Canon Thistlethwaite joined the Chapter on the 21st February 1999. The rest, they say, is history. I write this with my sincere gratitude for all you have done, and my best wishes for you and Tessa on your retirement. You will both continue to be in our thoughts and prayers.
Just as one chapter opens, another must close. It is true for our lives just as it is for books. Almost a week ago now, the Precentor I have known my whole life preached his last sermon at the Cathedral. Regal in his scarlet cassock, he graced us once more with his words of wisdom, before he processed out of the Cathedral to begin his retirement.
Here was a man who taught me sincerity, honesty, subtle wit and humour, an appreciation for music and poetry, liturgy, humility, leadership, piety and so much more. A man who had devoted over 17 years of his life to the service of God in our community. A man who is recognised by musicians across the world for his academic dedication to organs, but a man who never failed to be beside those who were right in front of him.
As he stood up in the pulpit, he told us the truth. Endings are difficult. Authors, playwrights, film makers all struggle with endings. Because there must be an ending. There is are endings every day in our lives. But what is important is not that there is an ending, that is inevitable. What matters is whether the ending is right. We have to find our ending, and make it right for us.
I have no doubt that Nicholas’ ending was right for him. A Cathedral hides many things: the whispers of long forgotten pleas; the tears shed; the laughter shared; the plots which there are set afoot.
And it was a plot that the Cathedral was hiding last weekend, a plot steeped in good will and gratitude for a man none of us will ever forget. Courtesy of the Cathedral’s music department, adept at organising under cover concerts at short notice, and with Nicholas totally unaware, the Secret Squirrel Sub-Dean Celebration Concert (code name: SSSDCC) plans began to take form. [If you are wondering where the squirrel comes in then you join me. As far as I can tell, Canon Thistlethwaite loves squirrels. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine..! ]
Combined with two more receptions, filled with crisps (no soggy disgusting canapés like last week) and fizz (only for toasts, of course…) and subtly supported with the (mostly) light humour and gossip of the lay clerks and various members of clergy, eyebrow raises, secretive nods, concealed guffaws of laughter when it clearly wasn’t appropriate (choristers provide this quite frequently, it has to be said) and an appearance from Dean Emeritus Victor Stock (a man who openly compares himself to Toad of Toad Hall), it was bound to be a fine weekend.
The SSSDCC was, needless to say an evening of pure joy and celebration. The face on Nicholas’ face when he turned the corner into the nave to see the choir and an audience of friends made the whole weekend worthwhile. The Cathedral was filled with William Harris, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Whitlock, Purcell and Samuel Sebastian Wesley. The music danced up to the ceilings, spun round the scaffolding and filled the ears and hearts of everyone listening. It was truly exquisite. I know how much of an effort the choristers and lay clerks must have put into the concert so early into the term. It is a testament to the glorious legacy of the strong music department Nicholas has guided and now leaves behind, safe in the hands of an exceptionally strong team.
It is clear what a wonderful aid he was to the department, from the heartfelt tributes to him given by Stephen Farr, Paul Provost, and Katherine Dienes-Williams, that brought tears to the eyes of most of the audience present.
As written in the programme, ‘The Revd Canon Dr Nicholas Thistlethwaite has been an absolutely outstanding and inspirational Sub Dean, Precentor, and in his time, Acting Dean. He has led the Liturgy and Music Department with great intelligence, good humour and great strength and wisdom…This evening’s concert is a celebration of all that Nicholas has given to the Liturgy and Music Department, friends and congregation over the last 17 years.’
Personally, I could not echo these words more. To our family, Nicholas has always been supportive and encouraging. He cares so deeply about the choristers, and I know my brother will always appreciate that. He always takes time to ask after us, and what we are up to, what we are studying, and what our plans our for the future.
Nicholas encouraged me, aged just 8 to take to the lecturn and read for the very first time, the 6th lesson at the service of 9 Lessons and Carols in December 2008. He spent more than hour with me the day before, explaining what each sentence meant, how to phrase it and how to conquer my nerves. We read it together, I read it separately. He told me to slow down every time. Eventually, I did. For four years I read that lesson, and I can still recite it word for word (And it came to pass in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up…etc. I could go on!). I will always remember the now Bishop of Southampton winking at me as he walked down the aisle, and then walking straight back up again to give me hug. He told me that that was the best lesson he had ever heard read. I believed him then, and now I am grateful for his encouragement. Since then I have read regularly at Cathedral services. I always receive so many comments to thank me for reading with sincerity and truth. But it’s not me who should receive these compliments, but Nicholas. I will always be grateful for the time he spent with me, and the ways he taught me to conquer my nerves. They are things I use every day.
I have been at the Cathedral now for 9 years. Over those 9 years, every member of the Chapter has changed apart from Nicholas. He was a constant and much loved colleague and friend for many. His unwavering presence and leadership in and out of services, his depth of knowledge and his sense of humour are just a few out of many things that the Cathedral will lose. But his legacy in music and liturgy will remain, I’m sure. He knew that the ending would be hard, but he found his right ending. Now it’s up to us to find ours.
Nicholas, you have heard so many times that you will be sorely missed. I will never forget what you have meant to me and my family. I wish you all the best in your retirement.
Nicholas is a great fan of T.S.Elliot. When Dame Penelope Keith was asked to read a poem at the SSSDCC, she contemplated choosing Elliot. But she chose this instead. And it was perfect.
The Diary of A Church Mouse, John Betjeman
Here among long-discarded cassocks,
Damp stools, and half-split open hassocks,
Here where the Vicar never looks
I nibble through old service books.
Lean and alone I spend my days
Behind this Church of England baize.
I share my dark forgotten room
With two oil-lamps and half a broom.
The cleaner never bothers me,
So here I eat my frugal tea.
My bread is sawdust mixed with straw;
My jam is polish for the floor.
Christmas and Easter may be feasts
For congregations and for priests,
And so may Whitsun. All the same,
They do not fill my meagre frame.
For me the only feast at all
Is Autumn’s Harvest Festival,
When I can satisfy my want
With ears of corn around the font.
I climb the eagle’s brazen head
To burrow through a loaf of bread.
I scramble up the pulpit stair
And gnaw the marrows hanging there.
It is enjoyable to taste
These items ere they go to waste,
But how annoying when one finds
That other mice with pagan minds
Come into church my food to share
Who have no proper business there.
Two field mice who have no desire
To be baptized, invade the choir.
A large and most unfriendly rat
Comes in to see what we are at.
He says he thinks there is no God
And yet he comes…it’s rather odd.
This year he stole a sheaf of wheat
(It screened our special preacher’s seat),
And prosperous mice from fields away
Come in to hear the organ play,
And under cover of its notes
Ate through the altar’s sheaf of oats.
A Low Church mouse, who thinks that I
Am too papistical, and High,
Yet somehow doesn’t think it wrong
To munch through Harvest Evensong,
While I, who starve the whole year through,
Must share my food with rodents who
Except at this time of the year
Not once inside the church appear.
Within the human world I know
Such goings-on could not be so,
For human beings only do
What their religion tells them to.
They read the Bible every day
And always, night and morning, pray,
And just like me, the good church mouse,
Worship each week in God’s own house,
But all the same it’s strange to me
How very full the church can be
With people I don’t see at all
Except at Harvest Festival.