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.

Growing the church: teaching children to understand Christianity

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In our diocese of Liverpool we have a Rule of Life. It is quite wonderfully simple. Designed to be understood by a four year old:

Pray – Read – Learn – Tell – Serve – Give

In my preaching around the churches of the diocese and in my work in schools I quite often talk about these simple words. On many occasions I hand out cards with the six words on and ask people to write one thing that they are doing for each word, or, on some occasions, one thing they could do. 

Every single time that I have done this there is one word that people get stuck on:

Tell

There are, no doubt, cultural reasons for this. We are British. We don’t like to talk about religion. Even worse, we are Anglicans!

However, I think there is a more fundamental reason for our nervousness around telling people about Jesus and our Christian faith. Many of us are just unsure about what we believe. I wrote recently about the Growing the Churchmaterial I use in parishes and how, beginning with first principles, I ask participants to think about who Jesus is, what Jesus means to them, what Jesus has done for them. I use a variety of phrases. The result is always pretty much the same. There are some comments about Jesus as a friend, someone to talk to, but mostly it is Jesus as an example of how to live that is given. Not once, on what must now be dozens of occasions, has anybody ever written about salvation, redemption or even the incarnation.

In his book The Table, Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, wrote about the experience of praying the Creed daily at the Office while in the United State with Episcopalian friends. The Creed is generally prayed morning and evening there as it always has been in the Prayer Book Office. I wrote about the neglect of the Creed when we pray the Office in the Church of England here. Having preached about the Creed at a Growing the Church event recently one priest commented that she ‘did not think of the Creed as a prayer’. Indeed, it is not addressed to God. However, I wonder if we re-introduced the Apostles’ Creed to our daily prayers, multiple times a day perhaps, it might remind us if the essentials, the essence of our faith. In 1 Corinthians 2:1 St Paul reminds the church in Corinth that he did not come using ‘lofty words’. One of the lovely things about the Apostles’ Creed is its simplicity. I must have been seven or eight when I learnt it off by heart (for my First Communion). I wonder how many church families now teach their children the Creed by heart?

The Creed works because it is a concise summary of the history of salvation. In just 108 words. It would be a great Confirmation class task to ask candidates to summarise the Christian father in the same number of words. Or perhaps even for candidates for ordination.

There are other ways of summarising the Christian faith. I have used one of these in the last two Growing the Churchsessions I’ve lead. It is the picture, the ‘frieze’. produced for the Understanding Christianity course produced for Religious Education in schools and shown at the top of this post. It illustrates the biblical narrative from Creation in Genesis at the left to the new heaven and the new earth in Revelation at the right, with the crucifixion at its centre. It is a powerful tool to use when teaching children but also with adults many of whom will not have thought of the biblical narrative in this holistic way before. It is a subtle and complex piece of art work and worth taking time and effort to reflect on. It would be wonderful if children becoming familiar with it in schools could also see it in church entrance halls or other areas.

One of the problems I often highlight in our provision of Christian learning for children in church is the pitch. It is all too often patronising to children. There is no excuse for colouring in and sticking other than as ways of passing time. Children studying Shakespeare when they are 10 in school need to be approaching Christian teaching with the same level of expectation and complexity. The only material I know that can help Sunday school teachers, those leading First Communion and Confirmation preparation, to do this is the Understanding Christianity resources. The material has been prepared for schools so can’t be taken off the shelf for use in church situations, although there is much in it that could be. 

A good deal of the material available for children in church situations is based on the lectionary or on bible stories. Of course, this is good, but children are used to sophisticated approaches to literature of all kinds. Ten year olds are certainly capable of understanding the rudiments of source criticism around the gospels, examining the authors purpose and identifying a variety of genres in Scripture. I have never seen even these simple things being done in church. But more significantly than that if children only gain a memory of a few stories and narratives they will have no intellectual framework into which to set these stories. That is where the whole span of the biblical narrative and a basic summary of christian doctrine is needed.

Finally, children can gain a high distorted view of Jesus if all they learn are the parables. The parables themselves are not, of course, children’s literature, although the simplicity of the structure of some of them can make us treat them that way. If children are to form a mature relationship with Jesus they need to know a lot more about him than the stories  he told. I once designed and taught for a number of years a unit of work to Year 9 pupils (13-14 year olds) called, simply ‘Jesus‘. At the beginning of the unit I asked pupils to write a letter to a friend telling them everything they knew about Jesus. Usually there would be an account of the nativity, very often a few stories, only occasionally the crucifixion and resurrection, and the naughtier pupils would say that Jesus was ‘boring’. During the term I would teach gospel passages that illustrated what sort of person Jesus is; how he reacted to people, the link passages that shows him not answering questions directly, coming at things at a tangent and so forth. At the end of the unit I would ask them to write a letter again to a friend telling them about Jesus. Then I would hand back their first letters for them to compare. I knew the unit had worked when pupils wrote or said that Jesus was ‘interesting’. As indeed he is.

Understanding Christianity is a great leap forward for Religious Education. I hope that we can make a similar leap in our Christian formation of children and young people in church so that they can relate to Jesus who is so utterly fascinating, and understand who he is and what he has done for us. If we could all explain that in 108 words it would powerfully enable our mission to bring people to Jesus, and our ability to grow the church in depth. That would give us something to tell.

Growing the Church: parish weekends and events

This is, famously, an age of anxiety. That anxiety is certainly shared by the church. For the last four or five years as well as retreats and pilgrimages and other teaching and preaching. I have been delivering sessions to parishes which I have been calling “Growing the Church”. Some of these have been weekends, others days or part days, yet others multiple sessions of 90 minutes or so. At the start I generally ask people to write up what they hope to get out of the sessions. It’s a good reality check for me, particularly when I review them at the end. Anxiety is very strong in those hopes expressed at the start for: more children, more people …

These Growing the Church sessions are not intended to replace any of the well developed schemes for church growth and renewal. In many ways I would see the work I do as preparing the way for them. I will almost always mention the New Wine network, Leading Your Church Into Growth, Alpha and more recently tried to plant seeds about starting new worshipping communities outside the church building at times other than a Sunday morning. A way of working that is proving highly successful in the diocese of Liverpool, especially when using our school buildings.

One of the things that strikes me is that in parishes people are very eager to get to the vision writing/mission action planning stage very quickly. In schools a new Head might take two or three terms to work on, and that is seeing each other five days a week for the whole of the working day.
I try on these days to establish some basics – Why do I go to church? Who is Jesus to me? etc before moving any further. I have also begun using Psalm 44 to do some real lamenting about the difference between our ‘memory’ of church as a sort of ideal period we would like to return to, but which in reality can never exist again. I think if we don’t do that we are just frozen in grief or yearning for a mythical past in which there were dozens of children in the Sunday school and crowds at the daily Mass.
Other elements I include are my thoughts on Education and how they relate to our work with children and young people: the need to raise the standard of our education material and make it knowledge-based not simply experiential; and give young people real, substantive leadership. I always include some Mindfulness material. Bookshops, attendance at Mindfulness events etc are evidence that there is a real hunger for stillness, silence and meditation in our wider society. A hunger that we are failing to address in our Sunday worship. This is an open door for Christian mission which we are almost totally neglecting. There is very little opportunity for silence in most Sunday worship. Generally, when anyone leading worship says that ‘now we will keep a few moments of silence’ I barely have time for one breath, I have never, anywhere, had time for more than three. At Taizé they manage 10 – 15 minutes of silence in their worship three times a day. And this is always the thing that children and young people find most intriguing and good.
Finally, I always include an informal celebration of the Eucharist as part of the day. Ideally about half way through. This can bring together elements of Mindfulness, as well as a good chance to re-iterate the overriding importance of memory both as learning and in establishing shared memory as who we are, in Jesus’ words to ‘do this in memory of him’.
Preaching on the second day is a good chance to pick up on themes that strike me from the initial session. Almost always this is the same: the need to root our mission, our desire to grow the church, in substantive Christian faith. I come more and more to see the Apostles’ Creed as useful here. The reasons people give for Jesus being important to them, or what they like about Jesus, are generally either emotional (although there’s often not much of that) or Jesus as an example of living a good life. A living relationship with Jesus is, of course, essential to Christian faith and I often use the icon of friendship (Jesus with his arm affectionately around his friends’s shoulder). However, no one ever mentions the acts of salvation history. So what we have to tell people becomes very weak indeed.
I also stress the cross as an image of us needing grow the church horizontally – to draw more people to Jesus – and vertically – our relationship as individuals and as a community, with God. Interestingly this is the work that people seem to neglect most, or perhaps take for granted.
Unless it is a whole weekend we don’t spend any time writing a Mission Action Plan. That can be done by a small group separately. That is not because I don’t think it is important. On the contrary, being ‘intentional’ about mission is only going to happen if we have a plan and hold ourselves to account for it.

These events are really helpful for me and I learn a great deal from them. I change the material I use every time because I am always learning as well as because contexts are different. The work we have done in Liverpool on new worshipping communities in schools (mainly in the Wigan area) has really helped me to see that developing new congregations can be useful in relieving the anxiety of existing, ‘inherited church’ congregations. So often much of the anxiety comes from expecting that a new priest will suggest yet another set of changes to the worship, or moving of furniture. Sometimes it can be best to leave all that as it is and put our energy into new manifestations of the church. It also helps us to face up to the fact that those of us who love church can find it hard to understand the resistance of people who have no church experience to traditional church.

More children, more people is the constant hope of parishes and congregations. That horizontal growth will only come, in my view, when there is more faith, more experience of Jesus, more faithful living, more deep conversion to the gospel. That is the challenge to every Christian. Why is my life not sufficiently converted that my living alone brings people to Jesus?

The constant mantra in my teaching is a quite simple:

– Jesus centred

– Spirit filled

– Bible based

The anxiety is real. But we should not be controlled by it. In particular we need to be faithful to the New Testament vision of prayer as releasing the gifts of the Spirit. God expects every Christian to experience and share in these gifts. To believe that prayer is somehow difficult or fruitless is to collude with the anxiety.

An age of anxiety, yes. But also an age of liminality, provisionality and that provisionality can contain much energy and the seemed of renewal. Growing the Church never leaves me feeling depressed or anxious for the church. I find these events stimulating and energising. I hope some of those who participate in them do too.