Address at the funeral of Chancellor Victor McKeonRev. Brian Hunt
That great poet and Welsh Anglican priest, RS Thomas was once confronted by an interviewer with the question, ‘The Almighty seems to feature an awful lot in your poetry, doesn’t he?’ Thomas looked at him as if he were a complete idiot and replied, ‘That’s because I believe in God’. If ever there was a man who believed in God it was Victor McKeon. When he was very young, he nearly drowned in Dun Laoghaire harbour. As he went under for the third time, he remembered thinking to himself, ‘This is it’. And then, a miracle! A hand from nowhere got hold of him and plucked him to safety. Once he had gathered himself, Victor naturally looked around him to see whose hand it was, but there was no-one, and there never had been anyone. It was a saving event, which utterly changed his life. He knew now for absolutely certain that God was real, and that this same God had rescued him for a purpose. It was Victor’s task to find that purpose. John Wesley, you may recall, had had a similar experience. When the Epworth rectory caught fire, the baby John was thrown from an upstairs window to safety. Literally a ‘brand plucked from the burning’, he too was convinced that he had been saved for a purpose.
All through his life Victor had an unshakeable sense of the reality of God’s presence, even through tough times. His passing from us came much quicker than we expected, but even as we gathered around his bed on Saturday in the Erne Hospital, we felt that God was with him, and with us. I led the family in the words of the Nunc Dimittis. As we said ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’, Victor gently and silently, without the slightest sigh or movement, left us. The Lord’s servant departed from us, in peace. The good and loving God had graciously granted our prayer. May his Name be praised for ever!
And so we come together today to thank God for Victor’s life, to support June and all the family, and to remind ourselves of the Gospel of Easter hope in the Jesus. This is a time to bring your memories of Victor –memories of his character, his Christian example, of how he helped you or touched your life – and to give thanks to God for him.
Victor McKeon was born, reared, and educated in the Republic of Ireland, in and around Dublin, but his ministry was all up here in Ulster, mostly in this Diocese of Clogher, though he served as Diocesan Accountant in Connor, Down & Dromore dioceses, and as Bishop’s Curate in the parish of Magherahamlet, Ballynahinch. Although he loved Ulster (which includes Co Monaghan, of course), this southerner sometimes had to smile at strange northern ways.
Actually, Victor’s life was initially headed in another direction. As a young man, he passed the immensely difficult exams of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. With those three magic letters, ACA, after his name, the ball was at his feet. A life of business and commerce with rich rewards lay ahead of him. I have no doubt that had he remained on that career path, he would by now have been a seriously rich man. But the moment he qualified, he turned his back on it all, and answered God’s call to full time ministry in the Church of Ireland, the Church he had been brought up in and which he loved. And so it was back to college, with more exams, but this time with the prospect only of poverty, a prospect that had no hope of changing. Victor made a real sacrifice to enter the ordained ministry, and so did June who then, and right through his ministry, supported him, and believed in him and the work God had called him to do. You, June, and the girls provided the strength and support he needed. On behalf of all his friends, neighbours, parishioners, and colleagues, I want to take this opportunity to express our condolences and to pledge you our support, especially our prayer support.
Victor was always a man of prayer. An Army padre colleague of mine once said of a now retired Chaplain General, ‘Though he was the top man, you could always tell he said his prayers’. Well, you could tell Victor said his prayers. We are here, June, to pray for you all now. And like Victor, we believe there is power in prayer, because, in the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, prayer is ‘love on its knees’, and there is no greater power in the world than love.
Victor did make a sacrifice to enter the ordained ministry, but he knew that serving the Lord Jesus was more important than making money or living high. How many people are there who were lonely and far from home in a Belfast hospital, but who were cheered when they saw the familiar face of Canon McKeon walking down the ward towards them? He would think nothing of driving all the way to Belfast just to see one person in hospital. I believe he would have gone to Cork to see a parishioner. He certainly went out in the early hours to stay the night, and the next night if necessary, to support the sick and anxious.
Victor was recognised by the Diocese of Clogher by being installed as Canon and Prebendary, and by being appointed as Chancellor. But he put little store by titles and baubles. He was an extraordinarily modest man. He never sought to be noticed. He never looked for fame. He never looked for money, and he certainly never found it! In fact he was a very abstemious man. He worked terrifically long hours. As a Chartered Accountant he put his financial skills at the disposal of the Church and of the various schools which he served as a governor. Victor was an accomplished administrator. He served as incumbent of Irvinestown and Castle Archdale, of the Monaghan Group of Parishes, and latterly here of Tory and Killadeas. Each time he left the parish in better shape than he found it. It was a fortunate clergyman who followed him.
For over a quarter of a century he loyally served on the Board of Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, again using his financial skills, particularly in the early years when Portora’s finances were precarious. I served with him for seventeen years at Portora. Before I was due to give my Buildings & Grounds Report, he would present the Report of the Finance Committee. His manner was always cool, concise, and professional. He did not say much at Board Meetings, but when he did, it was always wise, and people listened.
Victor’s strengths, then, were as an administrator and as a pastor. His was a pastor’s heart. I might have taught him a bit of Greek and Church History for his London BD which he somehow managed to squeeze into an already full schedule, but he far more importantly taught me how to be a pastor. He was, and is, my role model. And his role model was the Lord Jesus himself. The Master-turned-servant once washed the disciples’ feet. He then went on to tell them not the commonplace, ‘Love one another’, but the far more radical, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’.
People loved Victor, because they knew he was genuine. How refreshing (and necessary) that is in our age of spin and appearance! People recognised Victor’s essential goodness and Christlikeness. He went the extra mile for others because, first, he loved the Lord Jesus and simply wanted to please him. Second, because he loved people. He always had a word for others, and wherever he went someone would know him. We saw his mother in him here. And third, because he loved Christ’s Body, the Church. Victor was a great Churchman.
Victor was an honest man, and he hated ‘plaster’. He was an excellent administrator, and a model pastor, but, it has to be said, he was a terrible preacher. Victor would be the first to admit that his preaching would never set the heather alight. But then, what is preaching? Fine words, polished arguments, amusing illustrations? Without being corny, I can honestly say that Victor’s best sermon was his life. Words are cheap, but his love of Jesus, his loyalty to the Church, and his passion to bring Christ’s saving love to people as they struggled with life all shone through. Even the slowest of us saw this.
It wasn’t all roses for Victor. He had his own pains and struggles, but then, they made him more aware, and more sensitive in his pastoral dealings with others. There is a simple and deep verse in the prophet Ezekiel where he says, ‘I sat where they sat’. Victor sat where his people sat. Sometimes the dark clouds would descend upon him and he would feel his ministry was of no account, no effect. But that was part of his essential modesty, and he was cursed by being over-conscientious. The truth, of course, is that no-one knows the effects of his own life; no-one knows what seeds they have sown. We simply do what God calls us to do, and leave the rest to him. Archbishop Alexander of Armagh was, in his day, a very great and important man. He was Primate of All Ireland. But who cares about him now? Yet millions in the world today know and love the words of his modest little wife who wrote ‘All things bright and beautiful’, ‘Once in royal David’s City’ as aids to help her Sunday School children understand the Catechism and Creed.
In the very early days of Christian outreach to Africa there was a missionary back on furlough. He came home to give a lecture about his pioneering work in Africa. But when he entered the hall, all he saw were a dozen old ladies. His heart sank. What was the use of his telling them about his exciting work? But he ploughed on dutifully. He may well have gone to his grave a disappointed man. He saw the dozen old ladies. He heard the organist play. But there was one person he did not think to take under his notice. It was the little lad pumping furiously at the organ. His name was David Livingstone.
We read just now from Philippians 3. It has much to tell us, and much to say about Victor. Verse 8 says, ‘I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ …’ That verse is underlined in the Bible presented to Victor on entering Theological College in Dublin. He did make a sacrifice, but it was worth it to know Christ and to be found in him.
Verses 10 -11 are not only underlined in that Bible but marked with a star. ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead’. Victor was weak and human like the rest of us. He also had to struggle with human suffering. Why depressios? Why cancer? Why me? Scripture opened up a new way of looking at all this. God’s Word was able to turn him from self-pity to Christ, and most especially to Christ on the Cross. For Victor the greatest privilege was to be ‘in Christ’, as St Paul describes it. Jesus spoke of our being ‘yoked’ to him, so that where he goes, you must go. As Jesus went to the Cross, to suffering and to death, so do we. But then, as he is resurrected to new eternal life, so are we. ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead’. Through this tremendous scriptural insight, the Way of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection, Victor was able to make sense of his own sufferings.
In verse 12 St Paul says, ‘I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me’. Notice how Christ took hold of Paul. That was literal. When he was Saul of Tarsus, on the way to Damascus to arrest yet more Christians, Christ grabbed him. Paul did not find Jesus. He wasn’t even looking for him. Jesus found him, and grabbed hold of him. Remember that hand in Dun Laoghaire harbour? Victor never forgot that. He knew that Christ’s hand was upon him.
Verse 13 has an incredible sense of forward movement. ‘But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on…’ Victor was always looking ahead. He rarely dwelt on the past, or rested on past achievements. ‘What’s the next job?’ was his attitude. Verse 14 continues with Paul saying, ‘I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus’. That is where Victor is heading now.
Our second Bible reading from Romans 8 contains the motto of so many Irish regiments and of the old RIC and RUC, ‘Quis Separabit?’ ‘Who shall separate us from the love of God?’ St Paul has this marvellous sense that nothing is greater than God’s love. Not even death can separate us from his love. And this is not just wishful thinking. This actually happened at Easter when God raised his Son from the dead.
If you were cynical, you could say that all the disciples who witnessed to the resurrection were indulging in wishful thinking. They wanted it to be true. But you could never say that of Saul of Tarsus. He hated the upstart Jesus and his ridiculous followers. He had made his name by persecuting these fools. And then he claims that he has met the risen Lord Jesus! Paul was a most hostile witness. We know the story so well today that it has lost its impact. But today’s equivalent would be for Osama bin Laden to come on to Al Jazeera TV and say that he has been converted to Christ. There would be a fatwah against him, as there certainly was against Saul. Didn’t he have to leave Damascus in a basket? He had to be pretty sure of himself to suffer the loss of face, the loss of friends and family over this crazy claim. Paul’s witness to the resurrection is not easily dismissed.
Today is a sad day. The world is poorer without Victor McKeon, a lovely, genuine Christian man, who, like Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenforde, practised what he preached. We thank God for his life, for his Christian example, and we pray now for peace for his family. But we do not meet in despair. The thread that binds is not cut, for not even death shall separate us from the love of God.
Victor and June decided to call their retirement home in Laragh ‘Mizpah’, from the Hebrew word for a watchtower. It comes from the account in Genesis when Laban said goodbye to his nephew Jacob. He prayed, ‘May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other’. May the Lord keep watch between us indeed!
25th July 2006