On the 9th of January, in celebration of NSPCI Women 2022, Rev Lena Cockroft kindly agreed to be the speaker at the Sunday services in Dromore and Banbridge.
Rev Lena's sermon was delivered on the 40th anniversary of her ordination into ministry! We invite you to read and enjoy her sermon below...
Sermon on Ministry 40th anniversary
Dave Allan, the late comedian, tells a joke about a devout R/C. on his deathbed. He begs his family gathered round him to send for Dr. Paisley. Why, they say, “You’re a good Catholic. We’ll get the local priest” “Och, no”, he says, “ You wouldn’t bring a decent man out on a night like that”. I would be the first to say immediately, if they had asked Dr. Paisley, the same man would come! But that story had an impact on my ministry.
My father, just before he died had a major operation. It was successful but he succumbed to an infection, he caught in recovery. My sister and I spent most of the night huddled in the porch of the old Royal Victoria Hospital, part open to the 4 winds. Although we were together, Jane’s approach was very different from mine, including chain smoking which I hated. I longed for company, and thought about asking one of my colleagues. The exact same thought struck me as the dying R/C and I didn’t bring anyone decent or otherwise out on a night like that. But I did resolve from then on I would make sure that anyone keeping vigil with the dying was visited - any hour of the day or night. And I would sit and keep them company so long as I could. I remember one night, sitting with a gathering of Co. Antrim farmers at the bed of their friend. These were a collection of tough weather beaten guys, yet gentle and caring as any woman.
About 1:30am. They got hungry and one was despatched for fish and chips (where he got them I don’t know). As they were passed round the bedside it occurred to them their friend might like one, too. It was a surreal experience. They’d fed him half a bagful before I left.
He lived for another couple of years.
One business of a minister is the care and nurture of souls. But you can’t see souls. You see people. So I did my best to care for and nurture people and hoped souls were part of the package. I learnt when driving the elderly home after a meeting, never to go off until I saw the door open and the light on. Many said that was the worst time for loneliness to enter a dark empty home on your own late at night. Occasionally I would go in with them, but that tended to become another long commitment. Tea would be offered, I think to make sure I didn’t leave. Among the virtues of faith, commitment and, at least a reasonable standard of morality, essential requirements for ministry are a taste for tea and good kidneys.
How did I get there? Most of you know my background. The Baxters were well known in the area, but I would ascribe my ministry to my mother’s side, the Rentouls, we regard ourselves as of Hugeneout descent. My great grandfather was minister of Banbridge Road, my grandfather, Steele, ministered among the Gorbals in Glasgow. My mother was very devout, my father was more drawn to Unitarianism and found Rev. Alec Peaston’s Anglicanism a bit much for him. When questions are asked about what happened the children of the Manse, I query if records account for ministry being passed through the female line. (ie. not women ministers, but daughters of the Manse whose children take up ministry, the name is interrupted, the dynasty is maintained). There were many role models on the road. Rev. Peaston, Sam (later Rev) Peden, who persuaded me to become a lay preacher, Martie Black, gazing up at me in the pulpit, taking in every word, my mother. With a degree in Library Studies from Queens, I worked in Dromore Library, but became increasingly unsettled. Doors closed, one remained open, but I couldn’t go through. The McMillans, Sheila and Mac, brought over an elderly, very devout, faith healing minister, Joyce Haslehurst, from England to try to persuade me. Eventually I couldn’t ignore that door anymore and left for Manchester to train for the ministry. There I was influenced by the Principal of the Unitarian College, Rev. Arthur Long. The BD. consisted of 12 modules to be completed over a period of 2 - 6 years - a post graduate degree, designed to be taken part time, if necessary. One I chose was Liturgy, normally associated with Anglican/R.C. churches, but I think mistakenly - liturgy refers to an order of service and could refer to any church, except perhaps Quakers. We were taught by Rev. Kenneth Stevenson, later Bishop of Portsmouth. He was a character. One day he decided the class should re-enact the baptismal liturgy of Cyril of Jerusalem and promised whoever was chosen to play Cyril should wear his robes. I suddenly found myself incredibly popular with my fellow students and was pushed forward for the role. I realised why, when I saw the look on his face - he was about 6and a half foot tall!! He developed my interest in hymnod and enabled me to buy my first book, Percy Dearmer’s “Songs of Praise Discussed”. Rev. Richard Buxton, who assisted Ken commented on Communion - “it’s ironic that churches will allow almost anyone to preach, but only ordained clergy can officiate at the Sacraments. I could teach anyone how to do a Communion service in an afternoon. I would need years to train a good preacher”.
So in due course I was ordained to the ministry of Cairncastle and Glenarm, with Ballymoney attached. When I retired in 2016, I retained Ballymoney. Their church was sold in 1949 and a small group kept meeting anywhere that would take them, at present in the Lodge Hotel, Coleraine. The former church became Riada House, the Council Offices, which still bears the text “Let every man be persuaded in his own mind”, Romans 14:5. It was a condition that the text would never be removed. It never has been. Brian and I saw it recently.
I am proud to belong to a church which does not require compulsory signing of creeds, but allows freedom of conscience. The mental extortions to which one must resort, to make 3 into 1, while insisting it is simultaneously 1 in 3, are conducive to migraines and ultimately fail. They become even worse when you try to explain them. I believe in God; I believe in Jesus; I believe in the Holy Spirit. As Martin Luther said “Here I stand I can do no other”. In spite of difficulties with conservative Christian creeds, which would label me as a heretic to ¾ of Christendom, I have enjoyed some excellent relationships with people of different denominations, especially once the presence of women in ministry became more common. At one event, I am at the conventional end, when I attend the annual General Assemblies of the Unitarian and Free Christain Churches held in Britain. I, like Brian, was immensely impressed by John Wesley’s words “we need not think alike to love alike”. At one Assembly in Dundee, I met Rev. Brian Cockroft, though it took us a few years to get it together. Finally accomplished on the 26th. August 1991, when we were married in Cairncastle by Rev. Stuart Heaney. Cairncastle meant more to Brian and it was more convenient for his family and friends from England - hence it was chosen after some thought over Dromore. I was easier in the company of older people. The baby of my family, I was never used to children and,sadly, happy though the marriage is, that opportunity was never afforded. However I was always a part of youth events in the denomination. All Souls had an active youth club and for several years, they had a summer camp in the Manse at Cairncastle. One year numbers were augmented by a visit of the IRF., the youth arm of the International Association of Religious Freedom, of which our denomination is a member . Over 30 camped out in the Manse, bodies everywhere. One was wakened in the morning when my black labrador put a paw in his face - there was just nowhere else it could go. Doubtless we gained much from enhanced safety regulations, but we lost a lot too. Our small hall, once the home of an excellent playschool was forced to close, because of ever more stringent regulations, not all necessarily benefitting the child. That was the year, 1989, we rebuilt the Cairncastle church - the old one was knocked down by John Finlay . I had the crazy idea of a walk and preach round the churches of Co. Antrim and Down. I gave up a holiday month to walk from one church to another, preach a sermon in it, then walk to the next. I averaged about 10 miles a day, spent each night with family or friends close by, then returned to take up the walk exactly where I left off. I remember Matt Rickerby, studiously drawing a line in the dust outside Templepatrick. No cheating! There were many fired by this project and several walked part of the road with me. I was proud to complete it, but other members of the congregation worked hard to raise money, too. Brian who’d been over with the IRF. heard of it and came back to join me for part of it.
I should mention my Labrador, Trajan. So named after the first Roman Emperor, to show a modicum of tolerance to early Christians. He instructed Pliny, a provincial governor, to leave them alone, if they behaved themselves! Trajan was my constant companion during the first 10 years of ministry, but was put down due to illness and old age 6 months before we married. He was never replaced, unless you count Brian. In 2014 we celebrated the church’s 25th anniversary, with a continual reading of the Bible, over 5 days 10am - 8pm. I chose 25 books - one for each year. Brian calculated the time it would take and he was correct to within 30 seconds of 8pm on Friday, after which we held a barbecue. I remember the wonderful experience of entering church and finding Rev. Fiona Forbes, the Presbyterian minister, with her husband, son and daughter, in my pulpit, taking it in turn to read. This was a symbol of the excellent relationship between the churches at that time. A movement in reconciliation was spearheaded by 2 wonderful Sisters of the Order of Cross and Passion, Olcan and Catherine. I was proud to know them and the whole community of Cairncastle was keen to join in a succession of shared worship events throughout the year.
I realise I have neglected Glenarm. Although a joint ministry with Cairncastle since late 1940s, it was a very different congregation. The town was largely dominated by the MacDonnells of Glenarm Castle - one of my families worked for them for several generations and still does. I always found the MacDonnells very civil, friendly and supportive. But influx of new residents, with the opportunity to gain new members, was limited. Relations with the Presbyterian Church were more strained, although positive with the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic. The Baptists, to whom I would have been theologically beyond the pale, were very welcoming socially, and upheld to their credit, an excellent witness of caring. Glenarm church was hampered by having no hall for social events. We had an upstairs room, in which many happy and boisterous Christmas parties were held and I served on the Glenarm Village Committee, but not actually living there was a drawback. The church there also required substantial renovations around 2012 - 2013 and I brought out a booklet of my hymns and reflections to help them. Anyone like a copy - free! Project long since completed. While the church was closed we met just across the road, in a small barn type building, kindly loaned by the Estate. In recent years the congregation has dwindled to two main families, Morrows and McCulloughs and I would record with gratitude their support, generosity and kindness to me throughout my ministry - and to their church. Over the years, I lost several good friends, members of the McMullan family and, an equally special loss of my one “convert” Sandy Watson. To all who knew her Sandy was a “one off”. She called in Glenarm on a visit from Canada and never went home. Her speciality was storytelling and she once slated me for a badly presented children’s talk. Otherwise always encouraging and full of praise.
Of special nights I remember my installation as Moderator in Dromore 1997, surrounded by church friends and personal friends - and one lovely husband. The Barbecue afterwards wasn’t a great success, but boy, was it made up for at the party after my last synod, just prior to my retirement. The Church at Cairncastle was full. I invited various entertainers and all accepted. It was enjoyed so much it over ran. There was a barbecue afterwards. How many shades of black can you get.? But everyone said with good grace, they loved the sausages!
I’m going to trust to the tolerance in which I was raised to quote in finishing, not from the Bible, but from Hercule Poirot’s last letter to his friend Hastings,
“They were good days, my friend, Oh yes, they were good days.”