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Tears and humour as Archdeacon Bill Beagley is farewelled from his Williamstown church

Family, clergy and an ecumenical colleague lead tributes to Archdeacon, who died aged 63 after a brief illness.

Clergy form a guard of honour for Archdeacon Bill Beagley as bishops prepare to lead the funeral procession from Holy Trinity Williamstown, where he served as Vicar for eight years.

By Mark Brolly

January 21 2019 

Archdeacon Bill Beagley was farewelled from the Williamstown church where had been vicar for eight years with sadness and humour by family, parishioners, clergy and ecumenical colleagues – and an acknowledgement by one of his daughters of his love for an unavoidably absent congregation, those he served as chaplain at Port Phillip Prison for more than 15 years.

A service of celebration for his life was held on 17 January at his church, Holy Trinity Williamstown, which was packed, with an overflow congregation packing the Parish Centre also and watching the service on a big screen there.

Archdeacon Beagley died on 9 January after what his family described as “a short and fierce battle with cancer”. He is survived by his wife Dr Leanne Beagley and their adult daughters Rachel Mullen-Beagley and Sarah and Tess Beagley.

The service was led by family friend and a former Vicar of Williamstown, Bishop Philip Huggins, whose successor in the Oodthenong Episcopate, Bishop Kate Prowd, led prayers. The Vicar-General, Bishop Paul Barker, brought a message from Archbishop Philip Freier extending his sympathy, apologising for his absence and assuring Archdeacon Beagley’s family of his prayers.

Another family friend, ecumenical collaborator and Minister of Electra Street Uniting Church in Williamstown, the Revd Dr Avril Hannah-Jones, was preacher.

“Funerals are celebrations of life. They thank God and offer comfort to each other by sharing our memories of Bill,” Dr Hannah-Jones said.

“But as Bill himself said at funerals, while this service is one of celebration and thanksgiving, it is OK to be sad. Today is a day of mourning as well as of celebration. We are acknowledging the end of Bill’s life, the end of his living presence among those who love him. We are gathered here to grieve as well as to give thanks. Sorrow for Bill is a measure of our love for Bill.

“It is also OK to be angry. Bill was only 63 when he died… I’m sure that if this world were as God intended it to be, Bill would grow old with Leanne and would have enjoyed grandfathering the children that Rachel, Sarah and Tess might have in years to come. We do not live in that perfect world and so people die too soon – and that is something to lament. And I believe that as we grieve Bill’s too-early death, God grieves with us.”

Dr Hannah-Jones said she was “completely convinced” that God had given her and Bill to each other as ecumenical colleagues.

“I am certain that we were gifts of God to each other as we supported, encouraged and learned from each other. And we also had a lot of fun together. Because I saw so much of Bill as a priest, I know that in his priesthood Bill was living out God’s intention for him. Bill approached his vocation with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Bill knew that God calls us to service as we are. God does not call particularly holy and pious people, instead we are made holy by the thankfulness of God. Bill lived his life with integrity as the person God created him to be, relying on God’s grace. That is a lesson we can all learn from Bill’s life: We do not need to pretend to be better than we are or try to earn our place in God’s love, we just need to be who we are, the people God created us to be, and God will rejoice in us.”

She recalled that he had been “overly pleased” to have been the only person to break her ban on weapons at the science fiction and fantasy service they inaugurated when he “sneakily” brought a sword to the first one held in Williamstown.

“Last year’s service was held here at Holy Trinity, so Bill set his own rules about costumes and so he proudly wore a skean dhu (Scottish Highland ornamental dagger) with his kilt.”

Archdeacon Beagley’s daughter Sarah spoke about her father’s ministry, which spanned nearly 24 years.

“Dad loved his parish ministry, the ebbs and flows of the church calendar and the unique features of each congregation or community,” she said. “Every service, home visit, prayer group, Bible study, youth group, men’s pub night – they were all so special to him and he so valued them. But in the end, Dad believed so strongly that faith communities should be linked to their local landscapes and so Dad’s ministry has never been confined to the four walls of the church.”

Ms Beagley said her father’s work as a prison chaplain since 2003 had held a special place in his heart.

“He’d have a Bible in his hand, a smile on his face. He used to joke that you know you’ve reached peak manhood when you have enough confidence to walk around a maximum security men’s prison in a dress!”

Her older sister Rachel traced Archdeacon Beagley’s life, from his birth in Melbourne, a few years in Adelaide and his return to Melbourne, where he attended many schools in the eastern suburbs. As always with Bill Beagley, the humour shone through.

“He used to believe Jeff Kennett was out to get him as he closed down all the schools Dad attended, bar one, or ‘Kennetted’ them, a phrase he quite enjoyed,” Ms Mullen-Beagley said.

Her father did not appreciate conventional schooling and failed HSC.

“He did, however, pass English, having attended only three classes and never read the books. This was a point of pride for him.

“Once he had left school, he began to try to find his place in the world. He was an encyclopaedia salesman who didn’t sell a single book and ended up in the trainee managers program at the Waltons department store.”

After saving money, he went on two-year world trip that took him to Kathmandu, Europe and a kibbutz in Israel. On his return to Australia, she said he volunteered at a camp at Phillip Island for disadvantaged families, which led him into social work and ultimately the ministry.

Youngest daughter Tess recalled: “Being a father was a job that Dad approached with a certain unique quality of organised chaos, showing from the beginning that fatherhood wouldn’t change him when he took a seven-day-old Rachel to Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar. From there, there was never a boring moment for us growing up with Dad.

“When we realised that we would be saying goodbye to Dad, we talked with him about how sad it was that we were going to miss things like him being a grandfather, his retirement and his ability to grow old with Mum. But we were comforted by how much he was here for and how much he achieved in such a short life.”

Clergy from across the diocese formed a Guard of Honour as Archdeacon Beagley’s casket was taken from the church for a private cremation.