This morning (31st March 2012) I went unwillingly to our Cathedral Church in St. Petersburg, FL.
I was unwilling because the occasion was a funeral.
I was unwilling because I usually dislike “big Church events”.
The funeral was for Mary Ellen Smith, aged 56.
I did not know Mary Ellen (perhaps I had met her in passing) but I know her husband. He is the Bishop of South West Florida, the Rt. Revd. Dabney T. Smith.
So I was at a “big Church event” with some six to seven hundred others who were there to honour, respect and in some ways share the grief of our Bishop and his family. We were there to witness yet again to the hope we share in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have been known to say that “welcome” and “hospitality” begin long before a person enters the front door of a Church building. The staff of the Cathedral understand this. As I drove alongside the Cathedral, unsure of my bearings, I was greeted by one of five or six parking marshals. With a warm smile one of them greeted me and asked “do you consider yourself to be physically able?” “Yes” I grinned, and he said “follow me”. Then he ran about 200 yards down the street and pointed out a parking space.
(The Cathedral's hospitality did not end when the service was over. I left by a side door and a pleasant usher asked if I planned to attend the reception. I told him that I wanted to get back home to my dog, and he asked “where is home?”. I told him “Sarasota” and he, without prompting on my part, gave me clear directions back to Interstate 375.)
I was early at the service, and so were many others. The Church was already almost filled, but I was found a seat in the Chapel area. As it happened it was a “good seat”, giving me a clear view of the High Altar and pulpit. There was a quiet and holy hush in the building.
Then the liturgy began. Bishop Smith and those who had planned the service with him got it just right.
It was plain and simple Episcopal Church Liturgy, (Rite Two Prayer A for those who know about such matters), nothing more and nothing less.
This was the Episcopal Church at its best – allowing the liturgy to do its own work without interference - leading us in prayerful grief and hope.
We sang hymns we all knew - and the singing was hearty - “Love Divine all loves excelling”, “Breathe on me breath of God”, “Fairest Lord Jesus”, “I want to walk as a child of the light”, “The King of love my shepherd is”, and “For all the Saints”.
There was but one anthem – the “Pie Jesu” from John Rutter’s Requiem, sung so beautifully.
The scriptures were read so clearly and well:;
2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:9; (this one is so often neglected these days – but it is powerful. I read it to my Dad as he lay a-dying),
and John 10:11-16
Every part of the service flowed beautifully with no fuss, no bother. The Acolytes and Virgers know what they had to do and did it with a quiet assurance and dignity – never once drawing attention to their selves, (kudos again to the Cathedral).
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, was the celebrant of the Eucharist. She was her usual gracious and low key self.
What a blessing that her demanding and busy schedule could make way for her to be with Bishop Dabney Smith in his grief. (I note this because when the good Bishop of Western Massachusetts, Robert Denig died after just 27 months in office, the then Presiding Bishop was not present at the funeral. It says a great deal about our present P.B. that she took time to be with us in St. Peters burg this morning).
The officiant at the ministry of the Word was the Bishop of Chicago, the Rt. Revd. Jeffrey D. Lee.
(He and his wife were good friends of Mary Ellen Smith, and are beloved friends of Bishop Dabney Smith).
Bishop Lee’s sermon was powerful. He told us a bit about Mary Ellen - her life and faith, and her courage in the face of cancer. He told us a lot about the Lord Jesus Christ and his cross and resurrection. He made it clear that Mary Ellen Smith is even now in God’s presence because of what Jesus Christ had done for her. It was classically Anglican preaching – rooted in the scriptures and the faith of the Church.
And it made me weep.
Yes, I wept at this “big Church event”.
Part of my weeping was for Bishop Dabney Smith who (appropriately) sat with his family in quiet dignity.
Most of my weeping was because the Liturgy of the Episcopal Church, the presence of the Presiding Bishop, and the gospel preaching by Bishop Lee renewed my sometimes jaded faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
John Wesley continued his journal entry (24th May 1738) with these words: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
Those words rang true for me today.
Maybe that’s why I wept.
I am sad that Mary Ellen Smith’s untimely death led to this “heart warming” for me.
But I am grateful to Bishop Dabney T Smith, to Bishop Jeffrey T. Lee, to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and to the Dean and staff of the Cathedral in St. Petersburg that this funeral renewed my faith.
“She being dead, yet speaketh”.
P.S. I met a couple of former colleagues at this funeral.
One was Canon Ernie Bennett of the Diocese of Central Florida. He was one of the presenters at a conference I attended for retired clerics back in 2008. I admired him then, and was glad to see him today.
Another was Bishop Rob O’Neill of the Diocese of Colorado. Our paths crossed when he was Rector at the Church of the Epiphany in Winchester, MA and I was Rector at St. James’s in Cambridge MA. We have not seen each other in more than ten years.
I got to chat with Bishop Phillip Duncan of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast (western Florida/eastern Alabama). We agreed that the Episcopal parish in Lillian AL is a cool place. I know that Church, cos my friends Don and Barbara Hauler worship there.
Also with Bishop Leo Frade. He is now the Bishop in S.E. Florida (Miami), but I met him first in Honduras way back in (say) 1998 when a bunch of us from St. Stephen’s, Pittsfield did a bit of building work near San Pedro Sula in Honduras.
The Episcopal Church is a small Church in a small world!