23rd February 2024

Sermon for the Funeral of Sir Christopher Benson

Sermon for the Funeral of Sir Christopher Benson

Thursday 22nd February 2024 at Salisbury Cathedral

Proverbs 1 vv 1-7


A long life – lived well.

Christopher rarely did anything casually.  So he would expect us to pay attention to the reading which he particularly chose for us to listen to here at his funeral.

That passage, read for us by Julian, begins the Book of Proverbs which sits alongside the Psalms right at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures. These sayings are attributed to Solomon, son of King David, who was famously a property developer. He’s best known for having built across the now contested city of Jerusalem. The biblical evidence tells us that he was responsible for the layout of that city, its waterworks and its grand edifices such as a Temple and a Royal Palace. Yet his interests in property success included more modest constructions and it extended far across the Middle East, his commercial acumen and prosperity also including an instinct for trade and for what we would now call ‘networking’.

Solomon was a successful man who lived a long life with a reputation for shrewd knowledge. He held together competing factions – he was the last monarch to unite the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Judah and Israel – building peaceably within a world of differing vested interests, navigating amongst those who were wealthy and powerful to good effect for his nation at all levels. You may remember that the Queen of Sheba, coming from the part of Arabia we call Yemen was only one of those who sought his counsel, traded with him, and valued his friendship.

I draw attention to Solomon, not only because like Christopher he enhanced the reputation of property developers, but because he left these words – chosen by Christopher – reflecting on what it means to live long, but also to live well.


Firstly, let’s consider a long life.

90 years asks quite a lot of us. Christopher embraced that long and at times complicated life with plenty of its twists and turns. Thanks to Jo he created a steady home in this small Wiltshire town to which he always returned and where he naturally ended his days of frailty and amidst family, including the beloved additions of Rachel and Hector.

Prior to that there’d been many years of robustness lived between London and Salisbury, between a global world and a provincial community. He dealt often with crises and found his way through them all. His life changing road traffic accident at the age of 20 was a personal crossroads which would have literally derailed a lesser person, but he took it as the opportunity for a new career, and forty years later became the patron of ‘Changing Faces’ the charity supporting those with similar afflictions. There were routine professional crises which some of you will have witnessed, and doubtless admired his fortitude.

By any measure it was a simply extraordinary life. He’d left school at 13 and set about being a naval cadet only then to make his way in a land locked county. Before this service began you may have had time to consider the shortened summary of his subsequent achievements which is to be found on the inside cover of the service sheet. It could have gone on for many more pages because of the sheer breadth of his interests. From oceanways to piloted skies, buildings to transport links, from Scotland to Corfu to Australia and round the planet. Then add to it all his philanthropic breadth – from opera to air ambulances, science, education, law, health and especially the developments of opportunity for young people. He loved making things happen and the scope of what did happen under his patronage was, as I say, simply extraordinary.

Yet it wasn’t only about living long but living well.

I guess Christopher was known for being ambitious. Of course, there were personal ambitions on the way but far more important were Christopher’s ambitions to make things happen which would then leave their lasting mark on others.

He never stopped reaching for new possibilities, fresh connections, and he regularly expressed opinions about what others were up to, taking interest in new goals.

Take for example this Cathedral Church which has benefited over decades from that sense of ambition. Here’s a telling story. In the mid-1980’s when Dean Sidney Evans knew he had to launch a major fundraising campaign to ‘Save our Spire’ it was to Christopher he turned for advice. In a car journey when I’m sure he hoped to persuade Christopher to spearhead that massive task – and who could have predicted that amazingly the scaffolding which helped repair not only the Spire but the entire building would come down literally as Christopher breathed his last – in that car journey Christopher’s response to the Dean was total support. He and Jo were to play huge roles in the repair and enhancement of this building over those 40 years, not least most recently the creation of the font and its matching altars. Yet he instantly declined the offer to be Chairman of the Salisbury Cathedral Trust because he knew the fundraising profile needed a different kind of figurehead. His ambition for the Cathedral to succeed was stronger than any personal role he might have enjoyed or credit he might have deserved.

We remember Christopher not only as a senior figure of the property industry but for his abiding tenacity and the way his ambition was directed at the success of others, especially those who needed to value what they were capable of and be stretched to do more.

Added to that ambition for others, and through all his many achievements Christopher valued enormously the relationships which enriched his being, and which made things work for the better. The world of property was never impersonal to Christopher. He often got to where he needed to be through good and strong relationships.

We’ve a powerful illustration of that here in his funeral service today.

When Christopher became Chairman of the London Docklands Development Corporation the Vicar of the Isle of Dogs was Reverend Nick Holtam, a progressive community priest who might have been expected to cast a fiercely skeptical eye on the aspirations of the Chairman of the LDDC. Building one of the great icons of capitalist wealth on top of the history and poverty of the East End was, to say the least, a challenging venture and Christopher wisely found his way to Nick’s door as he steered that particular ship.  So it was that by the time this parish priest arrived in Salisbury as Wiltshire’s (and Christopher’s) bishop, Bishop Nicholas and Christopher considered themselves firm friends. The world of property was never impersonal to Christopher. He often got to where he needed to be through good and strong relationships.

So living well meant a right sense of ambition, a commitment to personal relationships however unlikely they seemed in the tribal dynamics of our society, and thirdly a desire to learn wisdom: which brings us back to Solomon’s advice.

“Let the wise hear and gain in learning and the discerning acquire skill.”

Solomon’s Book of Proverbs starts by telling us that wisdom has a dynamic quality to it. Most of us are not born wise. We learn what it is to be prudent or loyal or shrewd. We gain knowledge, insight and a sense of what is just. We’re taught how to understand and discern right living. Only fools resist that instruction. And what is it that teaches and shapes us? Certainly you may say, life experience directs our way towards wisdom for it’s in our mistakes and the unresolvable things by which we become wiser.

Yet this is more than an old man saying that life experience has taught him well. No, Solomon is asserting that it’s the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of true knowledge. Christopher wouldn’t have laid claim to any great quality of personal wisdom. He was too acutely aware of his own shortcomings. But he did know that you can learn to be wise by keeping company with a sense of eternal truths, the things which last when all that is transitory – from the Temple in Jerusalem to Canary Wharf – has passed away.  He knew that living well is easier to achieve with a sense of the Divine Other, who he saw in the face of Jesus Christ.

Solomon bids us to live close to the God who judges all we are and all we do but with such mercy that we can live with ourselves, and live wisely.  In the neighbouring book of ‘Song of Songs’ Solomon reminds us what is the greatest verity, the deepest truth of all, that “many waters cannot quench love”.

‘A long life – lived well’ It’s hard to imagine a life lived well without the gift of love and so I end by reminding you that Christopher loved much. He loved projects, and buildings, and the connections he built. He loved charitable endeavours and the opportunity and compassion they promote. He loved his nearest and his dearest friends. He loved Jo and his life here in Salisbury, its Cathedral and those associated with it. But best of all, Charlie and Julian, and you must take great comfort from this in these days of sorrow, he deeply loved you both.

Solomon, the property developer, also became the love poet when he wrote, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house it would be utterly scorned.”

For Christopher, who lived a long life and lived it well: thanks be to God.