My husband and I arrived early Saturday morning for Bishop Morse’s Requiem Mass at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Oakland, near Berkeley in the historic residential neighborhood of Rockridge. The clergy were vesting in the Sunday School rooms (the sacristy being too small for such numbers) and as I checked on the nursery – lights on, toys set out, our young attendant waiting for the first arrivals with her sweet smile – I was greeted with the awesome anticipation I usually sense when dozens of clergy meet for a single Mass, whatever the occasion.
But Saturday’s occasion was a serious one, an especially joyous one. These men knew this was a historical event, a meaningful time in all of their lives, in the life of the Church, in the world itself. This funeral was for no ordinary man, not your average priest. Bishop Morse had welcomed these men into the fold of the Anglican Province of Christ the King over the past thirty-seven years with the vision to continue traditional Anglican Christianity. Each man who had known this bishop had differing and yet similar stories to tell of his love for them.
A good shepherd, Bishop Morse had found these young men at miraculous moments in the millions of moments in their lives – at crossroads moments – and revealed the love of God in a compelling way. Saturday morning, as they robed in the Sunday School of St. Peter’s, pulling cassocks and cottas and stoles over their heads, chatting and catching up with one another’s lives since the last gathering, they were thankful for this man who had changed them forever.
I had checked on the nursery and had watched the tide of clergy ripple through the Sunday School rooms. I now entered the nave of the church and joined my husband in our pew. I said my prayers of thanksgiving and looked about. Four large candles stood at the head of the central aisle, before the chancel steps, waiting for the casket. To the side of the chancel an acolyte entered from the sacristy. He lit tall candles on the altar. A large medieval crucifix hung over a tented tabernacle and marble altar. I thought how the steepled wooden ceilings and red-brick apse formed the bow of our ark. Stained glass windows, glittering along the side aisles, told stories of St. Peter. Behind and high above us rose the choir loft with St. Ann Chapel’s wondrous singers. Beyond them more stained glass burned bright with Pentecost crimsons, flaming to the eaves.
As we waited in our pews, the choir sang softly, and I recognized Shall we gather by the river. Then the choir was suddenly silent, and in the silence a procession stepped up the aisle. Torchbearers held flaming candles, the thurifer swung clouds of incense, the crucifer held high the crucifix. Four young men, the bishop’s grandsons, rolled a closed casket to rest between the standing torches at the head of the aisle.
I gazed at the draped casket, knowing that the spirit of this man was no longer there. He was alive, but where was he? Sleeping? Purgatory? Heaven? The body had become, now separated from the spirit, a symbol or memory, something tangible, and as sacramental Christians we honor the material of creation. We believe God created us and our world from his great love. He even entered our created order himself to walk among us, to die among us.
So in our liturgies, matter matters. Matter is our means of expression; matter is our vocabulary, our dialog with God. Hence, candles burn, incense billows, bells ring. We use our bodies to kneel and genuflect and make the Sign of the Cross over our heads and hearts. We process with our feet, we anoint with oil, we baptize with water, we mark foreheads with ash. We act the story, we celebrate the glories as we re-create Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday in every Eucharist. We receive the Son of God, uniting his body and blood with our own, taking, eating, and drinking the consecrated bread and wine at every Mass.
Words are one means of expression, but only one (and I do love words). We desire to express the profound love of God through the dance of the liturgy, through our bodies, through our living lives.
So I gazed at the coffin, now anchoring our ark of a parish church, sitting in the heart of its cross. It was as though our ship had paused in its sailing through the rough weather of our world, and in this time of standing still we on board in the pews wove prayer and song around and over the body of the man who had fought for us all these years.
Robert Sherwood Morse took a strong stand against the riptides and undertows of the seventies, eighties, nineties, and the first fifteen years of this millennium. He told the truth, unafraid, always listening to the voice of God spoken through scripture, sacrament, and tradition. Especially in the last few years, a time in which I was given the grace to work with him, I could see him listening, looking, feeling his way through choices, sometimes hard choices. In essence, he protected us from heresy, ensuring the ancient creeds would continue to be recited and, more importantly, believed. So, like Noah, he built an ark and welcomed us in. And like Moses, he led us through the desert to the promised land. He walked straight and tall, holding fast his shepherd’s crook. He watched out for hungry wolves. He protected us. He guided us. He loved us.
And in that love he taught us how God loves. In that love he taught us how Christ loves, how to love one another. “Christianity is caught, not taught,” he often said. His exuberant witness was indeed catching, and the fire of God’s love spread from soul to soul in his congregations as his many arks set sail through the years. And we always knew it was Christ who acted through him. He was a vehicle, a way, a disciple who pointed to Christ, waving his hands in gentle arcs as he preached from the central aisle.
He loved the Holy Eucharist: “The purpose of the Church is to give humanity the Eucharist. The Church must clear the roads so that this can happen.”
And so, as I gazed upon the draped casket surrounded by flaming candles, as I joined in the prayer-dance of liturgy and song, and as I stepped to the altar to receive Christ, our good bishop was present, with us. He heard us, he smiled upon us. His love wove between us, pulling us into Christ. For our bishop knew, and knows at this moment as I write this, that he formed a cross with his body, linking earth to heaven, a cross pointing to the true Cross, the way to life, to God, today and in eternity.
As we sang, Yes, we’ll gather at the river,/The beautiful, the beautiful river;/Gather with the saints at the river/That flows by the throne of God, I could hear him singing with us, gathering us together in his love this first Saturday in June 2015, gathering us together in our mortality, so that we could gather later in eternity by the river that flows by the throne of God.