Selected by the Very Rev. Paul Lebens-Englund, the inaugural preacher was the Rev. Barbara Mraz, a deacon serving St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul and an experienced instructor in public speaking both at the Blake Schools and in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. She had led a preaching workshop at Saint Mark’s on the preceding day. Less conspicuously present was the Rev. Canon William P. Donovan, who has endowed the sermon along with the workshop. Canon Donovan’s purposes in his gift are to honor Dean Fontaine as his friend and colleague of many years, to model good preaching at the Cathedral, and to urge and teach skilled preaching among both aspiring and experienced ministers throughout the ECMN.
Admiring Dean Fontaine’s preaching style for its personal elements, Canon Donovan quotes his remark, “’If I have preached any good sermons they are walking around in the world on two legs.’ I don’t want an academic sermon,” Canon Donovan continues. “I don’t want a crusading sermon. I want the preacher involved in the text. I believe the center of Christianity is a story. How does the preacher find his or her own story overlapping the Christian story?” He wants people to preach from themselves, not “hands-off stuff,” but he recognizes that “preachers don’t like to expose themselves.” Another model of great Episcopal preaching, Canon Donovan continues, is Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), long the rector of Trinity Church Boston and a distinguished lecturer on the nature of preaching. Preparing his own sermons with great care, Brooks famously defined preaching as the “communication of truth through personality.” The terms of Canon Donovan’s bequest place no restrictions on the Fontaine preacher “except that he or she put himself or herself into the text.” Like Brooks, Canon Donovan gives great thought to his own sermons, rehearsing their delivery and writing them out in full “in order to control their length.”
For her sermon, the Rev. Mraz chose the theme, “Looking Up,” drawing upon the assigned All Saints gospel reading (Luke 6:20-31), which begins, “Jesus looked up at his disciples” and which proceeds to teach the Beatitudes, words not of advice but of gratifying affirmations for even “the poor sorts of ourselves.” Tracing her own faith journey from her Wisconsin Synod Lutheran childhood, when she developed her “pesky tendency to keep thinking,” through her discovery at age thirty of the Episcopal Church, with its basis “in scripture, reason, and tradition,” she quoted such diverse sources as T. S. Elliot, the poet Christian Wiman of Yale Divinity School, Joseph Campbell, Rabbi Harold Kushner, and Ken Burns, always relating their remarks both to the gospel and to her own experiences as a child, a teacher, and an Episcopal deacon. She rounded out her theme with the words of the best-selling author, college professor, and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, who urges Christians to look up to Christ crucified between two thieves: “one cross makes a crucifixion; three crosses make a church.”
“Fine preaching,” says Canon Donovan, “is what makes Saint Mark’s a Cathedral.” His inspiration for establishing an endowed annual sermon comes from Cambridge, England, where in the mid seventeenth century, John Mere of Corpus Christi College left money to the ancient parish church of St. Benet’s, at the time a Corpus Christi chapel, to establish a sermon preached on the first Tuesday of the academic Easter term on one of a short list of prescribed subjects. The tradition continues to the present day. The eminent Cambridge Professor of Divinity Geoffrey Lampe (1912-1980) preached the Mere Sermon in the year of his death, choosing the subject “On Death.” In 2016 the Mere preacher was the Very Rev. Professor Iain Torrance, Pro-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, who chose another of Mere’s subjects, “Relationships of Respect.” At Cambridge, Corpus Christi suggests preachers for the honor of preaching the Mere Sermon. At Saint Mark’s the Fontaine preacher is selected by the current Dean.
In consultation with Dean Lebens-Englund, Canon Donovan modified his original bequest to include a teaching workshop coordinated with ECMN’s School for Formation, a relatively new style in educating for ministry that leans away from sending people to residential seminaries and instead allows them to stay in place. Led by the Rev. Susan Daughtry, the School is a primarily web-based two- or three-year educational program for lay leaders, deacons, priests, and lifelong learners. The two programs that lead to ordination include nine monthly cohort meetings scheduled through the academic year. To title the initial workshop, the Rev. Mraz chose one of Canon Donovan’s favorite Bible passages, the opening words of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word.” The workshop speakers were the Rev. Devon Anderson of Trinity Excelsior, the Rev. Neil Elliott of United Theological Seminary and the author of Liberating Paul and The Rhetoric of Romans, and the Rev. John Rettger, long a favorite preacher at Saint Mark’s. She herself spoke of the process of conceiving and crafting a sermon, “The Journey to the Aha! Moment.” Commenting on the double endowment of sermon and workshop, Dean Lebens-Englund says, “Canon Donovan has blessed Saint Mark’s with a generous gift to ensure the growth in preaching excellence both here at Saint Mark’s and throughout the Episcopal Church in Minnesota.”
As the Fontaine Sermon and workshop evolve, the Dean continues, it will inevitably be altered. Anticipated changes for 2017 include enhanced publicity so that both the ECMN calendar of events and the Cathedral’s parish announcements alert parishioners, members of other parishes and denominations, and potential workshop attendees of this opportunity. Instead of scheduling the event on All Saints Sunday, when the liturgical program is crowded with baptisms, Saint Mark’s may seek a less crowded date in late Pentecost, when the preacher has leisure to develop his or her theme for a full sixteen to twenty minutes. If convenient for the preacher, the workshop may be offered a week or more before or after the sermon in order to separate the two demanding leadership assignments. To enhance workshop participants’ experience of praxis, the schedule of expert lectures may be interspersed with guided small-group discussions of topics and sermon ideas, an experience Canon Donovan treasured in his seminary days.
In choosing to honor Dean Fontaine in his bequest, Canon Donovan has refused to attach his own name to the project because, as he says, “that would be an act of pride. I’m concerned that the sermon is absolutely not to mention me. It’s the sermon, not the benefactor that should be memorable.” Canon Donovan’s own preaching, however, has already established itself in Saint Mark’s long-term memory. Warren Maas, Saint Mark’s Senior Warden in 2015, when the Council first considered the endowment, says, “Bill has been a fixture at Saint Mark’s as long as I can remember. His sermons and homilies were a large part of my spiritual journey, and his gift assures that his spiritual vision will continue to enrich the spiritual life of Saint Mark’s for the foreseeable future.”