Homily for the funeral of Marion Canterbury
St. Michael’s Church
24 January 2019
Jesus said, “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.
The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.”
(Matthew 5:10, in The Message)
It was Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who once said, “Reform in the church always comes from the fringe.”
To celebrate the life of Mother Marion Canterbury brings those words to mind, for she was someone who truly lived life and exercised her ministry at the edge of the church—and to great effect!
Marion was the kind of person who sought out the needs of people wherever and whatever they were: she would as readily celebrate the Eucharist on the tailgate of a pickup or on a pool table in a bar, as in a church.
Or sensing the hunger—both physical and spiritual—of the students and faculty at NMSU, she created “God, Mother, and Apple Pie,” a restaurant in Canterbury House (which everyone of course assumed was named for her). Through her prodigious culinary skills, she not only brought the campus community in for both breakfast and lunch every day, but made her own living at it as well.
Marion was a priest who was never seduced by the titles and privileges of the institutional church. She never wore clericals, but just a black shirt with an open white collar—imminently more practical in the desert heat, if nothing else. Being beyond retirement age for much of her ministry, she mostly worked for half-pay.
She was, in her way, a worthy successor to the legendary Preacher Lewis, that intrepid pastor who founded congregations all over southern rural New Mexico, from El Paso to Albuquerque. His circuit was along what was known as the Jornada de Fe, and from his base in Las Cruces he walked or hitch-hiked from one far-flung community to another to be present with their people.
Marion became pastor for several of the 28 churches founded by Lewis, including Christ Church, Hillsboro, my own home base. Like Lewis before her, she is remembered in Hillsboro for making the slightly notorious S-Bar-X saloon her first stop whenever she came into town—not for a drink (or maybe so), but mainly to catch up on the news, to find out who needed what, and to put out her tin cup to take up a collection.
At a time when being ordained as a woman was still very new in the Episcopal Church—and still very precarious—Marion became a deacon in 1979 and a priest in 1980. When she was later forced out of her ministry by a new bishop, along with a number of other women in this diocese, she remained loyal to her call, shaking the dust off her feet and going north to Wyoming to follow in her father’s footsteps by ministering to several congregations there. A note that came with flowers for this service from Christ Church, Douglas reflects the strength of her ministry there: “She was a wonderful, unique and necessary gift to the world.”
Perhaps the obstacles that were thrown down in Marion’s path are why her daughter Susy wanted the text from First Corinthians printed on the back of the bulletin. As Susy explained, “In Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, the heroine finds herself questioning whether she can do what needs to be done, whether she can save her father, her little brother, whether she can do her part in stopping the creeping darkness threatening the earth. She expresses her doubts to some spiritual allies, one of whom quotes part of this scripture to her. I'm sure my mom experienced many such doubts and, like the heroine of the story, kept moving forward anyway.” And so we read in Paul’s letter, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise … But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”
Marion never had much money, but she had a zeal and zest for life that got her by, together with her five children. One time, the story is told, the lights at home were out because the electricity had been cut off for non-payment. “Goody,” exclaimed Marion. “We can have a candlelight picnic.” And so the family did.
Tommy Means recalls that he was discouraged by the bishop at the time from ordained ministry, who said that he had no qualifications whatsoever. “Marion however demanded it,” Tommy said. “And it was hard to tell her no.” Tommy is here today, now a beloved retired priest whose path paralleled in many ways Marion’s own journey through southern New Mexico and up to Wyoming. He is a living tribute to her instinctive pastoral wisdom and insight into what people are capable of doing, when given the chance.
But we would fail in our task of mourning Marion, if we only celebrated her daring unconventionality, and did not also learn from her example of what might be called a “ministry in the raw.” That’s where our scripture readings come in.
In planning this service, Marion’s daughters asked that some of the lessons be read from The Message, a modern paraphrase of the Bible which as you may know seeks to restore the liveliness and directness of its original language. When we hear the Beatitudes read from that version as we did today, and in the context of the life of Marion Canterbury, we can perhaps grasp the visceral directness not only of Jesus’ ministry, but of hers as well. He, like her, was not one to beat around the bush: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope,” he says. “With less of you, there is more of God and his rule,” or, “Count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out … What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort.”
In words like that, we hear an urgency and candor that is so easily drained out of our ordinary life together. I sometimes imagine, for instance, that what we blithely call Jesus’ “Words of Institution” in the Eucharistic prayer, were originally stammered in a kind of despairing desperation at the Last Supper. Somehow, somehow Jesus had to get the message across to his friends that he was about to die for them—“What can I use?”, (I imagine him saying). “Maybe this, this bread, this is my body! And maybe this, this wine, this is my blood! Do you get it? Do you care?”
Mother Marion was a priest who, by her own example of self-sacrificial ministry, called the rest of us also to care. To care about things that matter! To care about the poor, the immigrant, the alienated! To care about the reform of the church! To care about one another! To care about God! (To care about … God.)
I regret to say that I never met Marion—or rather, I only met her on her death-bed, as I administered Last Rites to her—but I have to say nevertheless, that I will miss her tremendously, as will many of you.
Thanks be to God for the gift that she was! Thanks be to God, for a life lived on the fringe. Amen!