Fr John Crisp

Many people who know me have heard me talk about Father John Crisp, who was my parish priest when I was a teenager at St Mark’s Church, Marylebone Road in the 1950s. And some will have noticed that the statue of Our Lady in the chapel of the School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee, is “To the glory of God and in memory of Fr John Crisp”. He was indeed a wonderful priest. I have not the slightest doubt that it is, under God, through Fr Crisp and his influence that I am a Christian, and it is certainly through his influence that I am a priest. During the early part of his ministry at St Mark’s, Fr Crisp’s assistant curate was Father Derek Price, another wonderful priest, with whom, thanks to the efforts of his daughter Rachel, I am again in touch. Rachel has drawn my attention to her father’s beautiful memoir, Choices: After Eighteen (Fakenham, Norfolk: Jim Baldwin, 2011), and in reading it, I was struck by the text of the sermon that Fr Price preached at Fr Crisp’s funeral on 27th October 1989 at St Helens Church in Norwich. (St Helen’s Church is attached to the Great Hospital, where Fr Crisp spent his final years.) The sermon gives a striking impression of the man, and the many ways in which he affected us. I am honoured to be able to republish it here, with Rachel Jackson’s permission.

Sermon preached by Fr Derek Price at the funeral of Fr John Crisp – the Great Hospital Church, Norwich, 27th November, 1989.

Phil. 4.4. Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.

  1. We rejoice at his death

John wanted to die. He prayed that he might die. His body was wretched; it was not the body we had all known, and he longed to be out of it. His prayer was answered. He has been healed through death. So we rejoice. At the same time we express deep gratitude to the staff, the chaplain and the sisters of this ancient hospital for the care of John: for their love, their tenderness and—because John never took kindly to rules and regulations—their tolerance and patience.

  1. We rejoice in the Lord for John: priest, pastor and evangelist.

When John was interviewed by a bishop for his first living at Saint Mark’s, Marylebone Road, in 1952 he was told that you could only succeed in the London parish if you could develop some specialist line to attract people— such as church music. “What is your trait, your special gift?” he was asked. To which John replied simply, “I have no trait, but I will visit the people.” And visit he did, every afternoon after first taking the telephone off the hook and going to bed for two hours. And this free and this faithful visiting largely contributed to the fact that wherever he served numbers were added to the Lord and the congregations increased.

Regular in the saying of offices and in offering the Eucharist, he was a Catholic-without-lace. But he was also full of evangelical zeal for drawing people to our Lord. He was equally at home with “Sweet sacrament divine”, “Hail Marys” and Mission England with choruses and guitars. Never a diehard, he kept an open mind to worship and liturgy—the giddy days of high mass with incense giving way to the more joyful, relaxed and participatory parish communion. And always there was the short, pithy sermon written in a very large hand—often with mnemonics: S.P.R.I.N.G. for the beginning of Lent! He used to say, “If you can’t enjoy your religion, there’s something wrong with it!” And part of his farewell message at Botley was, “Training disciples as Jesus did, bringing healing to people as Jesus did, sharing their sadnesses and joys, leading them to the heavenly Father in prayer and sacrament! It’s the most wonderful job in the world, being Jesus’ man. I’m thrilled today as I was when I first started off, and never for a moment have I ever been bored.” He certainly enjoyed his religion, and it was infectious.

3. We rejoice in the Lord for John’s vast humanity.

—for his great love of life and laughter. One Bishop of Oxford captured it when he spoke about “that unmistakable voice telling us that John is in the building”! He had a remarkable, boundless zest and energy–even though, all through his life, he was nagged by some pain and suffering. Together with his prayer and his visiting, his obvious humanity was the key to his success in the ministry.

God reveals himself to us through Christ as fully human. His divinity resided in the richness of his humanity. So, we priests and people do not witness to the things of God by having hands always together and eyes always closed, heads in the clouds and angelic otherworldly attitudes and being oh-so-divine. We witness supremely by our uninhibited humanity, by a true worldliness, and by openly enjoying all the good things of God’s creation. Scripture says, “the son of Man came eating and drinking”– and so did John Crisp. He loved food and he loved wine—and O, how he enjoyed those parish holidays that he organised from the beginning to the end of his ministry—yes, even here at St Helen’s, aided and abetted by Michael and Jenny Farthing. Truly he was an ecclesiastical Billy Butlin. He loved to go a-wandering! And he took hundreds of people to see mountains and monasteries, castles and churches, sandy beaches and birds–the list is endless. Small wonder he was able to create such depth of fellowship, togetherness and loyalty in his parishes.

The Roman catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin once prayed, “To the full extent of my power, because I am a priest, I wish from now on to be first to become conscious of all that the world loves, pursues and suffers… I want to become more widely human and more nobly of the earth than the earth’s servant.” We rejoice that John was so “widely human” and “nobly of the earth”.

  1. We rejoice in the Lord for John’s enormous capacity for making friends with all sorts and conditions of men and women.

—with the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Though being a life-long socialist, he would remind the rich man to share some of his good things with the poor, for he had a very special place in his heart for the involved, the downtrodden and deprived. Significantly enough, he wanted—and therefore he got—a chapel at St Mark’s dedicated to St Francis of Assissi.

I suppose I was one of the first to come under the inspirational spell of his friendship, consenting to become his first curate without seeing the church, the parish, the people or enquiring about pay or a place to live. I went simply because I knew John. That was enough. I never regretted it. Two days before his death I read him a letter from a friend. It recalled with delight walks with John around Newport Pagnell, meals shared; but above all the writer thanked him for encouraging and helping him to become a lay reader. Typical of John’s influence on people!

John would go off to do a chaplaincy in Switzerland, meet up with some Major General or other, and before the end of the fortnight the latter had promised to pay for a new vestry or contribute to one of John’s many imaginative schemes for transforming or beautifying his churches or halls. How did he do it? John had no favourites. He reflected a God who is not a respecter of persons. Like the prophets of old he would fiercely rebuke those in high places if need be, huffing and puffing and chewing his hanky as he approached the unwelcome task. He was equally hard-hitting in parish-magazine letters if he wanted to be—especially on the subject of politics, poverty or peace. His opponents may have found him infuriating, but I suspect they still admired him.

  1. Finally, though so much more could be said, we rejoice that John reached the Biblical three-score years and ten

—thanks to a lot of overtime put in by St Christopher and a tireless squad of guardian angels! In driving hazardously in various vehicles from A to B Mr Toad had nothing whatever on Father Crisp! Milk-floats, plate-glass windows, lampposts—you name it, he ran into it! His last attempt was to ride a tricycle. Mercifully, he didn’t succeed, managing only to go round and round in everlasting circles, never in a straight line.

“Rejoice in the lord always, and again I say, rejoice.”

“John,” wrote a parishioner from Botley in a retirement tribute, “has been amongst us as a sign and a saint. An inspiring, loveable, exasperating, prayerful, challenging man of God.”

As we commit his soul to the Love and Mercy of his Heavenly Father and to that peace for which he strived ceaselessly throughout his life, I say on behalf of countless friends,

“Thank you, John, for enriching our lives.” Amen.