The Revd Philip Kearney: 1940-2022
A self-effacing, kind, considerate man; an outstanding pastor, who really cared about his flock
A tribute given by Philip's wife Joan at his funeral
You may think it strange that I’m able to stand up here and talk to you all, when my husband has recently died. I think I feel like this because Philip was so very ill in the days before he passed away. Struggling with dementia so not really understanding what was going on. Not able to stand. Not even able to turn over in bed. Imagine going from that degree of helplessness and frustration to waking up in Heaven and experiencing the welcome of Jesus. Emotionally and spiritually Philip is now alive and at his best…. Yes, we do miss him down here, but I’m so very thankful that he’s there!
Since he died we’ve had lots of cards and letters of sympathy. The family and I do thank you for those, and for your prayers for us. A recurring theme, in those messages, is that Philip was an unusually kind man. And it’s absolutely true. One of his memories of his early years, when his father was a missionary doctor in Nigeria, was remembering one old lady whose fingers had all been eaten away by leprosy. So her hands were just the palms without fingers or thumbs. And Philip, as a young boy, used to enjoy giving her a banana. She would take the banana between the stumps of her hands, thank God, thank Philip and start to tear the banana skin off with her teeth. That was a treasured memory for Philip, a way of being kind to somebody in need.
But later Philip had to go to boarding school at Jos, in the north of Nigeria, an international school for the children of English-speaking families… I don’t think Philip was very happy there. He didn’t talk much about it. But, during the time that he was there, one wonderful thing happened. A young British teacher came out to work in that school for a few months – I think his name was Gordon Notley.
He talked to the children about the significance of the death of Jesus – you know thinking about why such a good man as Jesus had to die…. Certainly it was not because of anything wrong that he had done. His life, unlike ours, was perfect. Entirely focussed on doing what God wanted and helping people in need. Jesus had the courage to talk about what God is like, and he really annoyed the religious leaders there by pointing out that their rules may make them look good on the outside but at the same time they may be hiding all sorts of pride and cruelty inside. It was those leaders who handed Jesus over to the Roman authorities who crucified Him. But His death wasn’t just an awful travesty of justice. It was like a sacrifice that can save all of us - ordinary human beings whose lives are a mixture of good and bad. This all made a lot of sense to young Philip – possibly about 12 or 13 by then. And he prayed with Mr. Notley that day and committed his life to Jesus.
When Philip was becoming of an age when he needed to be back in the UK to take his GCSEs and so on, the family went back to Northern Ireland which was where his father had come from. That wasn’t easy for a young lad who was used to a hotter climate. At first they lived in Kilkeel, a fishing town on the east coast. The school playing field there was on a headland where it caught all the sea breezes. And Philip, even when he was grown up, remembered standing on that field, shivering in the wind, and hoping that the ball wouldn’t come anywhere near him. Not great at sport!
As he grew up, Philip was thinking that perhaps God was calling him to some sort of missionary work. And assumed it would be something medical like his Dad. But he wasn’t particularly academic and that route didn’t open up for him. So, when he was in his early twenties, he came over to England to do missionary training at the Birmingham Bible Institute.
That was where I met him. I was teaching at a school just up the road from the BBI, and started going to evening classes there, and of course met the other students who were there full-time. Then the next year, when I could be released from that school, I did go full time. I was older than most of the other students, already 26, and, probably because of that, I was sometimes asked to help the younger students in various ways. And one day Philip came to me wanting help. He was very interested in one of the girl students, Ann Howard, and wanted to ask her out. But he didn’t know how she felt and was too scared to ask her - bless him! That’s one of his lovely qualities - not a bit self-confident and brash. So I saw Ann on her own the next day, and told her that Philip Kearney was wanting to ask her out, but was feeling a bit shy.
“How would you feel if he did, Ann?” I said. Her reply was, “Oh I’d be thrilled.”
So I duly passed that on to Philip. And they were married the next year when their course finished, and they set up home in Leicestershire. Our Jonathan was their first baby and then a bit later they had twin boys, Andrew and Timothy.
Philip was working as a representative of the Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen and speaking about the work of that mission in lots of churches in the Midlands. One of the churches he spoke at was Fleckney Baptist Church. Fleckney’s a large village about ten miles south of Leicester. They were without a minister just then, and often asked him to go and preach for them. And eventually asked if he would consider being their minister. So the family moved to Fleckney… Sadly, in the years they were there, Ann became ill with anorexia, desperately ill, and eventually died. A huge blow for Philip and for the boys.
Shortly afterwards, I was due to come on home leave from Brazil where I’d been working. I’d had every intention of going back there. But then Philip wrote to me asking me to consider marrying him. A few days of uncertainty followed for both of us. But there came a day when God told me clearly in three different ways that it was His plan for me to marry Phil and be stand-in-Mum for the three lads. And just as Phil was about to write and say he’d been wrong to ask me to marry him - perhaps it wasn’t fair to ask not to go back to Brazil, just then he was reading Genesis in his daily Bible study and came to the verse where Laban says about his daughter marrying Isaac: ”I cannot answer you yes or no: the thing proceeds from the Lord.” That verse jumped out at Philip. It felt like God saying that He had planned for us to be married. Now we were both sure.
So at 39 years old, I joined the family in Fleckney and set about learning how to be a wife, how to be a mum, and how to be a housewife (still not good at that one!). During those years another son, Peter, was born to us, a thrill for me to have a baby in my early forties!
But, about five years later, we had the huge grief of Andy’s death when he was almost 16. Andy wasn’t ill – we’d had no warning. He was just electrocuted in the house one day. That was the worst time in the whole of our 47 years of married life. One of the women in the church whose husband wasn’t yet a Christian told us that her husband had said, “Philip will never preach again now. Still only in his mid-forties and he’s already buried a wife and a young son.”
But Philip did find the strength to carry on with the job that God had given him. He did continue to preach and to lead the church. Philip was never a brilliant preacher, but I think he was an outstanding pastor, who really cared about his flock. And God responded to that by building that church. From being a typical village chapel with about thirty members, the church in Fleckney grew until at one time there were just over 100 members, many of them new believers. Thrilling days!
Scroll on a few years to when Philip and I were called away from Fleckney to work in Nepal as a pastoral couple to care for the missionaries there. Jon and Tim were both working by then and were able to buy a house between them – that proved to be a great blessing later. When Jon married Tracey, and Tim married Claire, they had that little house to sell to help buy their new homes. After three great years in Nepal, Philip, Peter and I came back and went to Birmingham where Philip still served the International Nepal Fellowship, working in the office and traveling to speak about Nepal, meet potential new missionaries and so on.
When news got around that Philip has now passed away, I had a wonderful email from someone whose husband had been working as a doctor in Nepal when we were there. We knew then that she was struggling emotionally and we had several heart-to-heart chats with her. She was feeling totally unloved because of a problem arising from something in her childhood, and the pain of it was so great that she had seriously considered throwing herself into the gorge – a frequent way of suicide in that town.
But God healed her wonderfully. One day she was sitting on the veranda of their house, watching an eagle soaring higher and higher in the air. And she found herself praying, “Oh God, please lift me to a higher level.” And He did. She is now a happy, well-balanced woman still serving the Lord in Asia. Her recent email said that she had felt the love of God through Philip, and that had been the basis of her healing.
After Nepal and Birmingham, we had a spell in Worcestershire too, living in Stourport on the river Severn. Philip was minister of the Baptist church there for a few years. And we stayed on for a while, after retirement. But our boys were beginning to say to us that, before we got any older, we really should move near to one of them. Sound advice! And that was what brought us up to Nottingham. We’re glad we came. Jon and Tracey, and Natty and Izzy, have been a tower of strength while Phil was ill, and are a huge support to me, now I’m on my own.
We are so grateful for all our family. You’ll remember that I’m not the world’s greatest housewife - Pete and Annika have been able to fund some help in the house for me now - one of the blessings of being older! And over the years, when Covid allowed, one of Philip’s greatest joys has been the times when all the family got together, usually at our house here, because we have the park next door and can overflow out there if need be.
In the last couple of weeks of his life, there was just one day when Philip prayed a long prayer out loud. I couldn’t make out all he was saying, but I did realise that it was a prayer of thanksgiving for all our family, and for all the blessings of our lives. He was right. We have been wonderfully cared for by God and by so many people who have looked out for us and helped us and prayed for us. And God has given us a family who love Him and love one another and hugely enjoy the times we can get together. In spite of the tough times, we have a great deal to thank God for!
And through it all, Philip has remained the self-effacing, kind, considerate man who has been an influence for good in the lives of many, many people.