In 2009 Sebastian Bain, Churchwarden at St Andrew’s, delivered a farewell tribute to Francis, on his retirement and departure from our parishes.  His words are as relevant (and moving) today as they were then.

Thy Hand, O God, has Guided

Thy flock, from age to age;

The wondrous tale is written,

Full clear, on every page;

Our fathers owned thy goodness,

And we their deeds record;

And both bear witness:

One church, one faith, one lord.

Canon Francis Woolley   12th July 2009

I was asked by my fellow Church Wardens to say a few words today. I am honoured so to do, but I do this with some fear that I will not do justice – but I hope that you, Francis, and everyone else here, will accept the words with complete sincerity.  I am not like Francis, who can week after week deliver his message  unscripted, and keep a congregation’s attention for the for the whole service – this of course comes from his natural ability and 30 years of dedicated service to Anglican Church.

Please accept these words on behalf of the many friends, some of whom have travelled from your previous parishes, here today, MP, MEP, District Councillors, Parish Councillors, Canons and other members of the Church who have supported us, and of course your extended family.

Francis was born a twin in 1943, the sixth of seven brothers and sisters. For the first 3 years of his ministry with us we had in the benefice, four sets of twins involved in serving the parishes. Francis, Michael Banner, Rosemary & Maureen, and myself are all twins  – we had discussed at one stage we would all gather together – that’s one of the very few ideas that Francis had that did not materialise during his 9 years with us.

But I digress.  Francis had a favoured upbringing in being part of a big family. His father was a headmaster (maybe  a pretty unenviable thought for the youngest members of our congregation), and a mother who was introduced to us nine years ago  as ‘my housekeeper’ – far from which she was!  Mariana had a smile for everyone that entered the vicarage, and an intellect that clearly passed down to her son. Francis’  father was a lay preacher for many years, and he took retirement and was ordained in1960 at the age of 60 (something the church authorities would not allow now)  He was Rector of Gestingthorpe in North Essex for five years and then moved to Isle of Wight  and retired in 1974.

Francis took his 11 plus in Oswestry (informing us last week that he had to wait for his pancakes, as he sat his exam on Shrove Tuesday).  When Francis was 12 his parents took on a small-holding and Francis lived there until he was 19, during which time he learned the art of looking after animals and knowing the true beauty of the four seasons – an experience which no education at any school can give you.  Many times in Francis’ sermons he has related to the earth in a truly respectful and knowledgeable way. Francis understands and respects the farmers in our area with knowledge of the ups and downs of farming.  He learned how to plant vegetables, sow wheat and watch it grow and then, as I can vouch myself, experience the thrill of bringing in the crops at harvest time. He, and his brothers Edward and Adam, worked on adjoining farms during the summer holidays.  For those who are able to work on the land, this is a wonderful grounding for life in general – working until dark until the combine has to stop.  If you have been involved it is a thrilling and exciting time, though you have blistered hands and pulled muscles from heaving sacks of corn; all a great start to rounding off a young man.

Hearing the first bleat of a lamb and its mother’s response, watching a calf being nuzzled by its mother – all  this makes one with oneself and ensures you have some respect for the earthly things that we have been given.  Francis has those qualities and he ‘quietly’ reminds us of them when necessary.

After school Belfast called him. He studied Classics and Psychology, and I hear he was a leading light in the Drama club. After university he went into stage management and spent a year at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.  It reminds me of one Sunday morning at St Andrews; Francis was helping me fold away a very large table which we had been using in the church – no doubt for a glass of wine to celebrate a Feast day.  On the underside of the table, in bold black letters, is marked ‘this is the property of MH Warre‘.   Francis asked me why I had this table.  I responded by saying that it was my step-father’s. It turns out that my step-father, who used to lecture at LAMDA, had taught Francis some of the skills required by stage managers and also, it seems, elocution was part of the syllabus.  Michael’s method was to ask his students to stand on one side of Cromwell Road and speak so that he could hear them on other side. If you know the Cromwell road  you will understand that it is far from a quiet village high street like Balsham’s, being a through road from the M4 into London. After LAMDA, Francis toured for three years with several productions including the Beggars Opera, and The Cherry Orchard, with Lila Kedrova and Patrick Wymark.

After the stage came banking, first with the Midland Bank on the Isle of Wight, and then transferred to Worcester.  There he joined the Friends of the Cathedral and this was the start of the calling that has made his life for the last thirty years. He became a Marshall, and after a year decided to go to Salisbury and Wells theological college, being ordained in 1979 at Worcester Cathedral.

After his ordination he joined as curate in a Ministry team in Halesowen, a parish with 45,000 people in three churches. In 1981 Frances became team vicar in Droitwich, coming back to Cambridge as team vicar in the Parish of the Ascension, and from there moved to Leverington in 1992.

We met Francis first in the autumn of 2000, in Jane’s house, in West Wickham. We spent so long chatting that in fact we failed to ask the formal interview questions so we had to ask him to come back again. We soon realised his wide experience of a classical education, his agricultural and commercial experience, his undoubted musical abilities, and his varied ministry experience, made him the perfect fit for us.  We were four churches with no true bonding; Francis, as you know, has made us not four, but one unified group.

He joined us in February 2001, with Marianne (who was 92 at the time) and Cholmondeley.  We had a fantastic licensing service here In Balsham.  We had many witnesses that stand here today but I am sure, Francis, you remember with pride the many friends that came from your previous parish and, of course, your family.  We also thank Michael Banner who served with you for the first three years of your Ministry here and then we were fortunate to have Keith and Pat join us, after Michael went to Scotland. As Francis said, we are overjoyed that your operation went well, Keith.

We joined as four Parishes into one Benefice; your guidance was invaluable.  You helped to ensure we kept the two vicarages, and you personally were honoured by being Canonised about two years ago, an honour which is not conferred without due reason.  Your work in the diocese of Ely is, I am sure, much respected, and they will miss you in the coming years.

What has been achieved under Francis’ stewardship is remarkable, including the restoration of the roof here in Balsham with Francis’ choice of blue for the ceiling, which I am sure you agree was an excellent choice. Also the new organ here, which we had the pleasure of hearing this morning (I know that your skill and knowledge of organs has ensured that all four are in the best order that we can hope for). The major works this year at Weston Colville would never have been completed without your guidance.  Your working knowledge of how architects work and what their requirements are, understanding the quinquenial reports, and selecting what should and should not be repaired, have ensured that the building stock at the end of your 9 years with us is in far better condition than it was when you joined us.

Keeping all our treasurers in check, specifically ensured that we kept favour with Ely by paying our full Parish Share, when funds permitted.  Francis has made it clear that sometimes we cannot pay the full share, if the funds are needed for the restoration of the buildings.  Francis has helped us to focus on the principle that it is vital that we maintain the presence of the building, the vestments, and the churchyards, in advance of collectively paying £33,000 a year to Ely.  This is a lot of money to find each year; it is equivalent to £11 per head for every resident of the four parishes.  Please remember, of the 3,000 residents of the four parishes, we have only 155 on the electoral role, and an average congregation of 70 in the four parishes on any one Sunday.  Francis has ensured that we can show witness to our parishes that we can and will maintain these wonderful buildings. We will need to fight in the coming interregnum to come out of it stronger, with a commitment from Ely to ensure that we have, at a minimum, a full-time stipendiary clergy in post.  Francis, I think one of your legacies will be that those that come forward to be on the selection committee to choose the next incumbent will think deeply about how you have contributed to us over the past decade before making our choice. You will be a very hard act to follow.

Mentioning names of those who have shone in your period of office would be a mistake, as there are too many to mention, and if I tried I would miss some one that should have been; whether it be the loyal teams in all four churches that help with cleaning, those that help clear the gutters, weed and mow the churchyards, ring the bells, and the many other supporters. Not forgetting the wonderful flowers that are donated and arranged every Sunday in our four churches.

I will mention two names, one being Joyce Wooldridge, who encouraged me to take up where she left off. She is remembered with deep love by everyone in West Wratting. And we remember Joanna Brooks who, with Graham, did so much to keep the childrens’ group and the prayer meetings going through the last interregnum. We miss her, and wish Graham and Abigail our continued prayers and peace with the world.

The church wardens that have served with Francis over the years in the four parishes have been Jane Scheuer and Marcus Cornish in West Wickham, and Rosemary Westley and Maureen Garrod at Weston Colville, all of whom have served for the 9 year period.  At Balsham, Ruth Ringer and Joanna Saunders, who have now passed the baton to Brian and Dilly; also, at West Wratting, Joyce Wooldridge, and latterly myself, Fanny Peers and, most recently, Mary Streater.

Your encouragement against many odds has ensured that the flower festival in Weston Colville, the fund-raising events, the gift days and all the other fund-raising has helped maintain the village life in all four parishes.  In the last 20 years we have lost shops and pubs in the 3 outlying parishes, but the churches, and their Sunday witness, have continued.  Thank you for ensuring we have kept to our Mission and Vision as stated in our 2000 Parish profile. You have encouraged the establishment of the Friends of St Mary’s, which started 6 months ago, to ensure the excellent work in their restoration of the north wall and the reinstatement of the windows.  Your presence has encouraged some extremely generous private donations for specific projects such as the north door here in Balsham, the gilding of the screen at West Wratting, and I am sure many other donations which have come from the parishioners, and not always regular church-goers.

Francis has encouraged a strong relationship with Balsham School, which will I am sure stand us in good stead when the youngest come through for confirmation. I think we have had Confirmation services nearly every year since you have been with us. My daughter Charlotte appreciated your tutoring – a personal thank you.

The Lent Courses have inspired many of us to think deeply about what we believe in, acknowledging the differences between the tribes of people, which then built up to differences in belief.  The Lent courses were very popular, reflecting the high quality of the teaching you imparted to us.  At each meeting we were continually amazed at your grasp of history and your ability to communicate this to us.  Thank you;  we will miss your valuable input next Lent.

Our services have been regular, without a week without communion being said.  We will all have memories of specific sermons, whether they were of a deep religious, academic, agricultural, or even a politically incorrect issue that the Anglican Church has struggled with over the years.  We thank you for all of them. I am very disappointed that we did not here the Mouse and Clock sermon; it is often referred to by both our current and previous Archdeacons.  I understand that one of Francis’ most memorable sermons was about a mechanic’s bike in Worcester Cathedral.

From a management of point of view the maintenance of the Benefice has been excellent. In Challenge, The Balsham Review, and the West Wickham regular monthly sheet, your words of wisdom and wit are read by every member of the four parishes.  Indeed we have all much appreciated your sense of humour.  The introduction of the newsletter on the back of the weekly service sheet was and is a great way of keeping our four churches unified; we should try and keep it going through the interregnum.  Keeping our PCC meetings to the point, and shorter than they used to be,  without losing their purpose, is welcomed by all that have attended those meetings, ensuring that we comply with ecclesiastical law at all times; and your pet concern of copyright!

Francis, your persona is clearly understated. You are extremely skilled and understanding. You make those who might be visiting or attending a service for the first time welcome and at ease, whether it is at a serious event (though one should assume that every service is serious in some way or other) or a solemn event, such as a funeral, or at a joyous occasion like a wedding or baptism.

Francis’ decision to retire so early results from his ill health over the past few years. Though he survived the knife and all that the Addenbrookes could throw at him, it must be tiring to keep up with the self-imposed drive to ensure that everything, and I mean everything, running smoothly throughout the four parishes. We thank you for preparing the order of services for the interregnum. We thank you for advising us which hymns should be sung for the next 18 months. We thank you for passing over all the templates for the newsletters, the many other issues which we will not think about until we come to look for them and they will be there.

To your retirement we wish you well; we know today that you are not looking forward to it. I am sure you are not a man to whom retirement will mean idleness and boredom. On the contrary, I am sure you will be sought after in Oxford, for your down-to-earth and educated services, your voice, and your musical hands and feet at the church organs, of which there are many in that famous city.

Whilst you have been our shepherd of this Benefice you have won the respect and trust of everyone, whether they are regular church goers, the occasional Sunday worshipper, or the many that joined us for festival days.   As well, those from outside our parishes, who have attended weddings, and other services; you have done so much more than gained their respect.  You have won the abiding friendship and affection of us all. What better could be said of any man?

May I thank you personally, and on behalf of every member of the four parishes of Weston Colville, West Wratting, West Wickham and Balsham.  We wish you, at this landmark in your life, a happy retirement. You are changing from one way of life to a similar but more restful way of life. Francis, thank you!