Which form of service is growing fastest in the Church of England? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is services of remembrance for the bereaved. Despite the fact that there are now many other options than the Church for the taking of funerals, the reality is that no-one does follow-up and continued pastoral care like the Church—and it therefore presents a massive opportunity.
John’s Leach’s latest Grove booklet in the Worship series explores the issues. John is aware of the suspicion with which such services are viewed, particularly by evangelicals, because of their association with All Souls’ Day and the ‘Commemoration of the Faithful Departed’. Quite apart from the naive optimism sometimes present around the question of whether the ‘departed’ were indeed ‘faithful’, for many it has overtones of prayer for the departed. (On this, see the earlier Grove text by Chris Cocksworth, now out of print.)
But John wants to reclaim both the service and the occasion.
I want to look briefly at the background to the ‘All Souls’ commemoration, and at some of the theological questions which it raises, but then go on to suggest that what we are rediscovering is actually a quite different occasion, which Christians of all stripes can embrace gladly, and which can have great pastoral and evangelistic significance. I will then go on to ask some questions about how we might put on such occasions as well as possible.
John identifies nine reasons why we might hold such services, not least of which is offering a Christian context for the longer-term process of grieving, letting go and moving on which a crematorium service on its own can hardly allow. But he identifies a fascinating set of trends in society:
Two paradoxical trends in society seem to be going on. The first is the increasing desire to distance ourselves from the fact of death. This shows itself in the emphasis on celebrating the life of deceased people rather than mourning their death, the increasingly common reversal of funeral rites so that a small private cremation is followed by a larger and more public celebration, and the claim of some secular funeral officiants to focus on thanksgiving rather than grief. The rhetoric seems to be that church funerals will all be about death, judgment and misery, whereas we in the secular world can offer services of thanksgiving and celebration…
Meanwhile there are signs that some in our society are beginning to be in- terested in talking about death before they are faced with it personally. The new interest in ‘Death Cafés,’ and the Anglican alternative of ‘GraveTalk,’ suggests that there is a readiness to deal with the difficult issues around death and dying…
The fact is that, however much we try to smother the sting and pain of be- reavement under the comfy blankets of celebration, a week later the grieving widow will be alone and sorrowing. The strapline of the Funerals Project, ‘With you every step of the way,’ seems apposite, desperately needed, and may not be as well catered for in the secular funeral industry.
And of course this all provides a context for sharing faith—if done appropriately.
Although one function of a funeral service is to hold out before mourners, and particularly non-Christian mourners, the Christian hope of resurrection in Christ, to press for any kind of personal response to Christ on that occasion is unlikely to be helpful, and may be perceived as manipulative. But further down the line there can be great fruit for the gospel if bereaved people hear the good news of Christ once again, and are invited, for example, to the next Alpha or Pilgrim course, or whatever your church does in the way of evangelism.
The middle section of the booklet explores the different elements of such a service, and deals with practical issues such as timing, frequency, and the administrative details of how to contact and stay in touch with the people who might be interested. John suggests the following shape for the service itself:
Gathering, acknowledging that we come as fellow mourners, at differ- ent stages, but that we come into the presence of a compassionate God.
The Liturgy of the Word, where we engage with Scripture and the gospel hope in Christ.
Prayers, focused primarily on us and not the deceased people.
An Act of Remembrance, with some kind of symbolic action and the reading of names of the deceased.
An ending, commending ourselves into God’s care.
To this basic outline may be added other ingredients, such as canticles, affirmations of faith and the Lord’s Prayer to create a legal Service of the Word, and of course the use of some kind of music will almost certainly be appropriate.
Note how John attends both to the practical and pastoral needs in shaping the service—but also ensures that it will be a service ‘authorised by canon’ (all clergy take note!).
Overall, this study is a great combination of pastoral concern with mission orientation, integrating theological issues with strategic thinking and practical detail. Here is one thing for every church to include in its portfolio of ways of engaging with the community as a way of sharing hope and faith.
As Christians we belong to one of the few groups confident with the whole area of death, dying and bereavement, and we also have an added extra ingredient in the hope of new life in Christ, and of a new order to come where death, mourning, crying and pain will no longer have any place. The time is ripe for us to maximize our impact on, and mission to, a confused and anxious society.
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