Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Funerals, continued

The Rev. William (Billy) Shand, rector of St. Francis, Potomac, Maryland, writes effortlessly literate, witty, and wise letters (and profound, biblical sermons). He contributes these observations to the discussion of The Burial of the Dead, aka "memorial service" (edited only slightly):

 Your essay came to my attention this morning.... On so many points you are absolutely right, even though you – and I – are fighting a rear guard action. I have said repeatedly here we do not offer “memorial services” at St Francis; we offer the Burial of the Dead, which is the only thing (even) the current Prayer Book designates it....           
I recently attended a service [in which] the homilist got off on a very good start by sniffing at the term “celebration of life”, for he said we do not celebrate a complete life when we ignore illness, disappointment, and so forth, nor is it full in any sense if we do not get on to resurrection....
            Charlie Price (of Virginia Theological Seminary) said more than once that we should not ever miss the opportunity to preach at a funeral since one had a congregation not present even on Easter, many of whom would never hear a word of Resurrection otherwise. The balance I try to strike between that priority and the need to inject a personal touch is to ask myself this question as I am writing the sermon: What difference does the Resurrection make to the deceased? I confess I am not looking here for much language about redemption from sin; I think that is too broad a topic for the service involved and is open to far too much misunderstanding even in the hands of a preacher as skilled as you are. But the operative words for me in the entire service are found in Cranmer’s phrase “sure and certain hope.” The world does not modify “hope” with “sure and certain”, because the world takes “hope” as conditional, synonymous almost with optimism. So, again, when Billy or Fleming die, what makes our hope still sure and certain? What difference does the Resurrection make to us? This discipline means that every funeral sermon is unique and if nothing else not a collection of bromides appropriate to a Hallmark card....
            I must add one other confession to this. On one thing I have modified by view in the years I have been here. I do not object to one short set of “remarks” from a family member or a friend. Usually these are mundane and often dubious from a theological point (“I bet Billy is looking down on the Gamecocks right now… I bet Fleming is preaching inside the pearly gates to Phillips Brooks and Jonathan Edwards….”). But sometimes one hears a story that is enjoyable and does no violence to the theme of the service. The problem with these is that they are like children’s sermons on Sunday: I never compete with dogs or children, and some fatuous story told in a children’s sermon will delight a congregation and they don’t hear the real sermon of the day. Same with “family remarks” if not kept on a tight leash. And I also insist on having the last word, as it were..... And let me also quickly add that the best of all worlds, and the one I try to encourage, is that such remarks be made at a wake, by which I mean to include any social function after the service. When I have said the last amen, my responsibility is over, and they can do whatever they like for as long as they like.

To which I say AMEN. My own experience with both funerals and weddings is that the parish church will have no chance of keeping services within bounds unless there are prepared directions made public and applying to everyone. This is the only way to teach about the burial of the dead from the church, and the meaning of the marriage service, without getting into intolerable situations where the dead person's family, or the bride and groom, have already made up their minds what they want without reference to the pastoral and theological responsibilities of the liturgical leaders.



Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thinking about funerals (what funerals?)

An Episcopal clergyman told me recently that in his 6 years in office, he had never seen the pall used in his parish church. What does that mean? It means that the traditional Anglican funeral, with the coffin present and covered by the pall, has almost ceased to exist. How has this happened? The "new" (1979) Book of Common Prayer clearly calls for the body to be present in the church -- the rubrics (italicized instructions) assume it, with instructions such as "The coffin is to be closed before the service." There is even a special set of prayers to be said (p. 466) as the body is brought into the church to repose before the service.

What has happened in the 30+ intervening years to cause this to change so totally? We now have the ubiquitous memorial service, which as far as I know scarcely existed at all thirty years ago.

When my father, and then my mother, died (1986 and 2006, respectively) the closed coffin -- covered by the church's pall -- rested in the library at home for two days preceding the funeral. We had the prayers for the Vigil by the body (p. 465). When the time came, the pallbearers (who were family and friends) took the coffin out of the house and placed it in the hearse. Then after the service, we went up the street to the cemetery and had the Committal (p. 484). It was all incomparably comforting and consoling, especially as we knew it had been done that way for centuries. (At the same time, we knew that a few of the younger members of the family thought it was creepy and weird!)

Now I know that there are many reasons for the differences today. For one thing, cremation is taking over from traditional burial, and cost is a major consideration for many people in these days of rapacious mortuary practices. (Still, for families that can afford the extra expense, cremation can certainly take place after the funeral, and I always used to encourage that.)  Many people would not or could not have the body brought to the home (though the alternative would be to bring it to the church). In many cases, a cemetery is not nearby. Also, people have become accustomed to having a long wait between the death and the service, to allow more people time to make plans to attend.

However, there has been little or no discussion of all these changes. As in so many other aspects of church life, the ways of the culture have simply taken over. We have not defended our ancient traditions, or given sufficient reasons for them. I wonder, however, if there is not a significant body of opinion out there that remains unconverted. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died, I wrote an article for The Living Church lamenting the fact that 2 billion people had watched a service that had little or no similarity to the traditional Anglican service (to find that, you can look up the funeral program for the Queen Mother). I got more responses to that article (all positive) than any other article I have ever written, more than 75 in all. To be sure, however, that was 1997. Matters have deteriorated apace since then. (That article can be found at

Who decided that the service for The Burial of the Dead was going to be called "The Celebration of the Life of === ?" It just happened by osmosis, as far as I can tell. Was there ever any theological or liturgical discussion of this? Sometimes, people don't even say that they're going to a memorial service; they're going "to celebrate his (her) life." No more than twenty years ago the Presbyterian Church, at least in some places, called the funeral service "A service of witness to the Resurrection." That seems ideal to me. When did the focus of attention shift from the opportunity to proclaim the gospel to the opportunity to exchange "reflections"? I am asking these questions quite seriously; who decided these things, and why? I have been to services for suicides and for severely mentally ill people; the "reflections" ignored these unpleasant details and "celebrated" their unhappy lives, with a heavy dose of denial.

The precipitating incident for this blog post was a conversation I had recently with a woman who has been a very active Episcopalian for about thirty years. She had just returned from a Roman Catholic funeral Mass. She expressed great dissatisfaction with it. She said, with considerable disdain, that the service was all about the Mass. "There was hardly anything about the person." She corrected herself, saying, "Well, there were a couple of people who spoke, but most of the service was just liturgy." (She may not have used the word "liturgy" but that is what she meant.) She concluded, "It was so different from our Episcopal service, which is all about the person." I was really shocked -- though not surprised.

I admit that I would not want to go back to the way it was done for my grandmother in 1974, when the "old" service was used and her name was never mentioned. But there are a good many options in between that one and what we have today, which is almost entirely a free-for-all in a great many cases.

For many years I have tried to find a reliable reference to a funeral that was described to the members of the Wednesday Morning Bible Study group at Grace Church in New York City in 1989. A member came in, having heard about it, and because she knew that it would strike a note with us all, she described it to us. I lost track of the details, but last week, after 24 years, I finally found what I was looking for. The deceased person was Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, wife of Emperor Charles of Austria. As such, she was the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and Queen of Bohemia--one of the last members of the storied House of Hapsburg. Her 1989 funeral was held in Vienna, from which she had been exiled most of her eventful life. After the service in St. Stephen's Cathedral, her body was taken to the Imperial Crypt of the Capuchin Church, where some 145 Habsburg royals are buried.

Here's the point. As the coffin was taken to the Crypt, an ancient ceremony took place. A herald knocked at the closed door, and a voice responded, "Who seeks entrance?" The herald answered, "Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary." From within came the response, "I do not know this person." The herald tried again, saying, "This is Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, Empress of Bohemia." The same reply was heard: "I do not know this person." The third time, the herald and pallbearers said, "Our sister Zita, a sinful mortal." The doors swung open.

Isn't there something to be learned here?

(Perhaps not incidentally, Zita, the "sinful mortal," has been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in the Diocese of Le Mans, France. She had been in the habit of spending several months each year in the diocese of Le Mans at at St. Cecilia's Abbey, where three of her numerous sisters were nuns.)          

Monday, June 04, 2012

Love Free or Die movie

The new documentary about Bishop Gene Robinson, Love Free or Die, having won a special award at Sundance, was screened this week at the Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF). It was my first opportunity to see it. The best and most moving scenes, from my point of view, were 1) the joyful water “fight” on the beach with two gay parents, their four sons, and Bishop Tom Shaw; and 2) the ten-minute, apparently unscripted, prayerful silence on the floor of the Episcopal General Convention after the vote to allow openly gay people to be ordained (it reminded me of the similar silence before the vote for women’s ordination was announced, at the 1976 General Convention).

After the screening, the audience stayed for a Q & A with one of the two principal filmmakers, Sandy Itkoff. The question that struck me was this (I think I can reproduce more or less the same words as those of the questioner):
I don’t know much about the Bible. You have framed the debate in terms of civil rights. Why did you decide to do that without any reference to what the Bible says about this issue?
The answer was partly inaudible, but I did not get the impression that it was particularly substantive. The filmmaker described himself as “not religious” and seemed to be saying that the decision to ignore biblical passages and theological discussion was made deliberately in order to streamline the film’s overall message of impassioned support for Bishop Robinson’s cause (that’s my interpretation, not his actual words).

The point I want to make is this. We have not had the necessary theological discussion. I say this from a moderate, perhaps even an “evolving” position; but I for one will never be able to “evolve” fully until and unless we have the theological discussion. As long as the matter of homosexuality is framed by the church in terms of civil justice, we stand guilty of allowing our own fundamental teaching to be hijacked by secular trends.

Why has sexual (both hetero- and homosexual) restraint been so highly valued in the Judeo-Christian tradition? What does it mean that this value has almost disappeared in the last forty years? What do we have to say about this phenomenon? What exactly is Christian marriage anyway? What is the relationship of “male and female” to the image of a self-giving God going out to the Other? Is homosexuality a “normal variant of human sexuality” as some have said? Or is there something fundamental in the “order of creation” as it has been traditionally understood? What is the meaning of “so God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (RSV)? (The NRSV translates as follows: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” I am persuaded by those who know both the Hebrew and the nuances of grammar—Vernard Eller in particular—that the RSV is more faithful to the original than the NRSV—the latter translation has sacrificed the subtlety of the shifting pronouns in the interests of “inclusive language.”)

I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think the Name of Jesus Christ was uttered a single time in the film. Certainly Bishop Robinson did not use the Name in either of the prayers he offered in the film (and it seemed very odd to me that he kept looking out at the assembled multitudes as he read his prayer for Obama’s inauguration, as if he were addressing them instead of God). I don’t think Scripture was ever quoted by Bishop Robinson, except once (again, I may be wrong) when he said he was quoting (not quite accurately) from John’s Gospel when he meant the first Epistle of John. Other than that, the message was largely indistinguishable from those put forward by the culture at large. In other words, there was nothing specifically theological in the entire movie. Bishop Shaw, a celibate gay monk, comes off well, and I know him to be a thoughtful and generous Christian leader who does not demonize anyone, but even he seemed to slip when he said “we are worthy,” when the traditional biblical affirmation is the universal confession, “Lord, I am not worthy to come under thy roof, but say the word only…”

If there is a hero in the movie besides Bishop Robinson, it’s Bishop Barbara Harris, known for her acerbic tongue and disdain for all who hold otherwise (speaking of her peers at the General Convention, she says, “If assholes could fly, this place would be an airport”). She is given a larger speaking role than most, and is presented as wholly admirable. Given the purposes of the moviemakers, it’s understandable, but the “loyal opposition” figures appear almost as caricatures of themselves. No attempt was made to flesh them out. Bishop Duncan occupies his usual role as the heavy (I don’t need to dwell on the tiny hate group from Kansas that plays its outsize part on every official occasion). Particularly reduced onscreen was Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana, a highly conscientious and principled man who for many years has pleaded for a biblical and theological discussion only to be patronized and dismissed (maybe he wouldn’t put it that way, but that’s the way I see it). He is depicted in the film as a lonely figure shunted aside by history. As for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, a major intellectual and scholar who has been dealt an impossible hand, he appears several times, but is allowed almost nothing significant to say.

This film was at least six years in the making, and obviously cost a good deal of money. It is a professional and artful product, with a well-constructed narrative arc. It just seems sad to me that the filmmakers could not have taken the more difficult path of examining the debate in all its painful detail, instead of offering what amounts to a hagiography.