If in Doubt ask Sibyl

Address given at the Funeral of Sibyl Allen,  Wednesday 18 July 2018, by Revd Richard Carter

In the October November issue of the St Martin’s Review 1996 there is an article about Sibyl. The title of the article is “If in doubt ask Sibyl” That I think would be a very fitting epitaph for a woman who became a St Martin’s legend. Sibyl’s family connections with St Martin-in-the-Fields go back to 1910 when her mother Rose Saxby first began attending services here. Sibyl herself came to St Martin’s in her pram. The only significant break in her attendance was when Sibyl was evacuated to Oxfordshire during the war but in 1942- with bombs still falling she began working at the Midland Bank and St Martin-in-the-Fields and Sibyl have been inseparable ever since. She married Ken from Covent Garden Flower Market and the bride and groom emerged from the church under arched hockey sticks-from the Midland Bank Hockey team of which she was secretary. At the reception Ken was too shy to make the speech so Sibyl gave it- displaying the true St Martin’s Spirit that woman’s voices were not going to be oppressed or silenced- thanks be to God.

Sibyl’s mother was such a pillar of St Martin’s that Austen Williams nominated her as a recipient of the Maundy Money from the Queen but Sibyl herself was soon to become another pillar of this church. She began coming to the Peoples’ Services and remembered sitting up in the gallery where the organ is now looking down the nave- with her mother sitting on the left with the women and her father on the right with the men. It would be Sibyl who would bridge the divides as she became an increasingly indispensable and formidable part of St Martin’s. There was literally no saying no to Sibyl. An article in the parish newsletter in 1986 describes some of her many roles: “Through the west end of the church, up the stairs to the office under the tower, there you will meet Sibyl Allen the administrator, who pays the bills, keeps the books, supervises the room bookings, prepares accounts, administers the trusts and pensions, and does all the work of the Parochial Church Council, organizes the renovation appeal and among many other things types the parish magazine. She is helped by Eunice Davies ‘her girl Friday’. Sibyl in the last 90 years at St Martin’s has done about everything a lay person could do for this church- in fact at times she was a the like the most incredible one woman band- she could never be replaced by one person today she can only be replaced by several departments!

At the centre of all this activity was a deep dedication to the story of St Martin’s- The Church with the ever open door- the place where we are going to learn about the love of God, the place of belonging –which everyone could call home. And at the heart of her dedication was a deep concern for the poorest. Looking back through the St Martin’s Review you can find her appealing to the congregation for Christmas presents to put under the Christmas tree so that less fortunate children could have a present for Christmas. She arranged Sunday lunches for the international community. She was Clerk of Relief in Need, providing help for the poorest in the parish through times of crisis.  And of course St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal was incredibly close to her heart. Together with an indefatigable team of volunteers for so many years, initially all wearing hats, this group met to open letters and count and record all the donations, cheques and money sent in. She would not hear of counting machines or computerized data systems. This intrepid and highly efficient group of volunteers used shoe boxes- in fact they became affectionately known as the ‘shoe box mafia.’ At the end of the day Sibyl would carry a plastic bag bulging with cheques round to Coutts bank where according to her fellow exhausted volunteers they would feed her with sherry and mince pies. Sibyl ran a tight ship among volunteers, and established systems and an efficiency still in evidence today. Sally Scott recalls how when she applied to be an unpaid volunteer on the Christmas Appeal, Sibyl said that she would have to be interviewed first. She was accepted but afterwards was told that Sibyl insisted upon the interview to make sure she wasn’t going to talk too much!

Sibyl was a determined person and as she grew older there were certainly some elements of her independence that she found impossible to give up. One of them as you have heard was driving. She was still driving to St Martin’s aged 90 and we all became increasingly concerned especially as it became difficult for her to turn her head and we wondered how she could possibly drive a car while looking in the wrong direction. Her dear friend and church-warden of the time Rod Beadles tried on numerous occasions to gently persuade her that perhaps her driving days were over and offered to pick her up and bring her in- but Sibyl was having none of it- until I received a phone call from my younger brother Andrew saying he had just found Sibyl in her car on the top of the roundabout at Lambeth Bridge- I think she had driven over it rather than around it, she was never one to let things get in her way. But even that accident did not stop her.

But we all saw there was within Sibyl a deeply and hugely caring and generous nature. She loved people and the church and that was evident in all that she did. When I invited her to stay the night at St Martin’s at my flat before a BBC broadcast she gave, I saw her complete love and affection for the place as she told me so many stories of her life in and around St Martin’s and of course her son Martin and her family. This church was quite simply her home. And I am so very aware how much of her life Sibyl, just like her mother before her gave to this church and went on giving day after day. It must have been a huge sacrifice for her family too and I would like to thank Martin and all her family for this incredibly costly, generous and devoted gift of service that your mother and grandmother gave to this church. I am sure St Martin in the Fields must have got on your nerves at times but quite simply they don’t make people like your mother any more- she seems for so many years to have held the whole place together and she has become part of the history of this place. The church, the body of Christ, with Sibyl one of its true servants like corner stones and pillars holding it up. I know in this congregation there are others who have followed in that same way of true devoted service. Often un-thanked, unrewarded, who have put in hours and hours of loving service without much outward recognition. People without whom this church would not be here as it is today and who were and always will be the heart of this place. The beating heart. The heart of love and care without which in truth there would be no church.  For whatever you did for the least you did it for Christ.

I will always remember visiting Sibyl at her home near Bromley her hospitality and cups of tea and the stain glass window of St Martin on the stairs- “Sit down dear she would say, just move some of those things off the chair and table and make space for yourself.” It has to be said that there was sometimes quite a lot to move. Last Christmas Alastair Anson arranged for her piano to be tuned so we could hold a Christmas Service in her home. A whole group of us gathered and it was so special. We had Communion together and sang and Sibyl was radiant and so hospitable and delighted although she did complain a bit that Dorothy Cone hadn’t turned up. And then almost on que there was a ring at the door and in came Dorothy an hour late. When we left we left them nattering together and sharing the St Martin’s gossip as they had done for the last seventy years. They were always slightly competitive and I am sure Sibyl waited until Dorothy’s departure before she felt ready to go herself- what a meeting at Heaven’s gates that would have been. I imagine Dorothy would have asked Sibyl what kept her and had she missed the bus and Sibyl would have said I needed you to go first dear to open up the gates, as you still haven’t given me back the keys.

Martin will tell you of her departure. All I can see is that Sibyl’s died as she had lived, in God’s service. I arrived at her home as if by divine summons the hour before she died. I had had a terrible journey as all the trains had been cancelled and ended up taking the 176 from Lewisham. Martin was there, close at his mother’s side, and welcomed me-  “Mum must have been guiding you to get here,” said Martin, “that was the bus Mum always took.” There was a wonderful sense of completion in Sibyl’s life- that is the gift of someone who is very close in the Lord’s Service- all things work together for good for those who love God. We said together Psalm 23: “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and my home shall be in the house of the Lord Forever.”

Her home will be in the house of the Lord forever. That’s where she has spent most of her earthly life. The house of the Lord- that will be her home forever- And if you are still in doubt ask Sibyl.