practice of God’s love and what that means for the world. 

The Ascension of Our Lord, which we celebrated yesterday shows us graphically the fullness of that love, a love set free in the Spirit, a love that is for all, rich and poor, high and low. That is what this community embodies, and it has been and will continue to be what Lydia offers us by her ministry and her love. 

So Lydia we congratulate you and give you our love on this your 90th birthday, and leave the last word to the great bard of English Literature William Shakespeare, who in the play Antony and Cleopatra addresses the Egyptian Queen in these words which I’m sure also apply to you: 

‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.’

Nicholas Roberts

Ham Chaplain