"But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ..." (Ephesians 4:15)
This morning I attended the funeral of a former parishioner of mine at St. Francis Church in Holden. I'll call her Jane, because that was her name. Her obituary can be found here.
Jane was a hearty, independent New Englander through and through. She was the kind of saint that every healthy congregation needs and hopefully has. As my successor put it so well in his homily, Jane was "a truth-teller with a sincere and faithful heart." A lot of that truth was directed to the clergy - but always in love.
When I was a young new priest who thought I knew everything, Jane Howell helped me to grow up. She had a way of coming directly to me. You'd never hear it second hand from a parking lot conversation. She could be wrong, but more often she was right - or at least mostly right. She loved the Lord, her church, and the clergy - in that order. And she had lots of opinions about how I might do better to build up the Church and to serve the Lord. But as the preacher noted today, she loved God enough to speak the truth to him in love. (In fact I was very happy to hear she had not played favorites with me, but that in just a couple of years she had helped form him too! And I know of at least one other friend, now in the House of Bishops, who would say the same thing.)
When I was first ordained, I wasn't so sure that I liked the term "baby priest." In my case I was quite literally kind of a baby - heading to seminary right out of college. But even for later vocations, even for people who have had fancy careers and are then ordained in their forties or fifties, the truth is that priests are not fully formed after the bishop puts her or his hands on our head. It takes time and practice to truly form a priest: a good theological education, faithful mentors and colleagues and lots more. Someone said to me once that it takes at least ten years of prayer, and listening, and loving the people with whom we share ministry, and that seems about right.
But one cannot overstate the role that a person like Jane plays in forming priests. I see them in my itinerant ministry now, as I did at St. Francis: serving on altar guilds or cooking up a meal for the homeless shelter or serving as treasurer of their parishes. None of these are glamour jobs, People who do them are rarely called up front - or would want to be. But over time their steadfast faith ripples out. Over time their faithfulness, their commitment to the gospel truth, makes a big difference.
It's been a quarter of a century since the first edition of Verna Dozier's The Dream of God: A Call to Return. Any readers of this blog who have not yet read that book - stop reading this blog right now and order a copy! It's a call to return the authority of the Church to it's rightful place, to the baptized. To the laity. Now I know I may get some push-back from my clergy friends here. But I remind people in my work that the Church does not belong to the clergy. It is not "Father-so-and-so's" Church. The Church belongs to God; the Church's one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord. Clergy come and go. People like Jane remain. This is worth remembering, not because clergy aren't important but because it reminds us of the rightful authority of the laity. (Now, go read or re-read Dozier!)
I saw a snarky (but true) post on Facebook earlier this week with the headline: After 12 Years of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked by Daughter's Lack of Faith. We live at a time when people think a little dose of Church will...do what exactly? Inoculate us? Protect us? And this can discourage clergy who are working harder than ever, that folk don't show up. I get that.
Jane bore witness to a much deeper truth - that it takes decades of patient, regular, sometimes-even-boring commitment to God's people week in and week out to form the kind of layperson who in turn helps form deacons and priests and bishops. And it's worth noting she was there before I was, and when I left...
I've been gone from St. Francis for almost three years now. But I was changed for good by the people there. Near the top of that list were people like Jane Howell, who was a witness to what Easter faith is all about, in the flesh. May she rest in peace, and rise in glory.