Canon Peter Seal’s funeral sermon

Liz Stuart, 3 March 2023

1 Corinthians 13; John 14:1–6, 27

Henry Scott Holland was so wrong. Death is not ‘nothing at all’, it is not about ‘slipping into the next room’; death is a cruel fissure that leaves us reeling, vulnerable and winded. Peter Seal’s death was like a power cut. Unexpected, shocking, it has left us bewildered, fumbling around in the darkness, unable to do the things we normally do, attempting to understand what has happened, trying to adjust our eyes to a world in which light has been extinguished. I think all of us who knew and loved Peter feel like this – Julia, Katie, Phil, Sarah, Patrick, Penn, Ben, and all those of you who were Peter’s family, we can’t imagine the pain you must be feeling. Our hearts break for you.

Peter always reminded me of a powerhouse – a powerhouse of prayer. To be sat or stood beside him when he prayed or celebrated the Eucharist was a potent experience. You knew that you were near someone very close to God, someone holy. That prayer underpinned all his ministry. That closeness to God manifested itself in vision for the places, churches and people he served: in Lady St Mary, Wareham, where he was curate, priested and married, at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, at St Luke with St Mark, Stanmore, and at St Matthew with St Paul, Winchester.

It was evident in unrelenting pastoral kindness to those to whom he ministered and in a deep, patient wisdom from which he drew to preach and lead. He was a foundation school governor for 31 years (probably a record), and also served in his time as Secretary for Post-Ordination Training, Warden of Readers, Rural Dean, Chaplain to Peter Symonds College and a member of Winchester Cathedral Council. His ministry was sacrificial, both in the sense that it was holy and in that it was costly, to him and to those who loved him. How cruel and unfair it seems that just as he and Julia were settling into his happy retirement with a grandchild in sight, the power was cut.

And yet, and yet, what sparked Peter’s prayer and ministry into life was a deeply rooted and imperturbable faith in resurrection. Peter’s ministry was deeply incarnational, a ministry of presence. ‘Just say your prayers and be there’ was how he summarised priesthood. It was incarnational because it was rooted in the sacraments. Through baptism he had been incorporated into the death and resurrection of Christ, and he shepherded many others through those waters. At each Eucharist he celebrated he encountered his risen Lord in bread and wine.

Peter saw resurrection everywhere. He saw it in the amazing renewal of nature. He became more and more interested in and passionate about green issues and a great admirer of Greta Thunberg, and he would be glad if one of the ways we keep loving him is by taking on that cause. He saw resurrection in the love that endures beyond death. He knew the reality of St Paul’s words that love never ends and remains when all else has passed away. Peter was sure that those who have gone before us love us still, as we do them, and are willing us on with their love and prayers.

Love never ends and remains when all else has passed away.

Resurrection can feel like an abstract, unfathomable concept, particularly in the stark reality of death, but Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. Resurrection is not a concept; it is a relationship with the one who is the way, the truth and the life, who has gone to prepare a place for us. Through prayer and sacrament, Peter was in such a close relationship with Jesus that we can be sure his journey through death into the mansion of God’s heart, was a short, peaceful and untroubled one, unhampered by fear, into the arms of his saviour from where he prays for us and wills us on.

Peter would not want me to eulogise him. He was not perfect. Anyone who ever heard him sing would attest to that. Like all of us he was a pilgrim on a journey, like all of us life for him was sometimes two steps forward, three steps back and sometimes side-tracked. He once told me that he was inclined to believe in purgatory. I do not believe it will have taken long for the white heat of God’s love to burn away anything that separated Peter from him.

Peter has made it; we still journey on and the journey seems harder and colder without his presence, but he not lost to us; the waters of baptism, so muck thicker than blood, bind us into one body. If you need to find Peter, you will find him in the celebration of the Eucharist, where heaven and earth meet in an explosion of incarnational, mystical, mysterious presence.

Jesus’ description of John the Baptist so reminds me of Peter: ‘He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light’. What a season it was, and we thank God for it.

I wonder if you know the poem ‘Conscientious Objector’ by Edna St Vincent Millay. It contains these wonderful lines:

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his payroll.

Peter Seal has died but that is all he will do for death. Peter has never been on death’s payroll. He was and continues to be on the payroll of the one who is the resurrection and the life.