Canon Rodney Grant

Funeral Eulogy at St Vincent’s on 3rd August 2019 : Rt Revd Richard Holloway, sometime Bishop of Edinburgh

Bishop John is extremely sorry that he can’t be with us today, and he has asked me to extend his regrets and sympathy to Rodney’s Grant’s family. He remembers Rodney with affection and gratitude for his long and dedicated years of service in the diocese of Edinburgh, including his long post-retiral ministry here at St Vincent’s. 

Characteristically, Rodney left a long and detailed list of instructions about how precisely his requiem should be conducted, and I was detailed off to deliver the address. It was more a command than a request, but I am happy and honoured to do it, because I loved him, though there were times when I wanted to strangle him.

Rodney Grant’s longest and most significant ministries were the twelve years he spent in Craigmillar at St Aidan’s, from 1960 to 1972; followed by twenty years in Inverleith where, until it was closed, he looked after Christ Church with St James; then St James with St Philip’s Logie Green; covering the period from 1972 till his retirement in 1992.  In both of these parishes he was succeeded by priests with very different styles and theories of ministry to his own, and he spent the rest of his life mourning what they had done and the losses he believed they had provoked. But the experience of loss had accompanied Rodney from his earliest years, and it is the key to understanding him as a man.

Rodney was a child of the twilight years of the British Empire.  Even his name was a giveaway.  He was named, not after a male relative, but after a battleship, HMS Rodney, which was launched in the year of his birth, 1926.  His father had been in the Royal Navy from 1906 to 1913, but eyesight problems caused him to leave and join the imperial civil service as a Postmaster in Palestine. So it was that Rodney Arthur Grant was born in Jaffa on December 10 1926.  In 1929 his father was made Head Postmaster in Haifa, further up the coast, and it was there Rodney spent his boyhood, educated in the German school, so that German became his second language.

Rodney described his boyhood in a document called, Rodney Grant: A British Childhood in Palestine 1926-1939.  Proust it is not. It is written in the arch, punning style of the average parish church newsletter, but what it does share with Proust is an aching sense of loss for past time and the way the years take from us all we have loved and cherished.  There are several layers of loss and longing in the book, but the main one is Palestine itself.  A British Protectorate in Rodney’s childhood, he mourns what became of it later, as the convulsive aftermath of the 2nd World War changed it forever. 

Less overt is Rodney’s own sadness at the passing of empire itself, but it is a theme that had a permanent effect on his character and opinions.  It made him a devout royalist, and the text displays an intimate knowledge of and continuing interest in the lives of the British Royal Family.  Alongside the reading of the daily office of morning and evening prayer, Rodney would have placed his reverent study of Country Life and other royalist publications as an important component of his spiritual life.

And his domestic standards were clearly bred into him in the dining room in Haifa.  He writes: ‘Mother was very strict about table manners and used a thin wand to rap our knuckles whenever hands or arms were on the table.’  Rodney maintained the highest standards of table manners till the end of his life.  Even a cup of tea with him in the late afternoon was produced with great ceremonial elegance; and lunch or dinner was produced with the same attention to detail he gave to the celebration of the Eucharist.  When he lived in Bruntsfield, I would occasionally deliver his morning Scotsman for him.  I would open the door quietly and tiptoe past his bedroom into the kitchen to leave the paper. And there I would see his breakfast dishes perfectly and precisely arranged.

The 2nd World War swept away the magic and elegance of his Palestinian childhood, but its psychological impact never left him.  It marked him with an exquisite regret about change itself, something I’ll return to at the end of this address.  

The outbreak of war also interrupted his schooling, when the family moved to Jerusalem in 1941 and he became a pupil at St George’s Cathedral School.  Here I want to interject an interesting little note. A few years ago, I took part in a celebration at Edinburgh University of the 50th anniversary of the appointment of William Montgomery Watt as the first professor of Islamic studies at the University.  Earlier that day I visited Rodney and told him what I’d be doing that evening.  I used to serve Willy Watt at the morning Eucharist in St George’s Cathedral when he was a curate there in 1942, he replied.  

Born and brought up in Palestine, England was ‘home’ for the Grant family.   There were two visits, one in 1935 and another in 1937.  The final return home was in 1948, after he had done his National Service in the Palestine Police Force.  He studied for the priesthood at King’s College, London from 1949 to 1953.  Made deacon in 1953, he served his title at St James Leith, and began his long and dedicated ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

I want to comment on two aspects of the way he ministered, before trying to sum up his character.  Wherever he worked, Rodney emphasised and enjoyed his ministry to children, and he usually became chaplain to the local primary schools. His archive contains farewell letters from children, telling him how much they’ll miss him now that he has moved on or retired.

The other thing I want to note is harder to describe.  Rodney believed not so much in the beauty of holiness, as in the holiness of beauty.  For him beauty and dignity and excellence in the furnishing and conduct of worship were themselves holy, sacramental, means of grace.  That is why wherever he worked he sought to beautify the churches he served in.  It was a source of sorrow to him that his successors saw them not as holy places that could communicate the glory of God without a word being uttered, but as empty spaces in which to express their own opinions.  

The word that perfectly captures Rodney’s style and temperament is ‘conservative’, with a small c and a large C.  The most attractive characteristic of the conservative temperament is its sadness at how we allow so many good things to be swallowed by greedy time.  True conservatives are the opposite of what techie people call ‘early adapters’; on the contrary, they are usually instant rejecters.  Why bother with the new when the old is still perfectly serviceable?  I remember Rodney telling me he was having difficulty shaving with soap and razor, and I suggested he should go electric.  He snorted with disbelief that I could suggest such a thing – though I noticed one on his bedside table when I visited him the day before he died.

It is not my own temperament, but I respect and admire the way the conservative mind mourns the loss of the old and the good that marks our promiscuous species, as we constantly despatch the past to the junkyard.  But the price conservatives pay for their temperament is that they moan a lot about how everything’s going to the dogs.  At the end Rodney did a lot of that, shaking his head at the change and decay he saw all around him, mourning the dear, dead past.

Rodney was a loyalist, a man of faith.  I don’t think he ever had a moment of doubt about the Christian Faith that had sustained him all his life.  It sustained him through all the changes and chances of his life right up to the end.  

Now at last he has found his abiding place, what R.S. Thomas called ‘the glimpsed good place permanent’.  If, as some mystics have suggested, in heaven nothing ever alters and no shadow is cast by turning, then Rodney will feel right at home.  Rest in peace, old friend, you’ve found eternity at last.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.