Funerals – Ministry for Mission in a Time of Pandemic

Don Cupitt,” said Bishop Paul in a conversation, “asks the right questions, but comes up with the wrong answers.” It was one of the many wise things that the Bishop of Liverpool has said to me, and one of several that I have gone away and written down. It’s spot on. I love reading Cupitt. He writes beautifully and he does ask the right questions.

Three of Cupitt’s books are among my favourites:

The Meaning of it All in Everyday Speech (SCM 2011)

The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (SCM 1999)

And, The Kingdom Come in Everyday Speech (SCM 2000)

Cupitt is interested in what language we use for the ultimate. Which idioms describe what is meaningful. He spends much time examining idioms including the word ‘life’, but is also interested in the way in which ‘it‘ carries meaning:

“A particularly interesting family of terms is the group It, It all, Things and Everything, which enter into dozens – perhaps hundreds – of idioms . In these idioms it seems to indicate the whole of a person’s circumstances, considered from a finalising point of view … it is evident that the It-group of terms could be shown to figure in a large number of idioms that have a markedly theological flavour … For when we say: ‘This is it, the real thing!‘ we posit a kind of divine completeness, a totality, an unsurpassable finality, more clearly than we ever do with the life-idioms. In its flowing contingency, life is closer to Being; whereas it is perhaps closer to the traditional God,”

The New Religion of Life SCM 1999, pp 104-105

I’ve been re-reading these books during the lockdown and they have worn well. What drove me back to them was a ministry of funerals that I have been exercising, in the area where I live, to help out the local clergy and friends and acquaintances who are vulnerable in some way and have been self-isolating.

When I was first ordained I took plenty of funerals in my two curacies. Since then I have been working full-time in education and I have tried to do one or two funerals during the school holidays to keep my hand in. But most of the funerals I have taken have been relatives, friends or, in tragic circumstances, members of staff, and even, children.

Observing regular funeral ministry from the outside has enabled me to notice two major developments. The rise of civil celebrants. Not just radical humanists and secularists opposed to religion in general, but non-clergy and sometimes ‘inter-faith’ celebrants who will perform ceremonies which are distinctly spiritual and often include elements of Christian liturgy. Most commonly Psalm 23 and theLord’s Prayer. Many clergy are deeply scathing of these services. To those of us who are committed, believing, Christians, there clearly is something missing. But many people I meet speak very highly indeed of the service provided by Civil Celebrants. Many of the Funeral Directors I have spoken to rate them highly. Yes, it can be more convenient to Funeral Directors to have people who are not doing other work and are easily available or who can even commit to certain periods of time a crematorium. However, what is always mentioned to me is the flexibility that Civil Celebrants show in crafting the service and the care they take to provide what the bereaved want. Many of them have clearly developed very high skills in pastoral care. A good number also offer continuing pastoral care, links to counselling, work with Undertakers to invite families to an annual memorial service.

The second factor I have noticed is the number of clergy who tell me that funeral ministry is a waste of time. Using exactly that language. In particular a sense in which funerals for very elderly non-churchgoers where there are no living family and friends are dismissed.

My, negative, reaction to these comments is based, I think on four things:

a) a catholic belief in praying for the dead and the importance of that

b) a strongly Anglican commitment to the Parish, although the parish system as a comprehensive totality was probably always somewhat mythological, recent decades and the events of the Corona Virus are seeing it moving from life-support to palliative care, I think we need to hold on to a theology of parochial-community life in which we genuinely serve the whole population

c) the pastoral instinct to provide care and nurture for those who mourn. In the Beatitudes Jesus, does, after all, declare those who mourn to be blessed.

c) my own experience that funerals are a profoundly missional opportunity. Some of the individuals who it has been my privilege to accompany on a journey to faith have been though funeral ministry. Some of them still keep in touch with me many years later and one is now a priest.

For the Church of England reduction in fee income from funerals (and weddings) is a very significant issue, particularly in a diocese, like my own in Liverpool where there are virtually no historic assets. Earning income should never be the purpose of pastoral ministry but good stewardship demands that we address this issue. As good stewards if clergy are not conducting funerals we need to suggest ways to replace this income.

An innovative approach taken in Liverpool has been the creation of the Good Funeral Company and the recruitment of a remarkable and gifted, priest, Mother Juliet Stephenson to run it (if you ever need clergy training on funeral ministry she is your woman!). You can read more about the GFC here. The mission statement is wonderfully simple and jargon free:

Making good Christian-based funeral services available, personalised, accessible, and affordable for anyone in the Diocese of Liverpool who wants to mark a loved one’s death through prayer.

As soon as it became apparent that I would have some funeral ministry in this crisis I emailed Mother Juliet to ask what she would recommend. Her email reply was enormously helpful, I reproduce it almost in full:

“I attach the service that I am doing in an hour. (it is not what we did as curates…because what we did as curates is not wanted by anyone who is fringe…and on the edge)

Some bits from Iona / celtic stuff and reworked prayers from over the years.

AND…I do not cut and paste, I have several hundred ways of saying the God loves everyone…

He forgives us all, because of JC…

I usually get a bible reading in there…but can be amazingly creative with lyrics from Eric Clapton songs too!

You will see the poems and reading and tribute, that the family have provided…

And I welcomed it all…that’s amazing, that’s wonderful…because this is what THEY want.

I am the MC…and the one who will bless.

I was asked, to do this…because the FD’s know that I do a celebration of life with prayers, and I am good.

The woman used to go to church, but the family have no connection at all….

If I couldn’t do it, they would have had a celebrant, and NOT a vicar

Like I say, I think the success of the GFC, is that we are being offered as celebrants that pray…celebrants that pray and bless…and are authorised to do so.

This is what the FD’s like about what we do.

I get asked to do ‘celebrations of life’…because the perception of vicars is that we can only recite pre-prepared words from the book, and say very little about the woman in the box…

This is why we lose out, over and over again.

You will see very little of the purple book…

And yet, 

– we still gather, we reflect, we offer tributes, a bible reading and short ‘popular religion’ reflection and prayer.

We are (at least I operate now)  in a world where people want white feathers as signs, robins for comfort, shooting stars across the sky to wish upon.

– rather than words from scripture about men they have never heard of…’Lazarus’

We are amidst folk who want Whitney Houston, YNWA, Perry Como and Monty Python.

– rather than hymns, psalms and symphonies…

And if we can’t connect with this world, with the grace of God, and stop being precious about ‘Lazarus’ or ‘penitential prayers’…we lose it.

We can still talk of hope, forgiveness, resurrection.

We can still offer formal prayers, encourage the corporate saying of the Lord’s prayer

And commend and commit and bless.

If we use comforting, and familiar phrases…like the words to enter into the chapel ‘Jesus said I am…’ that’s good.

If we say with conviction ‘in sure and certain hope…’ that’s good.

If we listen to their heartache, and connect where they are, and see how they gain comfort and assurance that God is real, and heaven is worth believing in…because a white feather drifted onto the windscreen of their car…then that also is very good.

This is what the civil celebrants can’t do effectively…they have to rely wholly on the ‘universe’ and ‘stars’…

We have Jesus…

And we have Easter…

Amen brother! 

This may never be the way you would ever choose to do services…it works, and people pray at them. 

I also asked members of the Sodality, the community of priests I belong to to send me their compiled texts and had a number of conversations with them. This was really helpful. As was a conversation with Fr Daniel Ackerley, a deacon-aspirant to the Sodality who is an experienced Funeral Director. Among many other things he said:

Somebody once said that a funeral service should be like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winters day. Every word should be soothing.

There is a bit of me that baulked at this. No! We are here to admit that we are sinners, in need of a Saviour and to pray that the dead may have forgiveness! But then I got real.

Famously, a principle of mission for the Jesuits is to go in and learn a language, a culture to be able to speak to it and understand it. Fr Daniel knows well that what people are wanting in a funeral is that cup of hot chocolate. If we stand on our liturgical, theological preciousness and do no translation we will not be understood.

Having been taught early on never to throw anything away in ministry I also had the funeral service I developed in my second full-time parish (St Mary, Portsea). This drew on what must have then been ASB, but I had looked at books more widely, I can’t now remember which. There may have been some Iona, and possibly the Uniting Church in Australia. I had become a correspondent of Jim Cotter and he offered some helpful advice too.

The service I have developed is posted at the top and bottom of this post. I shared the original version with members of the Sodality and also with one or two others. One or two of the local Funeral Directors have also commented positively and with helpful suggestions. Last week I took a funeral for the partner of a woman who was a published poet and is a poet herself. She worked in great detail on the text we agreed and this was really helpful in improving the English. Finally, Fr Steven Shakespeare, an aspirant to our Sodality, and a well-known, published liturgist has published a book of liturgies The Earth Cries Glory. I have used elements from this woven into the service (and one complete set of intercessions), these are marked SS. I am trying to persuade Fr Steven to produce a book of pastoral liturgies.

I am not making any great claims for my liturgy. It is a ‘work in progress’ and offered for discussion more than anything else. I would welcome any comments. I hope that you can see that I have taken Cupitt’s questions seriously particularly in using the word ‘life’, but also and perhaps less surprisingly ‘love’. ‘It’ is more complex but I do find myself using that sort of language in my more informal words. Using the language of everyday life is, of course, exactly what Jesus did, always talking about himself in this way and avoiding institutionally religious language: way, truth life, gate, bread, shepherd …

Don Cupitt perfectly captures the language that our culture uses around what is meaningful, how to describe the ultimate, the significant. However, he comes up with the wrong answers, a non-realist interpretation of God. Civil Celebrants are doing the same thing. The question is the right one, what language (not just words, but music, images actions) speaks to people where they are? As a Christian I know that their answer is not enough. The world does need a Saviour, but it is our task to speak of Jesus in ways that our culture understands, because Jesus is, yes, so much more than a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s night, but he is that too and what more important time than now to need that. Each day as I kneel before the Blessed Sacrament I pray “Sweet Sacrament Divine”:

Sweet Sacrament of rest,
Ark from the ocean’s roar,
Within thy shelter blest
Soon may we reach the shore;
Save us, for still the tempest raves,
Save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
Sweet Sacrament of rest.

Sweetness indeed, sweetness on a cold winter’s night, sweetness in a time of death and pandemic.