Rodney Marshall remembers a faithful priest
Well, dear friends we’ve come together today to say our farewell to one of the best-known and best-loved priests in our diocese, and indeed in the whole of the Church of England. His fame or notoriety has spread far and wide. One of Fr Stuart’s boys, Fr Mark Millward, was in South Africa a few years back and was talking to an African bishop. The bishop asked him where he was from. ‘England,’ said Fr Mark. ‘Oh,’ said the bishop, ‘England. Do you know Fr Stuart Ramsden?’
Fr Ramsden is indeed well known, and more importantly much loved and respected, and it’s in that love and respect that we come to celebrate his funeral rites. Let’s begin this celebration in the place we should, with God’s word in the Scriptures.
Both the scripture readings we heard speak to us of the Christian hope. The reading from the Book of Wisdom reminds us that those who are faithful to God in this life will spend eternity with him after death. In the Gospel, St John tells us that those who feed on the bread of life here on earth, though they die in this life, they will live for ever sharing the resurrection life of heaven. That is God’s promise to his people and that, as Christians, is our hope as it was Fr Stuart’s, a hope and conviction that made him the person and the priest that he was.
Every priest who celebrates the sacraments is the dispenser of the resurrection and life to his people. A priest’s whole ministry is a resurrection ministry. Fr Stuart faithfully fulfilled his priesthood in the light of the resurrection and gave that life and hope to countless others, so death, when it came, held no fear for him.
The sadness and pain today is not Fr Stuart’s, but ours as we come to terms with the loss of somebody we all love dearly.
I once went to Mass at St Thomas, Purston when Fr Stuart was the parish priest. There was a sung Mass, sermon, several hymns, and three baptisms, and the whole service was over in 50 minutes. As we all know Father didn’t like long services, and especially long sermons, but, of course, I can do what I like today because he’s not here to shout at me. And that’s the great sadness for us all today, Fr Stuart isn’t here with us in the flesh. I guess we all feel a bit like that because Fr Stuart has been such a big part of our lives for so many years. We all thought he was indestructible and his death seems like the end of an era and will leave a big gap in all our lives.
Stuart was a man of great kindness and generosity with a remarkable capacity for friendship Friends once made usually lasted a lifetime and all of us are going to miss the cards at Christmas, Easter, birthdays and even anniversaries of ordination. Remembering all those dates for so many people is testimony to his thoughtfulness and care. And all of us have reason to be grateful for the prayers he offered for us each evening with his evening rosary. We can be absolutely sure he will continue to offer them for us in heaven.
Friendship for Fr Stuart was never sloppy and sentimental, and he would tell you in no uncertain terms when he thought you were wrong, but you knew his friendship was real and that you could turn to him for help when it was needed. How many people struggling with problems, and especially priests. have been helped both spiritually and practically over the years? Only God knows. And that friendship wasn’t only reserved for people who shared his views. Yes, we all knew Fr Stuart in different ways, but there was one way we all knew him and that was as a priest.
For all of us here today, Fr Ramsden was first and foremost a priest. 56 years ago, at his ordination in Wakefield Cathedral, he had received a share in the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ through the sacrament of holy orders and every day since then he has tried to live out that calling. Fr Stuart was a priest to his fingertips. and his priesthood defined who he was. The disciplines of prayer and worship which he learned at Kelham remained with him throughout his life. He was devoted to the daily Mass and the Divine Office. Even in retirement and often when he wasn’t well, he would come to Mass at Athersley each day and we know that the Divine Office was said assiduously at home. During his last illness his greatest sadness was that he couldn’t see well enough to say his Office.
That devotion to the Mass and Office were the basis of a very wide-ranging and varied pastoral ministry mostly in the Diocese of Wakefield (he hated the Diocese of Leeds). First as curate here at St Peters and then as parish priest at Charlestown, Middlestown, where he built a new church, and finally for 27 years at St Thomas, Purston. Wherever you were you knew that in Fr Ramsden you had a parish priest. He was direct, not to say blunt and you knew where you stood, but at the same time he was kind, generous and compassionate; a true pastor to his people. The people of many parishes where he helped out in retirement, not least Athersley and Carlton, know this all too well.
Fr Stuart had a great sense of his own vocation and fostered and encouraged vocations in others; it was a source of great joy and pride that three of his boys from Purston were all ordained to the priesthood. And how many young priests over the years have been helped and supported by Fr Stuart?
Fr Stuart had a great affection for and loyalty to the old Diocese of Wakefield and especially its cathedral He was immensely proud of being a canon and in his retirement he loved to say Mass there.
The other thing Fr Stuart was very proud of was being a Clerk of the Holy House of Walsingham. He had been a pilgrim to the shrine for many years and had taken numerous pilgrimages from his various parishes, his last visit was for last year’s Healing & Renewal Pilgrimage; little did any of us know then that it would be his last.
Fr Stuart was also a member of SSC and, as with all the other parts of his priestly life he took the rule and discipline of the Society very seriously. I think he greatly valued the friendship and support of SSC and its members, the more so as he got older.
Fr Stuart was a man of great faith, certainly not a fussy or affected faith but a deep conviction that God would sort out any problem in the Church, the world or himself. If you ever moaned about the state of the Church or the world you got short shrift, ‘it’ll be all reet’ was the stock answer, by which he meant God would sort it.
Now I don’t want you to think that I’m making Fr Stuart out to be a saint. I’m not and he certainly wasn’t.
As we all know Fr Stuart could be very grumpy and sometimes his directness could border on the rude. He could also be infuriating in the way he would try and interfere with things, especially in church.
Another of Fr Stuart’s weaknesses was that he had never grasped the concept of political correctness, it had completely passed him by. Some of the things he said and where he said them would make you cringe. Quite possibly his last words on this earth were spoken to a young nurse taking him down to ITU in BGH. The nurse asked what a canon was and Fr Dickinson explained it to her. The nurse was very impressed and said: ‘You must be a very important person.’ Fr Stuart just managed to lift his oxygen mask up enough to say: ‘No, I’m not, you bossy cow.’ But that was Stuart and it was these very weaknesses and frailties that endeared him to us and I suspect they were what God used to make him the kind, generous and understanding priest he was. Stuart knew his own shortcomings and was tolerant of them in others.
So we are going to miss Fr Ramsden. We are going to miss that tongue, as sharp as a Sheffield Steel Scalpel, yet hiding a heart as big as a dustbin lid.
We are going to miss that brusque, direct style which challenged you to disagree.
We are going the miss him interfering and threatening to upset our best laid liturgical plans.
But most of all we are going to miss his kindness, generosity and thoughtfulness, of which we have all benefitted. I suspect that whenever we speak of Fr Stuart in years to come it will be with a smile on our lips because he did bring fun and joy into our lives, and that can’t be said of everyone.
We began with the Scriptures, so let’s end with them. They spoke to us of the triumph of love over death and the reality of the resurrection. So now Fr Stuart meets the reality of what he has always lived, as the grace of the resurrection, so abundant in his life, now becomes a reality and his reward in death. What he has lived, what Christ has given us, through him, he now becomes.
And as we offer the sacrifice of the Mass we commend to our loving Father the soul of Stuart his priest. It was from the Father that the gift of priesthood was given, a gift that enabled Fr Stuart to offer this Mass for us as we now offer it for him, the sacrifice which opens for us the Father’s love and mercy and the pathway to the fulness of resurrection life.
May he rest in peace.
Fr Rodney Marshall ministers in the Diocese of Leeds.