St Peter's Church, Humshaugh

Monday 16 July 2018

In 1916, Franz-Josef, the Emperor of Austria, died and the funeral procession carried his coffin, draped in the imperial colours of black and gold, to the Capuchin Church in Vienna. Hapsburg emperors are buried there, in the Kaisergruft.  

Inside the crypt, behind the closed and bolted door, stood His Eminence, The Cardinal-Archbishop of Vienna a haughty vision in scarlet silk.  The Chamberlain stood outside the crypt, with the coffin, and began the ritual his predecessors had used before him. “Open!” he demanded in Latin, though probably with a schoolboy accent. 

“Who seeks admission?” replied the Cardinal in the elegant Latin of a prince of the church. 

“We bear the remains of his Imperial and Apostolic Majesty, Franz-Josef I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Defender of the Faith, Prince of Bohemia-Moravia, King of Lombardy, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Lodomeria and Illyria; King of Jerusalem, Archduke of Austria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Kraków, Duke of Lorraine, of Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and of the Bukovina; Grand Prince of Transylvania; Margrave of Moravia...” and so on until all thirty-seven of the emperor's titles had been listed. 

“We know him not,” came the Cardinal’s voice from behind the closed door. “Who seeks admission?”

The Chamberlain tried again using a shorter title.

“We know him not,” the Cardinal again replied. “Who seeks admission?”

And then the Chamberlain accepted defeat: “We bear the body of Franz-Josef, our brother, a sinner like us all.”

“Him we know” and the door opened.

We have gathered here today to say farewell to Stanley, a much-loved husband, father and grandfather. Friend, priest, and Padre. There will be other titles and names I am sure – perhaps none as grand as Margrave of Moravia, although I would imagine Stanley would have rather liked the ring of that. But none of these are more important or truer than that of Stanley, our brother and fellow sinner.

As we give thanks to God for Stanley’s life and ministry we could draw on many themes for our reflection. His deep commitment to the communities he served, and this Diocese of which he was a priest all his ordained life.

We could remember his humour which made us feel better. Diocesan Synods were, I am told, always lifted by an interjection from Stanley who would identify himself in improper Synodical style as: ‘Prins, from the sticks!’

But perhaps Stanley’s greatest gift was his ability to treat those he met where they were and as who they were. We have already heard of his famous care for Tommy the Tramp. But this was also the hall-mark of his pioneering ministry in Chapel House.

We are hearing a great deal in the Church of England at the moment about the need for the need to establish new Churches as a focus of our mission. And as we do this again we are remembering that this was something that we had forgotten that we have always done.

When Bishop Hugh Ashdown invited Stanley and Marion to move to Chapel House he invited him to be a pioneer, to found a Church which continues to flourish today. And this work began with Stanley’s characteristic humour, and his treatment of all as equals.

The story goes that in their first week in Chapel House Marion sent Stanley to the corner shop for a tin of beans. There he introduced himself as the new Vicar.

‘When’s the first service’ one person asked.

‘This Sunday’ Stanley replied, and so the Church was born.

Meeting first in their home, and then in a meeting room in the Vicarage, and then in 1972 in the newly built and concentrated Church of the Holy Nativity.

And that Church’s patronal festival is celebrated not in December, near the feast the Holy Nativity, but in September when Stanley went to buy that can of beans.

You might have been the Margrave of Moravia, or Tommy, the new-found friend in Chapel House, or the farmer from Simonburn. For Stanley you were greeted the same, as a child of God.

Not long after I arrived in Haydon Bridge and Beltingham with Henshaw I went to visit Stanley and Marion in their little cottage in Bardon Mill and I was invited to engage in one of the great rites of passage for younger clergy visiting their retired colleagues. I was invited to see if there were any of Stanley’s books I would like to take away!

Amongst the handful that I took was a copy of Rowan Williams’ book on the Resurrection which carries inside its cover the inscription ‘Stanley Prins – Lent 2003.’

In preparing for today I pulled this copy off the shelf and spent a little time flicking through the book and examining Stanley’s underlinings and undecipherable scribbles in the margins.

As I want through I saw that the section of the book which received the most attention from Stanley’s pencil was the section Baptism.

And as I have heard stories of Stanley’s ministry this of course makes sense. Because for Stanley, for all of us, our deepest identity, comes not because we are simply friends, or even just fellow-sinners, our common identity comes because we are baptised children of God.

As a priest in God’s Church Stanley brought countless children and families to Baptism. Whether in the fonts of this Church and Benefice and Diocese, in his ministry in retirement in the West Tynedale, or in simple Baptisms in the Church that gathered in his home in Chapel House.

This priestly act expressing that deeper Christian truth that we are all equally loved and cherished by God whether we are an Imperial and Apostolic Majesty or Tommy the Tramp.

As I looked over Stanley’s scribbles I was able to decipher one which acts as a message to us all from Stanley today.

In the margin Stanley had written:

Baptism reverses death.

That in Baptism, in the new life and new birth we receive in Baptism we find a truth and grace that God reveals to us in Jesus which overcomes all things, time and limitation, and even death itself.

Baptism reverses death.

So today we gather in sorrow to say goodbye to a much-loved friend.

But we also rejoice.

We rejoice in that truth that Baptism reverses death.

We rejoice that on the other side of time Stanley, our friend and fellow sinner will be greeted by a voice – more welcoming than the cardinal Archbishop of Vienna – with the words: 

Him, I know.