Thursday, December 15, 2016

Remembering Father Ian Herring

It is always hard for me to think about St Ambrose without also remembering a great priest who influenced me in the early years of my ordained life. He was Father Ian Napier Herring, who died on Sunday 13th June, 1993 - too young at just 53 years of age. Father Ian had been Parish Priest of East Burwood, St. Arnaud, Ararat, Bundoora, and Essendon. He was a holy man whose life and ministry had an enormous impact on many people. 

He was a seeker of truth. Believing that all truth is God’s truth, Father Ian delighted in theology, history, comparative religion, poetry, astro and quantum physics, literature and mysticism. He hungered after truth. Each new discovery renewed his sense of wonder and fun. He knew so much about so many things. St Ambrose of Milan had always been one of Father Ian’s heroes, and so last week when preparing the blog entry about St Ambrose, I thought I would share with my readers a little about Father Ian, and couple of pieces he wrote.

As a priest, Father Ian had a great love for Christ and a great love for the people of God. He stood at the altar believing with all his heart - and in disarming humility - that he was an Icon of our great High Priest, that his sacred role was to lead us through that door into heaven itself where we and all for whom we pray become part of the prayer of Jesus to the Father, our worship being merged with that of the great multitude which no man can number from every race, language, culture and nation. When Father Ian celebrated Mass people found it easy to to believe in the Communion of Saints and the glory of God filling earth as well as heaven. Through his prayers, his witness, his pastoral ministry and his incredibly generous sharing of his own humanity he helped many experience God in their day to day lives. He was a sought after confessor and spiritual director.

The other side of Father Ian is that as a convinced Anglo-Catholic, he was never afraid to stand firm when he thought the truth was at stake. Again, his example was St Ambrose. He was deeply worried about the impact on our part of the Church of reductionist liberal theology. He predicted the theological, moral and spiritual mess that the Anglican Communion is now in. Father Ian contended for the Faith once delivered to the saints boldly but always with humility and gentleness towards those he debated, which is why the merciless attacks he received from Australia’s pro-ordination-of-women activists wounded him deeply.

The late 1970s and early ‘80s seem such a long time ago now. They were the early years of John Hazlewood’s episcopate in Ballarat. With leaders like Bishop John and Father Ian (and others), what is now in the wider Church described as “the new evangelization” was experienced among us. Those years were an adventure of faith, during which we really believed that whatever happened within Anglicanism at large, our bit of it - along with other networks of Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals - would constitute a kind of “Church within the Church”, which by sheer faithfulness would outlive the liberals and eventually see them off the block! 

And so it was that on All Saints’ Day 1980 at Holy Trinity Ararat, Father Ian produced a “Disco Mass” at which Bishop Hazlewood was the celebrant. These are the words Father Ian had written as a post-communion hymn. They were sung energetically to The Village People’s tune, “You Can’t Stop the Music.” What an amazing birds-eye view of Church history for rural youngsters! And what a great challenge to those fortunate enough to fall under the influence of this holy man:
This is how it came, that Christians got their name
Christ was born of Mary, taught men how to care. He
Called his friends to be, as kind and good as he.
Christian love’s the kind of love I mean - that’s what I mean.
Heroes from the start, Thaddeus and Bart,
Philip, Jude and Andrew - what a heroes’ band. You’ve
Also heard of James, and other famous names:
Martha, Thomas, Mary Magdalene . . .

You can’t stop the Christians, Nobody can stop the Christians,
There were Peter and John, Oh their faces they shone,
Whipped till evening had gone, they were there next morning,
You can’t stop the Christians, Nobody can stop the Christians,
Stephen preached till stoned, Saw the Lord enthroned,
And converted a fellow called Saul.

Nero did his best, put them to the test,
Threw them to the lions, In oil they were fryin’
But they had him beat, Death to them was sweet,
For they knew they’d meet their Lord at last - the very last.
Polycarp was old, venerable and bold,
Governor said, “Please, Sir, you must worship Caesar.”
Polycarp said, “No! Threaten me with woe,
I’ve promised him I’ll hang in hard and fast.”

You can’t stop the Christians, Nobody can stop the Christians,
Martyrs went to the grave, So courageous and brave,
Seemed like wave after wave. You could only admire them.
You can’t stop the Christians, Nobody can stop the Christians,
Till one Emperor said, “Stop!  Put an end to this lop-
ing of heads. I’ll become one myself.”

Theodosius, King most religious, Gave a hasty order -
Didn’t really oughta-, Seven thousand died. His Bishop then replied:
“Even kings confess when they are wrong!
(Kings can be wrong.)
Heretics by stealth, Grabbing Churches’ wealth,
Ambrose and Augustine kept heretics from bustin’
In to take control; These Bishops played their role -
Singing plainsong while the riots raged!

You can’t stop the Christians, Nobody can stop the Christians,
a barbarian chief marched on Rome like a thief -
City begged for relief: Bishop Gregory faced him!
You can’t stop the Christians, Nobody can stop the Christians,
To he deserts they flocked, to the trees and the rocks,
So Saint Benedict taught them to pray.

Verulamium, where Christians were called “Scum”,
Saw a refugee priest; Alban said, “Share my feast,
Then I’ll face your foes, Standing in your clothes . . .”
Now they call the place Saint Alban’s Town (His very town).
Island off the coast - Lindisfarne! - the most
Holy Isle in Britain. Never could there fit in
Saints like those who come to make the Island’s fame:
Aidan, Cuthbert, Chad are some I’ve found.

You can’t stop the Christians, Nobody can stop the Christians,
It was Oswald the the King (so the troubadours sing) -
Ranged his troops in a ring round the Cross of Jesus.
You can’t stop the Christians, Nobody can stop the Christians,
Then Saint Thomas a’Becket stuck out his brave neck. It
Frustrated King Henry’s designs.

Keble lit a flame when all was sunk in shame,
“Secular” was gospel, God was nearly lost. Well -
The apostolic line, stretching back through time,
Was overlaid by every social (gimmick, every) craze.
Men of Oxford rose against the worldly foes.
Pusey, Froude and Newman, their pens were superhuman.
And - the people knew - their holiness was, too!
England won’t forget the Oxford days.

You can’t stop the Christians, Nobody can stop the Christians,
English missionaries came to Australia, to frame
A Church to be just the same: We are Anglo-Catholics!
You can’t stop the Christians, Nobody can stop the Christians,
Now my story is through, the torch is passed on to you.
Are you worthy to carry this name?
                                    (Repeat last chorus)


In 1992, the year before Father Ian died, he and Roberta went overseas. They visited holy places in Britain and Europe. These words Father Ian wrote about their time in Milan and their visit to the body of St Ambrose were reprinted on the back of the service booklet for his Funeral Mass at Christ Church, Essendon: 

I have always loved the name Ambrose. St Ambrose is my patron saint. Roberta and I were married on his day, and we gave our son Nigel the second name of Ambrose. Why? I had read of St Ambrose as a youth. He fired my imagination. A holy man, a fighter, a theologian, a Christian statesman, a poet and a musician. Ambrose had died in 397AD, aged 57. You can imagine my excitement when, about 10 years ago, I learnt that he was still buried in Milan. Could I see his grave?
Last September we only had half a day in Milan. St Ambrose was buried in a 9th century Romanesque basilica, where his cathedral had once stood. Roberta and I raced up to it breathlessly, just as a bell was ringing and the guide was ushering the tourist parties out. “Please”, I puffed, “we’ve come from Australia to see St Ambrose”.  A smile broke over his features: “Saint Ambrogio?”  And he beckoned to us, putting up five fingers to indicate five minutes. I ran towards the high altar. Our guide switched on the light, and left us for a moment.
There we were, on our knees, looking through the glass. There were three skeletons; two were dressed in red, and I knew they were the martyrs Gervase and Protase, whose relics had been discovered in Milan in 386 AD. Ambrose had asked to be buried between them. He was.
The centre skeleton was dressed in the white robes of a bishop. A small skeleton. I was shaking in sobs . . . Here was where Europe began. Here in front of me was the first Christian bishop to stand up to the Roman emperors - a story which reflects as much credit upon emperor Theodosius as it does upon Bishop Ambrose. What a little man to take on Rome!  Here the Manichean heretics sent their brilliant recruit Augustine to listen to the saintly Bishop of Milan and trip him up. But the reverse happened. The young man was captivated by the Bishop, and asked for baptism. From the interaction of these two minds came St Augustine’s monumental “City of God”, the blueprint for Christendom. It happened here! And look at those hands: I have translated the Latin words they wrote! One day I shall walk the streets of gold with this little man. I shall talk with him and learn from him.

We knelt for what might have been an eternity. There was nothing larger than life; it was rather that larger than life deeds were performed by this ordinary, mortal little man. If he could do them, why can’t I?


Madeleine Herring said...

Hi Fr David. Madeleine here, Fr Ian´s eldest daughter. You might be interested in the discussion that came from a facebook posting of your blog. Go to Madeleine Herring on facebook. Regards, Madeleine

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