"It’s not been a sacrifice - it’s been a joy"

As Margaret Funnell retires after 37 years service to our diocese and two Diocesan Bishops we get her reflections on her time with us.

When you start to talk to Margaret you get a deep sense of how she sees her vocation and how her faith has shaped her role at the fulcrum of much of the life of our diocese and diocesan bishops. In her characteristically modest way she describes some of the events that struck hard in her mind during her 37 years with us. Her eyes lighting up as she recalled some of the pivotal events that shaped the ministry of Bishop David Sheppard and Bishop James Jones. Events that she felt, and still feels, privileged to have been part of.  

But what is extremely striking is the clear way she speaks of her role as being a strong call from God. Margaret vividly described the moment she felt that calling – “it was Bishop David’s tenth anniversary Eucharist and by chance I received communion from him. As I received at the High Altar I thought ‘I want to be part of this’. I believe this was a strong call from God and I have never changed my mind or doubted that.”

It was 1985 and Margaret had several roles in the diocesan office since 1976. She recalls how our diocese was a different place back then. “There were fewer demands from London so we didn’t have to put as much pressure on parishes. Our diocese had far more clergy – no doubling up with parishes so that made for a different world.”

Yet Margaret consciously avoids looking at the world through rose tinted spectacles. “Parish Share was not as fair back then and today we are a much more united, cohesive place”

She joined Bishop David at a pivotal moment in his ministry. Faith in the City was weeks away from being published; a report which was to shape the agenda for the next ten years. Supporting him in that ministry was a real pleasure. Margaret recalls how she enjoyed working with him and his chaplains on this. She reflects how she learnt a massive amount about cricket if Bishop David needed to remember a number it was always in terms of a cricket score.

Then came Hillsborough. It is hard to describe the level of personal and professional impact this one event has had on Margaret. From losing a member of her own congregation in the tragedy to being caught up with the streams of people coming in for tickets to the memorial service. This was all to come back when Bishop James agreed, after much discussion and prayer, to lead the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Speaking to Margaret about this you get the sense of the complete ministry that the office of Bishop of Liverpool offers the city and community at a moment like that. From Bishop David being airlifted from Barra by the air sea rescue so he could be at the first service, to Bishop James standing alongside the families in prayer as the Panel revealed the devastating truth that had been denied them for so long. This was one of many high profile pastoral situations that Margaret has witnessed over the years supporting the bishops with their response to the murders of James Bulger, Rhys Jones, Anthony Walker and so many more times when the church has been called to minister to others.

It is in these moments that Margaret’s fierce determination, utter loyalty and consummate professionalism shine to the fore. But they are matched with her complete modesty. She is firm that her only motivation is to support the bishop. Doing whatever it takes, whatever is needed, whatever is asked. As she says “the words ‘that’s not my job’ never passed my lips”

But it’s not just the Bishops. She was incredibly strong in her desire to support clergy and parishes and fulsome in her praise of our clergy. “The vast majority are sacrificial and hard working – committed for caring for the least and the lost often at the expense of what might have been a glittering career in another profession.”

Unsurprisingly for such a hard working person she found the interregnum dull and probably more keenly than most was eagerly anticipating the arrival of the new bishop in 1997. The start of Bishop James’ ministry saw Margaret as an important member of his team. And working at Bishop’s Lodge inevitably meant that Margaret was almost a part of the family.

Interestingly when asked about his ministry she highlights some of the lesser known, more personal aspects. Particularly she focuses on the style of leadership and support and care for the clergy. But she also felt that his role as Bishop to Prisons was a vital ministry in an important area.
So what about highlights of her time? Clearly there are too many to list but when pressed she recalls her visit to the House of Lords when Bishop David was ennobled on retirement and the creation of the St Francis Assisi Academy. And she says that she would rescue her copy of the Hillsborough Independent Report from any fire. She recalls with fondness the special relationships each bishop has had with the Archbishop of Liverpool a relationship that she knows was genuine in both cases.

Underlying it all is her total, unwavering respect for the role of Bishop of Liverpool. “it is one where the incumbent needs to collaborate with his predecessors, collaborate with the history of our diocese whilst looking to the future”.

Retirement will bring a chance to spend more time in the garden, visit her beloved Isle of Scilly and there may be more opportunities for pastoral ministry within her local Baptist congregations. She will clearly miss her role but will forever treasure her ministry with us.

And how to sum up? How do you reflect the entirety of this ministry? It’s been busy, time consuming and sometimes stressful. But perhaps it is best to use Margaret’s own words “It’s not been a sacrifice, it’s been a joy”.