15 September 2023
Tribute paid to Lord Carswell at Memorial Service
The Church of Ireland
Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell, preached a homily in tribute
to the Rt Hon the Lord Carswell of Killeen, at a memorial service held in St
Mark’s, Dundela, East Belfast, on Friday, 15th September. Lord Carswell,
who was formerly Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, died on 4th May this
McDowell’s remarks from the service are below:
As you might expect, Bob Carswell was not a soul-baring sort of person.
Although I never found him “buttoned up” (in fact quite the opposite when it
came to offering words of encouragement) he had what might be called a
judicious self–containment when it came to the things of the spirit. But if he
did not bare his soul, he certainly demonstrated his commitment to God and His
Church by the work which he did for it. As has been amply demonstrated in the
testimony of Bob’s family, love grows chiefly by its deeds and not by its
words, and in his deeds Bob exerted himself also in the service of the Church.
He acted as Chancellor in the Diocese of Down and Dromore and in the Diocese of
Armagh when my colleague Lord Eames was respectively Bishop, then Primate. Bob
also acted as the Primate’s Assessor at the General Synod on a number of
occasions, offering advice on procedural matters. A Diocesan Chancellor is
strictly speaking the Bishop’s adviser on the workings of the Constitution of
the Church of Ireland, and I have no doubt that he carried out his duties in
that respect with his usual diligence, accuracy and cheerfulness.
However, there are times when bishopping can be a lonely calling, especially
when technical constitutional matters require decisions which may have
considerable personal consequences. So to have had someone like Bob Carswell
with his wide knowledge of human affairs, but also his insight into the human
heart, to turn to for confidential advice would have been, literally, a
Godsend. It is hardly surprising that the memory of him will bring to mind for
so many of us “… whatever
is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is
lovely, whatever is admirable…’
I have often thought that judges lead a paradoxical life. Long periods of being
silent when they are listening to evidence and to the arguments advanced by
Counsel. Followed then by a prodigious river of words as he or she writes a
judgement, only too well aware that each word will be mercilessly scrutinised.
Yet, blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.
Silence and words, and the lives of ordinary people, make up their daily toil
and perhaps there was no one better equipped than Bob Carswell to live out that
vocation. His education in Classics gave him not only a feel for the precision,
form and flow of the written word, but who could have read the Orestia of
Aeschylus about the murder of Agamemnon and not been moved to sympathy and
understanding of the tragedy of the human condition and of our frailties.
Bob’s knowledge of Greek could also be a little disconcerting. I once had a
mercifully brief conversation with him about the participle used in the great
“I am” (ego heimi) passages in John’s Gospel, which he felt would
have been better translated as the much more emphatic “I myself am…”
Yet he was no pedant. He had a deep feeling for the steady cadences of
Cranmer’s Prayer Book with their simple, memorable words. He cared greatly
about their meaning too, and was not far from being outraged when, in the
Prayer of the Church Militant in the Communion Service, the Prayer Book
revisers replaced the Tudor word “indifferent” with the word “impartial”. He
felt that the modern word was unable to carry the variety of connotation and
nuance which the older word had achieved. He cared about the words of the
liturgy because, imperfect as they are, words are the ultimate conveyors of
Bob was a listener, and as I’ve said to some of the family, my keenest memory
of him is sitting up here in choir stalls when we used the old monastic Office
of Compline; his head leaning slightly to one side, listening, and looking for
all the world like a benign eagle. I remember having a discussion with him
after one of those services and him telling me that he loved Compline. Of all
the Offices in the Western Catholic Tradition, it is the one that was changed
least at the time of the sixteenth century reformation. Perhaps above all else
it is and service of comfort and reassurance before sleep, but it is also a
service which appreciates the dangers and difficulties and messiness of life.
Its opening words are stern enough: “Brethren,
be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary, the Devil, roameth about seeking
whom he may devour; whom resist, steadfast in the faith”.
But its characteristic spirit is one of calm reassurance and quiet
faith: “We will lay us down and take our
rest; for it is thou Lord only that maketh us dwell in safety”. How
soothing it must have been to think on those eternal words words during
the dark days of the 1970s and 80s.
Perhaps judges above all people are exposed more than most to the
unpleasant underbelly of life in all its forms – personal, institutional,
corporate – and it would be a temptation in such circumstances to lose a sense
of balance and perspective. I am pretty sure that Bob’s deeply embedded faith,
was a major factor in preventing that from happening.
We are made for greatness and often, as we achieve it. Great art, great
empires, great intellects, great industries, great faith, great commitment,
great love. Yet the little cloud no bigger than a man’s hand gathers on the
horizon, and we halt in our stride, and the greatness of mankind seems clearer
in the greatness of our misery than in the magnificence of our achievements.
The high seems low, and our brief candle is out; and what is man that he is to
be accounted of?
What has been said and sung and prayed in this service is that the life of
Robert Douglas Carswell, hidden with Christ in God, is to be accounted of
because it is the ultimate reality.
From the Office of Compline:
us, O Lord while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch
with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
And so, Romayne, Catherine, Patricia and all the family… after all the words,
truly, truly his soul is at rest in silence and in peace.