A week ago the Vicar and I headed cross county to Cambridge to attend the Thanksgiving service for the life of Mark Ashton, who was my Vicar for 8 years. As so many people were expected, the service was repeated, with refreshments in between – just like Sunday mornings at StAG. We attended the first, which was for those attending from out of town.
We arrived early in Cambridge and visited our house, which we rent out and hadn’t seen for a few years, and the Queen’s godmother and her family, who live a little out of the town centre. On our way to meet the Engineer’s godmum for lunch on Christ’s pieces we walked past the church. A sign on the door said ‘Doors Open at 12.45pm’. A few people were already sitting on the steps waiting to get in. On Christ’s Pieces there were some groups of people grabbing a bite, dressed more smartly than normal for a picnic. A few said ‘hello’ – old friends from Cambridge days, all there to thank God for Mark’s life and show their support for Fiona and the family.
Once in church it quickly filled with many more old friends. People who’d been students when we’d been in the church, others who’d been working in Cambridge, many who’d been ordinands at Ridley Hall. I began to lose count of the number of clergy friends. I turned to one and asked if he could guess how many vicars were there. ‘Count the dog collars’ he suggested and we both laughed. Not a single one in sight, apart from the five (I think) bishops who appeared and sat just in front of us with their purple shirts. They included Timothy Dudley-Smith (former Bishop of Thetford) and Anthony Russell, who was Bishop of Ely when the Vicar went forward for ordination.
The church gradually became very full – I would guess that around 800 folk were there – some were sitting on the steps in the balcony. The seating was arranged differently to a normal Sunday morning, with seats filling the centre of the building in a more traditional ‘facing the front’ set-up. At StAG they usually have the downstairs seating more like the House of Commons, with people facing one another.
The service was filled with thankfulness for Mark’s gifts and godliness and his remarkable ministry. Nathan Buttery, the Associate Vicar, led the service. The Ashton children, Chris, Clare and Nick read from 2 Corinthians 4. Addresses were given by Jonathan Fletcher and Christopher Ash and StAG staff members James Poole, Brian Elphick and Kay Dawson led the prayers. The hymns were ‘And Can It Be’, ‘Jesus the Name High Over All’ and ‘Thine Be the Glory’. Emma White sang a solo ‘It is not death to die’, a song you can find on the Come Weary Saints album from Sovereign Grace Music. The whole service as recorded on video and in audio and you can find it on the StAG website.
Moments I remember especially included Jonathan Fletcher speaking about God’s mercy in saving Mark from his privileged background and how Mark was known as ‘Captain of Everything’ at school. Christopher Ash recalled how Mark was humbly able to plant churches out from his congregation with no strings attached, not building an empire around himself. Also mentioned in one of the addresses (I forget which one) was Mark’s response to someone who asked about how God could use someone from a lowly background in his service:
The only way God can use someone from a privileged background is when they have been deeply humbled.
Leaving the service, we were encouraged to take a copy of Mark’s book ‘On My Way to Heaven’ where he wrote about the Christian hope in the face of death. As we already had some on order we didn’t pick one up. Out of our order of ten we only have five left. We were also able to register our interest in giving to the Ashton Thanksgiving Fund – do have a look at that if you too have benefitted from Mark’s ministry.
I don’t think I’ve met Mike Kendall but he was also at the service and has blogged about it too.
Mark had planned the service before he died, wanting those who attended to be pointed to the Lord he served. His service planning was very effective. I came away challenged and encouraged in my faith in our God who raises the dead and whose glory matters more than anything. I am so thankful to have known this humble and remarkable servant of God.