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Corinne Bennett MBE
1935 - 2010


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Memorial Mass for Corinne Bennett, MBE

St George's Cathedral
Thursday, 30th September 2010

 

Corinne Bennett, with her love of architecture, of wood and of stone, would have been fascinated by today’s reading from the First Book of the Kings. Not only the details of the dimensions, the stonework and the cedar wood, but by the underlying meaning in both books of the Kings - the story of the unfolding of God’s plan for the salvation and redemption of his people. King David had at last brought peace and prosperity to the people of Israel, but the demands of achieving that had so preoccupied his life and reign that he was unable to do what he had long wanted - to build a lasting temple in Jerusalem where the people could worship their God and listen to his word. His son, Solomon took on that task, saying: “. . . my father David was unable to build a temple for the name of the Lord, his God . . . I therefore plan to build a temple for the name of the Lord my God, just as the Lord said to David my father.” In the extract that we have just listened to this morning we heard a little of the detailed account of Solomon’s building of the Temple in Jerusalem, giving us a hint of its splendour and magnificence, a building of which his Father David would have been immensely proud. And God’s response to the work that Solomon was undertaking, was to reassure him that he would fulfil the promise of salvation for his people whom he would never forsake, provided that they listened to his word and kept his commandments.

In the eyes of the Israelites, the building itself was God’s dwelling place, a place for his people to gather, worship and give thanks to the Lord their God. It was a visible sign and symbol of God’s reign, but sadly would become in time a sign and symbol emptied of meaning because of the infidelity of his chosen people. The splendour and magnificence of Solomon’s Temple and its fine religious ritual came to disguise the lack of sincere religious faith amongst the people - the fact that their hearts were far from God, and the profession and practice of their faith had become an empty ritual.

There is a strong echo of that Old Testament theme in today’s Gospel reading. “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” “Therefore, everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. Rain came down, floods rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall: it was founded on rock.” What did he mean? He meant that his hearers would be judged on whether they hear his words and act on them, or whether they hear, but do nothing about them. That, he says, is the difference between a house that stays standing in the midst of floods and storms, and a house which is swept away in ruins because it has no firm foundation. You will build you house on rock if you hear and respond to my word day by day. Later, following Peter’s profession of faith in him as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus uses the same imagery: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.”

Corinne Bennett was a living example of what Jesus commanded his disciples. She fulfilled in her life not only the letter, but the spirit of the Gospel in a wonderfully warm and generous life, given in service to the God she so steadfastly believed in, and in loving, humble service to the community in which she lived and practiced her faith with total fidelity. Using the gifts and talents that God gave her, she was equally at home with sacred and secular architectural projects. As a conservation architect she was involved in the repair and care of numerous buildings ranging from the restoration of Brighton Pavilion and the Albert memorial, amongst many others, to the fifteen year programme of repairs and re-ordering of Winchester Cathedral.

She took a particular pride and joy in her work of restoring, conserving and re-ordering church buildings and chapels. She was rightly proud of being the first woman to be appointed a cathedral architect in Britain, and was awarded the MBE in 1988 for her conservation work on churches in Kent. In 1991 English Heritage persuaded her to postpone her retirement and become its national cathedrals architect, and then their representative on the Church of England’s Fabric Commission. In her latter years Corinne chaired the fabric committee of this Cathedral, for which she had a special affection, and was also an appeal trustee and member of the art and architecture committee of Westminster Cathedral just across the river from here.

One of her especially prized achievements was the re-ordering and re-decoration of the chapel in the English College in Rome, followed by the chapel at St. John’s Seminary, Wonersh in the late 1980’s when I was Rector. I shall always remember with great fondness my first meeting with Corinne at St. John’s. Before we appointed anyone to carry out the work on the chapel, a number of architects came to look at it. What astonished me was that some started to tell me what we could do even before they had actually stepped into the chapel itself! I was getting rather depressed at what seemed to me to be a rather cavalier attitude, and I remember offering up a rather desperate prayer, “Please Lord, send me someone who’s got some sense and will listen to what we want!”

Then came Corinne and my prayer was answered more fully than I could ever have expected. I had heard a little about Corinne and the work she had done over the years, and I was rather in awe of meeting this very experienced lady whose reputation preceded her. When she came to see me and to look at the chapel, I was immensely relieved. She was quiet and modest, extremely courteous and smiled warmly when I greeted her. I offered her a cup of tea and she just said she would love one, but could she please see the chapel first. So I took her into the chapel. She walked a little way in and stood for a few minutes just looking around and then said, “Would you mind if I just sat here quietly for half an hour? And then I should love a cup of tea.” When we finally sat down, her first question was, “What are you looking for in the re-ordering of the chapel?” She was a great listener, slow to give her own opinion until she had listened carefully to her client. And I can tell you, when it comes to seminary students and liturgy, that is an extremely explosive mixture! But throughout the lengthy consultation we had, she had a wonderful way of working with everyone involved, always listening carefully and respectfully to everyone’s comments. Only then would she respond; and her response was always well reasoned, and based on her experience and understanding not only of architecture, but of the essential elements and needs of celebrating the liturgy of the Church, which of course she was so familiar with since childhood.

In recognition of her deep faith and her work for the Church, in 1979 Corinne was made a Dame of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. In her quiet, modest way and humble way she lived the gospel each and every day; she not only listened to, and heard, the word of God but, as Our Lord exhorted his hearers, she lived it to the full. Her faith was profound and rock-like, her life rooted and lived in a deep personal relationship with Christ from whom she drew such strength and commitment in using her God-given gifts in the service of others. In that, and in so many respects, she was a marvellous example to us all and we shall miss her greatly. But I have not the slightest doubt that when she passed through the gates of death, she was greeted by the Lord she loved so deeply with the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the kingdom prepared for you.” May she rest in peace.