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Remembering Wilson Carlile on Founder’s Day

Jude Davis,

Remembering Wilson Carlile - with a painted portrait of Wilson Carlile

Some years ago, I was a rector of three country parishes. They all had quite splendid churchyards that were devotedly tended and maintained by committed volunteers. The churchyards were places of beauty and peace, where loved ones would visit the graves of the recently deceased, and visitors would stroll through looking at the inscriptions on the headstones commemorating lives lived long ago.

One of the (seemingly never ending) pieces of administration that landed on my desk were applications for new memorials or headstones in the churchyards. No work could be carried out without the rector’s approval. I had to check the dimensions and the type of material, that was never too difficult – it was either the right size and material or it wasn’t. What was much more difficult to decide upon was the inscription. There were a series of regulations I had to check the proposed inscription against, and whilst checking for accuracy was easy, it was much more challenging to decide on the content. I often felt like I was acting as the arbiter of good taste and decency. Whilst reluctant to refuse an application and cause a bereaved person further distress, sometimes I had to pick up the phone and suggest that whilst calling the deceased ‘lazy/grumpy/a skinflint’ might seem funny to them, it might not be to everyone who knew and loved them!

Aside from the proposed inscriptions that I tried to guide people away from, some of the suggestions were very beautiful. Given all of scripture, hymnody, and literature to choose from, some people were able to pick lovely words that summed up a person’s life, their philosophy, or their hopes for the life to come.

Wilson Carlile was born on 14th January in 1847. He died in 1942, sixty years after he founded Church Army. His memorial tablet at St Paul’s, includes these words,

‘A man greatly beloved who loved and served all – especially those thought most unlovable. GO AFTER THAT WHICH IS LOST.’

The edict to ‘go after that which is lost’ seems to be something that ‘the Chief’, Carlile, would have thoroughly approved of. More than that important instruction though, I am struck by the phrase, ‘especially those thought most unlovable.’ It is refreshingly realistic. Some people are thought to be unlovable. I am unsure who our society might define as the ‘most unlovable’ – who do you think? I expect it might include those who have abused children or the elderly, those who are manipulative or violent, those who smell or are unattractive. I hope that all of us can agree that they are lovable, but are we honest enough to admit that there are some people we find it hard to love?

It may not be the sorts of people listed above, but I have known and still know people who I find it difficult to love. To love them is an effort; it involves disciplining emotion, marshalling energy to offer service, and a constant determination to think and will the best for them. It is not easy, but they are worth the effort no matter how ‘unlovable’ they may seem.

1 Peter 4:8 says above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.’ The word earnestly, sometimes translated as fervently, but perhaps better translated as diligently is, like the Carlile memorial, refreshing realistic. I find it comforting that the words we have in scripture acknowledge that love requires effort.

As I remember Wilson Carlile and his commitment to loving service and to showing love to all, even the most unlovable, I am inspired to renew my efforts in love, even in loving those I find the most unlovable. I invite you to consider doing the same.

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