Sir David Amess often joked that he had two masters: the Tory party and the Catholic church.
As a self-confessed “pro lifer” and unashamed Thatcherite, the Southend West MP’s memorial service at Westminster Cathedral was always going to be a small and big ‘c’ conservative affair.
The full requiem mass, complete with a message from Pope Francis, a reading by a Republican US senator and an eulogy by Ann Widdecombe, could not fail to strike a traditionalist note.
Yet like Sir David himself – an anti-abortionist who campaigned for women suffering from endometriosis – Tuesday’s stirring hour-long ceremony was as multi-layered as celebrant Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ colourful robes, punctuating the sea of black-clad mourners.
While the pews were largely filled with Sir David’s Conservative colleagues, led from the front by the Prime Minister and his predecessors Theresa May, Sir John Major and David Cameron, the congregation reflected the diversity of the late MP’s beloved Essex constituency.
There were elderly statesmen and fresh-faced MPs from the 2019 intake; Tory “blue rinsers” sitting alongside glamorous blondes in vertiginous high heels; women in hijabs and men in turbans.
The coffin of Sir David Amess is carried into Westminster Cathedral
Credit: Alberto Pezzali/AP
Sir Keir Starmer talks to Sir John Major ahead of the requiem mass at the cathedral
Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Julia Amess, the widow of Sir David, stands with her family following the service
Credit: Kirsty O'Connor/PA
Reflecting Sir David’s renowned courteousness to the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, warmly greeted Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, as he made his way to his seat alongside the SNP’s Ian Blackford, who had earlier chatted animatedly with Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary.
Blackford got to his seat to find Jacob Rees-Mogg, the devout leader of the House of Commons, kneeling in silent prayer, while former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both sent their apologies.
Before he died in such tragic circumstances on October 15, Sir David had succeeded in getting 200 children and adults with special needs to perform at the Royal Albert Hall.
How fitting, then, that his memorial service was opened – not by the imposing sounds of the cathedral organ – but the innocent voices of the Music Man Project.
The group, of which Sir David was president, used to meet at the Belfairs Methodist Church Hall in Leigh-on-Sea, where he was so brutally stabbed to death as he held a constituency surgery.
Yet somehow the touching simplicity of their song’s lyrics about “Peace and hope/life and love/ belief and trust/faith and peace” set the tone for a service that rightly reflected on the highlights of Sir David’s life rather than the horror of his death.
The only mention of the parliamentarian’s “murder” came during a heartfelt homily by Canon Pat Browne, who married Sir David and his wife Julia in Westminster Cathedral 38 years ago, and went on to baptise their five children David, Katherine, Sarah, Alexandra and Florence as well as recently officiating at the funeral of Sir David’s late mother Maud, who lived to 104.
As the bright winter sunshine poured through the imposing sanctuary, the softly spoken Irishman described how he had rushed to Sir David’s parliamentary office on “that dreadful afternoon” to find his shocked staff in tears. “They weren’t just his staff, they were his friends,” he said. “Friendship was David’s gift.” He didn’t need to spell out the stark contrast between this committed “collaborator”, whose “first priority was his constituents” – and the divisive extremist who took his life.
One example of Sir David bridging the political divide was him setting up an All Party Parliamentary Group to foster friendly relations between the UK and the Holy See in 2006 – a move that was clearly appreciated by the Vatican.
Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, the Pope’s representative in the UK, delivered the “heartfelt condolences” of His Holiness, stating: “The Holy Father prays that all who honour his memory will be confirmed in the resolve to reject the ways of violence, to combat evil with good, and to help build a society of ever greater justice, fraternity and solidarity.”
There was a lighter moment when it was later revealed that upon meeting Pope Francis’s predecessor Pope Benedict, Sir David had fumbled in his pocket for his rosary beads only to produce a boiled sweet “which the Pope graciously blessed instead”.
Miss Widdecombe’s eulogy struck a similarly playful note when the former minister, who entered parliament four years after “indefatigable” Sir David in 1987, recalled his “undiminished enthusiasm” for his first seat Balisdon, and then later Southend, succeeding posthumously in winning it the city status he had long (and vocally) campaigned for.
‘The man with the permanent grin’
Joking about how the animal lover had circumvented the parliamentary authorities by secretly keeping a menagerie of birds and a host of other creatures in his office, she said a testament to Sir David’s unfailing politeness towards – and interest in – others was the spontaneous decision by the doormen and women of the House of Commons to form a guard of honour as part of his funeral procession. “He was the man with the permanent grin,” she added.
Yet it was Lady Julia’s words – conveyed by Canon Browne – that left barely a dry eye as he revealed how the Amess family’s strong faith had helped them through the unimaginable hideousness of the past five weeks.
Quoting Pope John XXIII’s 1999 autobiography, Journal of a Soul, the grieving widow told him: “Death, like birth, is only a transformation … as natural and easy as going to sleep and waking up.”
After members of the cabinet and congregation took Holy Communion, including Boris Johnson, who was baptised a Catholic and married Carrie Symonds in Westminster Cathedral in May, it was time for the 1,000-strong flock to say their last goodbyes.
As the cathedral choristers once again filled the mother church with their high-pitched notes, poignantly chanting the In Paradisum, six pallbearers lifted Sir David’s dark polished oak coffin for its final journey.
On Monday, hundreds of people had lined the streets of his constituency to pay their respects following a private service at St Mary’s Church, Prittlewell.
The elaborate casket, which had spent the night in the House of Commons crypt, was decorated with a relief depicting the Last Supper.
The tragedy of its scriptural significance – a last meal among friends – combined with the hope of the resurrection appeared to sum up the commemoration of a career dedicated to serving others.
As Jesus said to his disciples in the gospel according to St John, which was read by Rev Damien Wade, the head of Sir David’s Brentwood diocese: “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.”