Sermon – Sir Tasker Watkins, Saturday 15 September 2007

Many of you present today will have known Sir Tasker for longer than I did and better than I did, for I only knew him in person, as opposed to reputation, since coming here eight years ago. There will also be a Memorial Service for him in this Cathedral Church on Saturday 1 December at 11.30 am when full justice can be done to his life and achievements.

The purpose of this address is to set his life in the context of what the funeral service of the church has to say about human living and dying. The Christian faith was important to Tasker. In a wide ranging conversation once, he spoke about his belief in God, the need for prayer and of how he had read the works of many theologians, for as he put it, “religion is not just about one’s emotion, it needs to be thought about rationally as well, although reason on its own won’t do either”. Lord Hailsham, the late former Lord Chancellor’s talks on faith had helped him enormously he said when he was a High Court Judge. And his own experiences at the battlefront and the death of his only son Rhodri had brought him face to face more than most people with death and dying, and he had experienced at firsthand how faith had helped many soldiers under his command. He told me that that was when you saw real faith, not superstition when the chips were down.

The Bible was at his bedside at Fairwater Lodge and this Cathedral Church was close to his heart. He had been on the committee set up to build the regimental chapel, his beloved Eirwen was confirmed here and he had studied for his bar examinations sitting on stones under the bombed open roof of this Cathedral – his parish church.

A church funeral service tries to do at least three things – it gives thanks for the deceased, it mourns a loss and it invokes God’s help. So today, we want to do just that – to give thanks for Tasker, whilst mourning his death and commending him to God’s safekeeping.

Giving thanks for his life is easy – there is so much to give thanks for, and I don’t just mean his gallantry in battle, his eminence in his chosen profession or his contribution to rugby in Wales . I mean giving thanks for the sheer quality of the man, the family man who had married his childhood sweetheart and who visited her at St Winifred’s everyday to read to her and sit with her, as she descended into a kind of living death, until he himself was hospitalised and could do so no more. His sheer kindness, graciousness, modesty and humility simply shone through whenever you met him. In spite of all that he had achieved, he never forgot his roots and was totally self effacing. He could mix with royalty and the common man or woman and treat them both the same. Small in size he might have been but here was a man of great stature who spoke quietly but when he did so people listened. Why? – in personal conversation he gave you his full attention and it was a conversation – a talking to you not at you, for he would often say something like, “I don’t know, but that’s how it seems to me”. He paid attention to the other, whoever he or she was, in his or her uniqueness and particularity. And then there was his sense of timing when speaking at dinners and the humour and the one liners. After listening to one businessman speak at a particular gathering on how wonderful he was, how much money he had made and how we too could be like him if we had the gumption, I asked Tasker what he thought. He paused for a moment and said, “I think I would just want to ask him one question” a further pause. I said, “What would the question be Tasker?” “I would want to ask him, what would your mother make of all this?” And in that one line was the judgement of a man both used to forensic cross examinations and summing people up, delivered with both wit and brevity.

So we all mourn his loss but especially Mair, John and the family. For no matter how old the person or how great our faith, it is natural to grieve because we shall never see him again in this life. As T S Eliot put it, “We die with the dying. See they depart and we go with them”.

During these last few years especially, Mair and John took great care of him as he grew older and as he tried to come to terms with Eirwen’s illness. The family too are grateful to Rookwood Hospital and Ward C6 in the Heath for their tender care of him during these last few weeks. Grief is the cost of commitment, the cost of loving. Death I am afraid, is not nothing at all, as Scott Holland says in his poem, even though we maybe constantly reminded that “in the midst of life we are in death”.

But, and it is a big but, although it is true “that we are but dust and our days are like the grass, and we flourish like a flower of the field, and the wind blows over it and it is gone”, those verses from Psalm 103 begin with the words “The Lord remembers”. That makes all the difference in the world. Why? – because they assert that just as God is the Alpha, he too is the Omega, the one from whom we come but also the one to whom we go. As the Jesus of John’s Gospel puts it, “In my father’s house are many dwelling places and I go to prepare a place for you”.

In other words, the God revealed by Jesus has created us in love and made us in such a way that our chief end is to love Him and one another, and he wants to continue that relationship of love with us beyond death, for God does not begin something which he does not mean to continue – for that is his nature – the nature of love. And the assurance that He is that kind of loving God is given by Jesus and through Jesus. The words of John’s Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through me” are not words meant to exclude anyone. They are in fact words of inclusion and hope. What they are saying is, that there is nothing in God’s character that is at variance with the character of Jesus who reveals and embodies God as compassion, graciousness and love, and that we shall ultimately have to come to terms with such a God, if we have not done so already. If we fail to realise that those qualities are intrinsic to God’s very being and essence, then we have not understood the nature of the Christian God or of love, for God is no other than Jesus reveals him to be, although sadly there are plenty of people in our world who believe in a different kind of God – an angry God, a sadistic God, a vengeful God, a selective God, a whimsical God. But that is not the God of Jesus.

If God is as Jesus shows him to be, then we do not have to wait for death to embody his values. As someone put it, “the toing and froing of love between God and man is the way we must go and is the reality which draws us on”. But we do not have to do so in our own strength, for the spirit of God enables us to catch that vision and aids us in trying to live that kind of life. God’s spirit present in Jesus is now available to us through him in attempting to live that life of love. And that is what Tasker tried to do.

He said as much himself. Reflecting on the day that was responsible for him winning his VC he said in 2001, “You must believe me when I say it was just another day in the life of a soldier. I did what needed doing to help colleagues and friends, just as others looked out for me during the fighting that summer … I didn’t wake up the next day a better or braver person, just different. I’d seen more killing and death in 24 hours – indeed been part of that terrible process – than is right for anybody. From that point onwards I have tried to take a more caring view of my fellow human beings, and that, of course, always includes your opponent, whether it be in war, sport or just life generally.”

That statement “is the perfect response of a true hero” wrote one person to the family. They are also kingdom values and it is to the author of those values that we now commit him.