Last month a took a funeral. A quiet affair for a grieving family, which in some ways was like the others I’ve taken over the last year. But in other ways this was different. For I had the privilege of being the first person to acknowledge publicly that Geoffrey Hancock led a double life. He had been for many years, an MI6 officer – a spy!
Last Saturday, The Daily Telegraph published its obituary to Geoffrey Hancock CMG, and his son Frank kindly thought to forward me a copy. He also gave me permission to publish below both my address at his father’s funeral, and the images used on the cover of the service sheet.
Every funeral is different and a privilege, but sometimes the stories that come to light capture my particular interest. This is a case in point: I wish I had known Geoffrey to have seen how ordinary he appeared to be, but I am glad that I had the chance to celebrate that he was in fact a hidden hero. I look forward to the publication later this year of his own memoir of just one year in his life “A Diplomat’s Day”.
My address at Geoffrey’s funeral, which followed his son reading from some of his papers of his flying and sporting adventures, was as follows:
We hopefully each have places which make us feel at home, or comfortable. They are our roots, an important part of who we are. Often they are places we remember from childhood. For example, I like to return regularly to the woods and heaths of the New Forest. For Geoffrey, his roots included this village of Yateley, as it still was in his childhood, and as it remained during Frank and Katya’s childhood visits here.
There may also be specific things which give us a sense of connection with our past, or give a sense of peace with the present difficulties of life. It might be a relationship with a spouse or a friend, or with some significant poem or reading, like those we are sharing in at this service. It can even be an activity like flying, or playing a musical instrument. These are the things that are important to us.
When Jesus was asked what was the most important commandment, he took his listeners back to the roots of their faith, to the first five books of their scriptures. Jesus, a man with scary new ideas that involved his followers taking risks with the authorities of religion and occupation, encouraged them to rely for inspiration on the core elements of their inherited faith – their relationship with God, and with their fellow man. Those, he said, were the most important relationships of all, the things that would offer people a consistency in their lives that would motive all their actions.
Having a Christian funeral in a place that had been a stable and repeated resting place in his early life was important for Geoffrey; things which he specifically requested. Although he was a man who moved in a world of many faiths, and who had huge respect for those of other faiths, it was the Christian faith which sustained him, and to which he turned when opportunity and retirement allowed.
Jesus was someone who would have offered something to which he could always turn, whatever the situation he found himself in. He would also have been someone whose risk-taking was something that Geoffrey would have recognised!
Talking to Frank the other day, and looking at the reading chosen for this service (Mark 12 v28-34), it struck me that Geoffrey’s work, over many decades, formally and informally, not only required him to take risks, but also required other characteristics.
To lead a properly double life, the extent of which was hidden from even his most loved ones, to serve his Queen and his country, to make snap judgements, to ‘pull strings’ for the benefit of people other than himself, involved self-sacrifice. Creating the physical transport connections from invisible relationships that took people to safety in situations like Beirut in 1976 involved a humility of spirit that had to accompany the fact that his actions could not be acknowledged.
It may be that you will remember, or perhaps have been part of, some of the stories of risk and adventure that filled Geoffrey’s life.
More particularly, I hope that each of you will also recognise the role you have as being part of his roots, perhaps as members of his family, the loved ones to whom he could return with some honesty when the wider world allowed, or to whom he liked to talk at length in later life, despite the generational differences, the miles and his failing health.
It may be that the true connections in Geoffrey’s life between his faith, his ‘work’, and his hobbies will never be fully understood by anyone else because of the nature of the life he led. But although that has been a difficult tension with which each of you has probably lived, it is worth remembering that whatever was withheld was done out of love for you, and humility in his relationships with others. It is always incredibly difficult to do justice, in one short service, to the memories that family, friends, colleagues and associates share of someone who was an important part of their lives. With Geoffrey that is even more true, because of the scope and nature of his life. I am therefore glad that there will be a second opportunity at some point in the future to remember him, the relationships he built with self-sacrifice, humility and risk, and the impact he had on the wider world.
But today is special, because it is, in this life, a personal farewell. As you remember those things that made Geoffrey who he was, his roots, his faith, the risks and the humility – whether they make you smile or cry, treasure those memories and share them with each other. Above all else, let them be part of your future as well as your past, in a way that means you can build on those same attributes and values.
As you continue your own lives, be sure in the knowledge, that whatever the physical struggles of his last few years of life, Geoffrey is now released from them and at peace in the presence of a God he has served as faithfully as any earthly ruler.
I’m not sure that there are many risks in heaven, but it is surely where we have our roots; a place where as Christians we are finally and fully in the presence of the God who has been constantly at our side and knows more than anyone else our true character and the nature of our lives here on earth.
And I wonder if, even now, Geoffrey is there, sharing the true tales of the exploits of risk, sacrifice and humility that he has shared with Jesus, the rooted risk taker, and humble servant of us all.
A handsome young airman lay dying,
And as on the tarmac he lay,
To the mechanics who round him came sighing,
These last dying words he did say;
Take the cylinder out of my kidneys,
Take the connecting rod out of my brains,
Take the cam shaft out of my backbone,
And assemble the engine again.