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© 2006, Tony Harwood-Jones
You are expected to contact the author for permission
to reproduce this essay in whole or in part.

Lovely Service, Reverend...

“That was a very nice funeral,” said the dignified senior, shaking my hand.  We had just laid to rest his life-long friend, and people were standing around over coffee, reminiscing.

What was this?  Was it a platitude, spoken to the parish priest in an almost meaningless way, the same as one might talk about the weather to a stranger?

I don’t think so.  Were he anyone else, maybe, but I know this man does not make trivial and empty remarks about his faith, or about his friendships.  No, I believe his simple comment was a means of saying, “This was a spiritually satisfying way to mark the passing of my friend, thank you for making it happen.”  That’s how I took it, so I replied, “Thanks, I’m very glad you think it was appropriate for...” and I named the deceased.

What intrigues me about this is the degree to which he, and many others at the weddings and funerals where I preside, attribute the ‘rightness’of the occasion to me, personally.  How can this be?  Most of what I do is simply read aloud from an official, and (as it were) prepackaged Anglican church ceremony.  True, I spend time with the family beforehand carefully going over how we will enter and exit the church, what hymns might be sung (if any), what passages from Scripture might be read (and who will read them), and, in the case of funerals, who might appropriately come forward to speak about the life of the deceased.  In effect, we take a well-established liturgy, and without altering it appreciably, give it an individual touch.

I make two contributions to the process: (1) I urge the family to submit themselves to the usage of the church in this pivotal moment of their lives, and (2) from long practice and deep conviction I have a style of presiding which manages not to sound mechanical or routine even though I am simply reading words I have read hundreds of times before.  Of the two, the first is by far the more important, though I don’t deny that the second helps people appreciate the importance of the first.

I once attended the funeral of an acquaintance who was of no religion, but who loved baseball.  The organist played Take Me Out to the Ball Game as the proceedings began, which was both fitting to the deceased, and funny.  It caused an audible giggle in the audience.  There was no other ritual for the occasion, however; no prayers [the venue was a ‘funeral home’], just a series of speakers recalling various details of the life of the deceased, and then a luncheon.  And, what else could it have been, given the fact that the departed consciously and deliberately espoused no religion?  The memorial was completely fitting, for him, and I do not complain.

But my whole life, as a Christian and as a priest, is focussed on the element that was missing from that event: the element of ultimate meaning; something greater to human life than the earthly and the biological; some sense of the presence and purposes of God.  At life’s pivotal moments, as well as week by week, day by day, I have been made and fashioned to say “Let us pray” to the people gathered around me - to insert into the moment a word from the Bible, a phrase which calls on the name of the Lord.

And here, an important distinction must be made.  It is not enough to say that we should have scripture and prayers in our gatherings to acknowledge the things that are higher and more holy than we are.  Rather, I stand within a tradition which says that God speaks, God acts, God responds to us and shapes our lives.  The insertion of a sacred text or word into an event is, to me, an invitation: God is invited to touch us, to act upon us, not merely to receive the tip of a hat, the nod of a head.

“God, please bless this couple,” or “God, give peace to those who mourn,” are phrases which assume a two-way relationship, where we place ourselves in God’s path, as it were, and have some expectation that he will mark us, even alter the course of our lives.

Any gathering of people where words such as these are said assumes that God is present and will act - granting at least the blessing or peace requested.  Consequently, all such gatherings are no longer simply human moments, but encounters between God and ourselves.

Step carefully, though.  Once we humans accept that God acts, we easily slip into an approach which suggests that God’s only purpose in the encounter with us is to supply our shopping lists of requests: “God, do this; God do that!”

As I understand it, part of the “good news” of Christianity is that God calls us into a two-way relationship: not merely one in which we “shop” and God provides, but truly mutual: with God doing things for us, to be sure, but us doing things for God; God listening to us, and us listening to God; God loving us, and us loving God.

Anglicanism gives us a structured liturgy which helps nurture that mutuality.  Good liturgy can, and does, include “shopping-list” prayers, but it also provides opportunities for God to speak while we listen (scripture reading), and expressions of mutual love (hymns, psalms, and expressions of praise).  Even more, the very act of accepting that our wedding, or the funeral of our loved one, will consist of a received liturgy, rather than something we make up for ourselves, is an act of obedience to God’s direction, an openness to God’s motions in our lives.

I believe that when my good friend and parishioner said “That was a very nice funeral,” he meant that during the ceremony he not only remembered his friend and celebrated a life, he sensed the presence and power of the Most High.  The next of kin, by letting the usage of the church shape the day, had invited God to speak at the funeral, and, at least for my friend and parishioner, God had done exactly that.

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© 2006, Tony Harwood-Jones
You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this essay in whole or in part.