Preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, Sunday, February 26th, 6.30p.m.
Ps 84, Eccles 48:1-10, Matt 17:9-23
Today’s readings are around the theme of Transfiguration – I spoke about that this morning, and will put that Sermon on our website. Then I was reflecting on our experience of worship, and how we have to return to the rest of life, and all the trials and difficulties that may include. I quoted the comedian, Milton Jones, in his book of ’10 Second Sermons’ [Milton Jones, 10 Second Sermons…and even quicker illustrations, p. 20], who puts it like this: ‘If we’re on a journey: in the same way that the services are not the motorway, a Church is not the Services’.
But this evening, I want to take a rather different tack, which was inspired by an obituary in the Church Times at the end of last year. It was to Margaret Dehqani-Tafti, the widow of Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, the first Iranian Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Iran. And, as we think of Transfiguration, and the message of the Gospel, I want to tell you a little bit about Margaret and Hassan and their family.
After they fled Iran, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment, they came to Winchester, and lived in the Diocese for many years, where they were a very gracious and prayerful presence. As I knew them, I bought his book, in Edinburgh in October 1985, called ‘The Hard Awakening’, which tells their story, not long after the tragic events of the Iranian Revolution.
First, a bit about Margaret, who died last October.
She was the youngest of three sisters, born in 1931 in Iran to missionary parents, William and Margaret Thompson. The Second World War prevented her returning to England for education; so she stayed in Iran until the last years of secondary school, and began a deep and enduring relationship with the country in its culture, language, and people.
Hers were parents with foresight; for they did not stand in her way when, aged only 18, she wanted to marry Hassan, a priest of the diocese of Iran, and 12 years her senior. Many others thought it unwise, and there was definitely a sort of colonial opposition to their union. But Margaret had met her life partner, and, although she spent some time in England training to be a nurse, that was cut short when, at the time of the oil crisis in 1952, she returned to marry in Iran.
In 1961, her husband succeeded William Thompson as Bishop of Iran, and Margaret, a fluent Persian speaker, provided practical and emotional support, both for their family of one son and four daughters, and for Hassan’s gifted but demanding ministry in Iran; and, from 1976, also as the first President Bishop of the newly formed Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East.
was born on 14 May 1920 in the village of Taft, near Yazd, in Central Iran, and was brought up by CMS missionaries in accordance with the wishes of his mother, who died when he was five. Educated at the Stuart Memorial College in Isfahan, it was in his teens that he became a committed Christian and leading member of the Isfahan youth group. At his baptism in 1938, he retained his Muslim name of Hassan, but added the Christian name of Barnaba — son of consolation — reflecting even at that early age his concern to hold within himself a gospel rooted in the culture and religion of Iran.
He graduated as a teacher from Tehran University in 1943, and offered himself for service in the Church, but first had to serve for two years in the Iranian Imperial Army, where his knowledge of English led to his appointment as an interpreter to British officers serving in the country.
From 1945 to 1947, he worked as a layman in the diocese under Bishop William Thompson before being selected for ordination. After training at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, he was appointed Pastor of St Luke’s, Isfahan, in 1949. He served there for ten years until he was transferred for a short period to St Paul’s, Tehran, in preparation for his consecration as Bishop in Iran in succession to Bishop Thompson in 1961.
In 1976, he was elected the first President Bishop of the newly formed Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East, a calling that required him to help bring coherence and a sense of togetherness to Churches in a very disparate Middle East and North Africa, facing the impact of oil wealth, a resurgent Islam, and the seeming intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Islamic Revolution of February 1979, meant that a whirlwind struck the little Church in Iran. The priest in Shiraz, Arastoo Sayyah, was brutally murdered. In the next five months, the Church’s institutions — hospitals and schools — were expropriated, and its bank accounts were confiscated. Only the people and church buildings were left.
Bishop Hassan protested against the injustice of these violent seizures, but the response was the looting of his house, and his own temporary arrest and interrogation, followed by an attempt on his life one night in October 1979. Two gunmen entered his bedroom and fired at point-blank range, but, miraculously, the bullets narrowly missed his head, although one injured his wife’s hand as she flung herself across him to protect him.
A week later, he left Iran for the meeting of the Anglican Primates in Cyprus. After much inner turmoil, he took their advice not to return to Iran, but his wife and younger daughters did. In 1980, tragedy was to strike. In early May, his secretary Jean Waddell was shot and wounded – and that is another story in itself – and on 6 May his only son Bahram, a lecturer at Damavand College, Tehran, was found shot on the roadside near the college, possibly by government agents.
His death left a lasting scar, but for Bahram’s funeral in Isfahan five days later, which he could not attend, Bishop Hassan wrote a remarkable and moving prayer that was to become much translated and circulated around the world. It concluded with the following lines:
Bahram’s blood multiplies the
fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls:
So when his murderers stand
before thee on the Day of Judgement
Remember the fruit of the Spirit
by which they have enriched our lives,
For the next ten years, he continued as Bishop in Iran, but in exile. Bishop John V. Taylor invited him to be Assistant Bishop in Winchester Diocese, as a base from which he could continue his ministry. He wrote extensively, communicated with Iran by phone and letter, and travelled within the province as President Bishop until 1986.
He took great delight in the doings of his three daughters, their husbands, and his six grandchildren. His funeral took place on the 88th anniversary of his birth, the 14th May, 2008.
The Book, called ‘The Hard Awakening’, in which he tells the story of those years around the start of the Revolution, is dedicated:
To Margaret, my wife,
Who endangered her life for me,
And to the memory of
Bahram, our only son
Who gave his life for both of us,
And for many more.
And it has this inscription opposite the title page, from a poem by Hafiz, a 14th-century Persian mystic and poet, called ‘Love’s Awakening’:
Love seemed at first an easy thing –
But ah! The hard awakening.
The photograph on the cover is of the bullet holes in the bedsheets when the gunmen burst into his room and tried to kill him.
Still today, there are similar stories of persecution, of Christians being murdered for their faith, and in this Parish we have a special link with ‘Open Doors’, a charity which supports the persecuted Church, and with which Pat & John Bloomfield keep us up-to-date, and for which they encourage us to pray.
As we think of Transfiguration, as we move into Lent, we can remember the depth of suffering some people have to face because of their faith in Christ, and the way in which some can maintain their faith in God even in the most difficult of circumstances.