Tributes to Bob Jeffery – Worcester Cathedral – 21st June 2017
Bob Jeffery – Magic Priest
Hello everyone, Iggy here. It would have meant the world to me to be there with you all today but unfortunately, the Japanese government has me under strict lock and key. Instead you have my Mum, and she is a great lady.
Last year a lot of legends died. Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Prince, and Bob Jeffery. Most notably, was the man with many names: Robert Martin Colquhoun Jeffery, Bob, or even Bobby Davross to a select few. Since Bob passed into the realm of legends, I’ve learned more about him. For instance, I didn’t know he possessed the name Colquhoun. But more importantly, I never knew that he had such a profound and real influence on so many people.
After his passing, there was a huge flood of wonderful things said about Bob.
’a man of imaginative kindness’, ’a loyal and understanding friend’, ‘a notable gossip’. Although I wasn’t surprised, in my eyes, he was always a legend. And I only have good memories of Bob.
When I was a child, he taught me how to make cakes in the kitchen of Cloister House which I would then sell to tourists who wandered by. Just before Bob died, we reminisced on that time and laughed about how I never split the profits with him, even though I used all of his ingredients.
He was perhaps, the messiest chef who ever lived on this earth. In just a few minutes, he could transform a tidy kitchen into the aftermath of a tornado. It was impressive: food smattered on every surface as if someone had spun around the room with an electric whisk. But he got results, and there was no denying the deliciousness of his dishes.
“Love people and feed them” That was Bob Jeffery in a nutshell.
He used to teach me card games, chess, and magic tricks, too. I remember his famous cotton-bud-through-the-head trick. I was completely convinced that my head was hollow for weeks after he’d put one into my ear and pulled it out through the other. His magic tricks were great. They didn’t always work though. His illusions were sometimes transparent and his sleight of hand wasn’t the slightest – his big, broad hands sometimes gave the game away. But he had a real lightness in his touch, a cheerfulness that was infectious, and a genuine warmth that was truly magical. That was what really struck me as amazing about Bob. He could conjure cheerfulness into every situation. Sitting in his last bed at sobell house, he told us he would perform the famous cups and balls trick with his pill cups and medicine. This would have been a historic world first, as the pill cups were transparent. So My Mum asked: “But Bob, how are you going to do that? The cups are see-through.” To which he replied, with a cunning smile, “sleight of hand.”
My memories of Bob are often marked with magic. I remember watching men escaping out of handcuffs, elephants disappearing into thin air, and white doves being released from jacket pockets in old magic shows we used to watch on TV. He knew the inner workings of many illusions and would often bestow his wisdom on how the tricks worked. “I know how he did it” He might say, peering over his big thick rimmed glasses. His collection of magic books gave him an encyclopaedic knowledge of magic and trickery.
However, he also placed great trust in ambiguity, uncertainty, and the unknown. And back by his bed side this rang particularly true.
In his last days, he was full of life, singing songs and making jokes. At one point he said:
“I’m clearly on the way out but to where, I don’t know.”
It was quite incredible. He did not hold on to the past, nor did he worry about what was to come next. Instead he mused thoughtfully and objectively over the natural process that he was going through – totally content with the ambiguity of his situation.
Bob once told me that a wise man is never certain. By this, I think he meant that we can never know everything there is to know, so how can we ever truly be sure of anything? I can hear him now singing Kay Sara in an opera like voice as he potters around the house.
Bob’s mantra was that “life is all about letting go.” I can remember so many times when he said this to others and in his last days, he truly lived up to that mantra. Like an illusionist holding a white dove, that’s exactly what Bob did. He let go.
I’d like to end with a funny memory I have of Bob. It’s not so much of an anecdote but more of an image that will stay with me forever. A couple of years ago, he let me put my drum kit in his house. As I was drumming, he would walk from the corridor through the living room to the kitchen, and as he did so, he would do this little dance move. It used to really crack me up. He shuffled his feet, with his hands up by his face and rocked quickly from side to side from the hips. His hands flicked around at the wrists and his face was lit up with mischief. It was such a bizarre scene. Me drumming, and him dancing, both of us looking at each other with bemused and entertained expressions. Bob always put the magic in the mundane. He was entertaining and humble. He was the messy feeder of the people, He was the wise old grandfather every child dreams of. He was truly the magic priest.
Maybe you can try that dance move later. It’s quite legendary.
All my love, Iggy.
Iggy Jeffery is currently teaching English in Japan.
Justin Lewis Anthony
I first met Bob on a job interview. At least, that’s what I thought I was there for. It was…a peculiar occasion. I had been called by a friend who suggested that I might like to apply for a post at Christ Church, Oxford, and would I please come in to meet some of the chapter in two days’ time, and don’t worry about the paper work, we can sort that out when you arrive.
So, I arrived at Christ Church, and was introduced to the Sub Dean of the Cathedral, up the tiny narrow stairs off the cloister, and into the “study” that was in a roof-space above the cloister below. I say “study” but I saw immediately that Bob used the “put it down somewhere” method of filing. He cleared some papers off a chair for me, looked over his glasses with a big grin, and began tapping out my CV two-finger pecking style. That task was never completed, because within three minutes of us meeting he had told me two indiscreet anecdotes and a firmly worded opinion about the current bench of bishops. The stories and the connections were much more interesting to him and to me, than ‘where I went to school’ and what my ‘theological influences’ might be.
My first meeting with Bob was characteristic of all my encounters with that force of nature and lover of humanity. Bob found people fascinating. The way he shared his fascination some call “gossip”, but for Bob it was the means by which he expressed his connection with all those around him, the great and the good, the high and the low, the kind and the foolish. No one was off limits to Bob, and no one was beyond his loving attention.
When I began the job of Precentor he helped me negotiate the peculiar beast that is Christ Church (a cathedral when the University wants to regulate; an Oxford college when the national church wants to manage). One of the House’s more charming affectations is to begin all services five minutes after the advertised time (House-time, not Railway-time!). The first morning I was rotared to take Morning Prayer, I was keenly aware that I had a big chunk of Cranmerian psalms to get through, before I was to celebrate the eucharist in 25 minutes. At 7.15am (advertised start time), the only members of the congregation were the Precentor and the Sub-Dean. At 7.17, the same – no sign of the canon – in – residence. At 7.18, my nerve was beginning to break. At 7.18 and 30 seconds, I stood up and interned the opening versicle: “O Lord, open thou our lips.” To which came back the traditional response: ‘Sit down, you’re early and he’s not here yet!”
Sub-Dean and Precentor quickly became allies. I realised that here was a man that was both wise and kind, a combination rarer than you might think in the Church of England today. He taught me much about the strange ecosystems of church and cathedrals, and he always did so with humour and barely suppressed incredulity about the foolishness that went on around him. When I came to express my own ideas in writing, it was Bob who read and critiqued, and provided much of the original material. I am glad that his archives (mostly!) have been deposited in Gladstone’s Library for future historians. If anyone wants to understand church and society in the late twentieth-century, then they will turn to Bob’s work. There will be PhDs and scandalous exposés to be found there!
However, if anyone wants to understand what it means to be a priest and a pastor in any age, then Bob is also an exemplar. He never allowed his insight into people’s hidden motivations to prevent him from treating them with love. He never allowed his desire to act righteously to separate him from those who acted selfishly. He disapproved of pomposity, humbug, and self-promotion, but he tempered that disapproval with amusement and a wonderful sense of the absurd. I know how hard he found life after Ruth’s death – he never dissembled or pretended his grief away. But he was always able to express gratitude for those individuals and communities that supported him and gave him solace, and those friends were to be found all over the world.
I can’t tell you the number of times some piece of CofE silliness has been reported in the last few months and my immediate thought was “I wonder what Bob makes of that?” I miss him, but, learning my lesson from him, I am grateful to have learnt from him, and to have known him.
The Revd Dr Justin Lewis Anthony
Bob was a marvellous training priest. Donald Richards, our admirable local GP said to him one afternoon. ‘Nice couple called Brown moved in to the parish last week.’ ‘Ah yes,’ said Bob, in Sandfield Road – ‘I dropped in to see the last Monday.’ Combine his care for people with his formidable thirst for reading and one couldn’t have had a more challenging and productive curacy. Monday’s Staff Meetings were always stimulating and fun, especially when accompanied by the escapades of a brigade of young children – Charles emptying a tube of Bostik into the well of Leslie Sutton’s (next door neighbour) typewriter remains my favourite memory! At those meetings we planned well for the week ahead, but then ranged into the realms of theology and sometimes politics too. It was the period when the new John Radcliffe Hospital was being built in the parish; Bob was hugely well informed on the National Health Service and on how it related to wider social policy and, of course, theology too. The Pattern of life – visiting, the Daily Office, reading, engagement with the community and hosting visitors and social events – all issue from that excellent three years with Bob in Headington.
The Rt Revd Dr Stephen Platten
Chaplain to St. Martin-within-Ludgate and former Bishop of Wakefield
The day Bob left Worcester he delivered a letter to my home in which he wrote “I look forward to many years of friendship, gossip, fun and a common shared Christian concern”. This perfectly sums up all that Bob gave me and many others who were privileged to enjoy his friendship over the years. We met over dinner in a London flat in 1968 and our friendship continued from that day. It even survived working together as colleagues in the glorious and notorious world of Cathedral splendour and intrigue! At the time we met Bob was working in Church House Westminster where of course he met his wife Ruth. Ever cheerful around College Green here in Worcester Ruth also enjoyed a chat, never failing to ask after our family and how we were settling down after a spell working overseas. None of us will ever forget that November morning when Ruth died suddenly. It was devastating. Somehow Bob picked himself up, staggered through his grief and attended to the needs of his family as he did faithfully to the day of his own death in December last year.
Bob once said to me “most theology is poetry”. This throw away remark which Bob was in the habit of dropping exhilarated me at the time. Bob knew something about the poetry of the soul. It was made visible in his writings, in the liturgies he framed and the prayers he led. And with Ruth he has given this to his family all of whom have artistic genes. All families are complex in their own way and Bob’s was no exception but my admiration for them is boundless. Twelve thousand miles away they kept me in touch as Bob was dying. Philippa so wanted me to be the first to hear of her father’s death. And Hilary sent me a CD recording of the funeral which was beautiful as I knew it would be and a photograph of Bob’s delight in discovering the antique ciborium at Tong which they called the ‘Holy Grail of Tong’. Local history was one of Bob’s many interests, and the photo sits on my desk as part of a duo, the former Dean of Worcester and the former Dean of Brisbane.
Bob’s mind was always alert. He would spontaneously share ideas that were floating through his head. He was of course one of the great characters of the Church and a major contributor to Synods but Christian concern for the kind of society we were making or not making for ourselves was his main focus. He could be quite abrasive in his criticisms when he saw the bond and blend of community under siege, and the interests of the poor neglected. He cared deeply about these things. He challenged us to listen better and act better. When I visited him in Oxford for the last time just over a year ago he railed against “the chaos” in Parliament! He’d lost a lot of weight and I was surprised when he stood up! He stood so tall and slim just as he did in the photo of the day of his ordination in Durham Cathedral, at a time when I was a student at the University there! My bond with him will last for ever. I admired him and grew to love him. I treasure all the memories.