Bishop Geoffrey Rowell bids farewell to Fr Howard Levett
Jesus said to them “What do you seek?” They said to Him, “Teacher, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where He was staying, and they stayed with Him. ―John 1.38-39
How right and appropriate this Gospel, appointed for today, is for the funeral of a faithful priest, and for this faithful priest: our beloved brother, Howard, who for almost fifty years served God and his people, inviting them like the two disciples, St Andrew and one other, to follow Jesus, and to come and see. The Gospel is a story of discovery and recognition. St John the Baptist, the Forerunner, points to Jesus with the words “Behold the Lamb of God!” – words that Howard, like every priest, would have uttered time and again in holding up the Blessed Sacrament and inviting the people of God to behold the mystery for themselves, and to come to share in that mystery by receiving the life of Christ to transform them into His likeness: as we shall do today in communion with the whole people of God, living and departed. “Behold the Lamb of God” – behold the one who comes among us in sacrificial love. St Bernard saw the pricking straw of the manger as prefiguring the piercing crown of thorns; and Matthias Grunewald, when he painted the great Isenheim Altarpiece, put John the Baptist at the foot of the cross with a lamb by his feet, insistently pointing to the agonised suffering Christ: the cost and reality of Love’s Redeeeming Work. The ARCIC Agreement on the Eucharist speaks of the eucharistic sacrifice as our being drawn into the movement of the Lord’s self-offering, and the priest who presides at that sacrifice has from his ordination a deep and special sharing in that mystery of love. As a member of the Society of the Holy Cross, Howard recognised the centrality of that costly, serving love.
The two disciples hear John speak of who Jesus is, and this starts them on their journey. Jesus then turns and asks them, “What do you seek?” What is the hunger in your heart? What is the eternal, thirsting longing for which you were made? It is a question that every priest must know for himself, and which over and over again he must learn to ask of those for whom he cares. What is that you truly long for? And the disciples know this is something that is not to be answered in a moment, in a casual exchange; they need to go to be with Jesus, so they ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” In St John’s Gospel the word for staying and abiding has a deep meaning, for the Son abides in the Father and the Father in the Son, and disciples are to abide in Him as He does in them. They are to abide in His love, that His joy may be in them, and that their joy might be full. His gift to them and to us is life in all its full abundance. As John again says, “Of his glory we have all received, grace upon grace.” So Jesus tells His disciples to “Come and see”. They go; and they stay. The priest’s ministry is rooted in a coming to see, and in an abiding with Jesus – returning over and over again to the mystery of the divine love, until at the end his own baptism into the death of Christ and living in the hope of the resurrection is fulfilled, as it is for all Christians, in the dying which we believe is “but the gate to life immortal”.
Each one of us is unique in who we are, in our gifts and our talents. Each one of us is called to become by the transfiguring grace of the Holy Spirit a diagram of Christ’s glory. Our diagrams will be different; but the glory will be the same. And so, as we come in sorrow and in thanksgiving to commend our beloved Howard to the eternal life of heaven, in the hope of resurrection, and to the communion and fellowship of the saints, we rejoice in his many gifts which touched so many lives.
So many lives; in so many places. From his student days at King’s College, London; here in Rotherhithe; at St John’s, Walworth; in Alexandria, Egypt, as parish priest and archdeacon; at St Alban’s, Holborn; and finally in Venice and Trieste, where, the bishop having persuaded him to go, he stayed rather longer than he had envisaged; and a host of other places besides. A sense of early vocation grew into a strong and deep spirituality, appreciated by many whom he encountered as preacher and counsellor. A wonderfully human, and humane person, with deep compassion, an enviable capacity for conversation (particularly when enjoyed with a glass of gin or scotch); his “laughter of pure joy”; a musician singing at the piano at Caister conferences and elsewhere; an accomplished dancer, and, I am told, a performer on the accordion. (I checked on Google whether there were accordions in heaven, but found only a retail outlet of that name in Chicago, and a suggestion that there were harps in heaven but accordions in hell!)
At St Alban’s, as surely earlier at Walworth, he believed in a Catholic ministry with “sleeves rolled-up”, ministering to the whole community. He was a leader of pilgrimage to open eyes and widen Christian horizons. In Egypt he endeared himself to the church in a different continent and a different place, and he earned the trust of his own diocese as well as pioneering the friendships from which all deep ecumenical relations spring. The same was true in Venice, where I value my own introduction by Howard to Cardinal Scola, with whom he clearly had a warm relationship. Don Raffaele, parish priest of Santa Maria del Rosario, I Gesuati, with whom Howard worked closely, wrote of him after his death as “a good and gentle man of God.”
Unity, Holiness, Catholicity, Apostolicity – these four marks of the Church were printed on Howard’s life and ministry. We give thanks for all of these today, as we pray that God will comfort us – and especially Howard’s sister Sonia, and all his closest friends – in our loss.
“Come and see,” said Jesus to the two disciples, and in the verses which follow the Gospel we heard, we read how Philip in turn says the same to the sceptical Nathanael. He brings him to Jesus, who tells Nathanael that he will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man – for Jesus Himself is Bethel – the house of God and the gate of heaven. In his ministry Howard invited us to “come and see”, in his care and compassion, in his words and in worship – “the barest alphabet of reverence for so divine a mystery”, as Fr Mackonochie said of the celebration of the Eucharist at St Alban’s.
There is a poem by the poet-priest David Scott on the East window of Lanercost Priory in which he writes:
If we could only see through glass
(so even sweet George Herbert disappears)
and then persist in looking,
till the eye can pass through stone
and then through air.
Then the eye within the heart
Will see things as they are;
And, well supplied from there,
Returns (as good George Herbert did)
With only “praise” identified.
We pray that Howard will indeed now see things as they are, for the Lord has called him. “Come and see”: come and share in the banquet and joy of heaven; in the music and the dancing; and in the dance of the coruscating love of the Blessed Trinity, for which and for whom he and we were made. Where, indeed, there is only praise.
The Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell is a former Bishop in Europe. The Venerable Howard Levett was successively Assistant Curate of St Mary with All Saints, Rotherhithe, Vicar of St John’s, Walworth, Archdeacon of Egypt, Vicar of St Alban’s, Holborn, and Chaplain to Venice and Trieste. He died after a short illness on 13 December 2016. This homily was preached at his funeral requiem at St Mary’s, Rotherhithe, on 4 January 2017. Jesu mercy, Mary pray.