Cross-border funerals and bereavement care

DSCN1055cw(Lillies)Our parish churches and their ministers, have certain responsibilities. These include, as I understand it, the requirement to baptise, marry and bury those who request such ‘occasional offices’.

Whilst reflecting recently on my own past practice in taking funerals, I came a broader reflection on the way the Church of England approaches the care they offer at some funerals, which may simply be about the way my local patch has done things in the past, but may have a broader application. I’d welcome your thoughts:

It concerns what happens when a family from outside the parish approach a church requesting a funeral for a loved-one, because of some prior connection, most often previous residence and the fact a relative is already buried in the local churchyard or cemetery.

For other occasional offices, contact is also established in some form with the family’s local church. With baptisms, permission is typically sought from their local parish church, and in some cases baptism preparation may take place there. With weddings, assuming banns are required, formal contact is also required between the couple and the place, or places they live. There is also an encouragement through the wedding project to seek the prayer support of the parish you live in.

I am aware of no such tradition of missional contact with their parish of residence when families return to a community to have a relative buried; but do correct me if I’m wrong!

So, I’m wondering if, with the family’s approval, it would be helpful and good practice, to contact the local parish or minister of grieving relatives, so that further bereavement support could be provided by the wider church, especially since it could prove difficult for your own parish and it’s pastoral team to follow through with such work?

Otherwise, there may be a danger of leaving families isolated from other appropriate sources of Christian pastoral care, and as Christian ministers we may also be guilty of compromising our own missional capacity.

Is this something that the current research project started last year by the Archbishop’s Council could, or should, consider?

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Touch and intimacy – some reflections from my hospital placement

Painting of the crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) 'How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news." Isaiah 52:7
Painting of the crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (previously Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” Isaiah 52:7

Earlier in the year, part of my ordination training, included a placement with the Chaplains at my local hospital with a couple of days also spent at our local hospice. What follows is an edit of the presentation I made recently of what my experiences got me thinking about:

Now; I’m married to a secondary school teacher, and in the past I have served time as my church’s Child Protection Officer. In both contexts, we are very aware touching people too much, or inappropriately is ‘not a good thing’.

This probably explains my surprise at the emphasis on touch, particularly on my visits to the Hospice, but also observed in my experiences on the hospital wards. I was in fact told by the hospice chaplain that “communication needs to be intimate even if the patient has lost all power of speech,” and that the touch of a Chaplain “is similar, but quite different, to the touch of medical staff.”

It’s probably obvious I am using ‘touch’ to refer to the act of making physical contact with something, in this case another person. ‘Intimacy’ has probably had it’s definition damaged by the overlay of centuries of sexual imagery, but in this context I am referring to it as the human desire to offer and receive the care and closeness of human companions, such as that Jesus sought from his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemene.

Watching the hospice chaplains at work, whether during sacraments or simply talking or praying with a patient, there was a lot of touching going on:

  • As one patient was anointed in her dying hours, the daughter was held gently but firmly about the shoulders by the other chaplain;
  • I was aware of the tenderness required in holding the service sheet so that a respite patient could say the words of the Holy Communion service, and in the gentleness of the chaplain as she anointed his head and his hands – both intimate acts.

At the hospital, movement around and towards a patient felt far more restricted and constricted by the proximity of equipment and medical staff:

  • The table, a medical line and stand meant I couldn’t easily sit alongside one patient to talk in a friendly fashion – when she expressed eagerness for me to pray for her I was unable to get close enough to even put my hand on her shoulder: I felt inhibited in my fulfilment of her request;
  • As I moved to administer Holy Communion one Sunday morning, a nurse grumbled from behind the curtain of the neighbouring patient, pointing out that my physical presence too close to her was why visitors weren’t welcome on wards in the mornings!

My own natural responses were divided:

  • I am by nature a fairly touchy-feely person: I know that part of the way I relate to people is through touch – I naturally want to offer gestures of comfort and care;
  • Yet, I find it difficult to look at people when talking to them: my husband spent many years of our early relationship trying to stop me making an in-depth study of his ears when talking to him! In some situations I still back-slide;
  • My experiences on placement, reminded me of my mother’s final days, of finding repellent the idea of massaging her swollen feet, or feeding her yoghurt she could barely swallow, and yet being glad to manage both as the situation demanded the roles of mother and daughter be reversed.

So I was left dwelling on the hows’ and whens’ of touch in a pastoral context, and whether it is in fact a problem when our own repulsion, or the apparatus of care, dis-able such a physically intimate response. Most particularly, I found myself asking the question, what did Jesus do?

Though Jesus doesn’t always touch those to whom he brings healing, he reaches out his hands

  • to touch a leper and break the religious and social taboos (Matthew 8:2)
  • to raise up Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:15)
  • to anoint with dust and spittle, the man born blind (John 9:6-7)

If Jesus doesn’t use touch, he certainly gains a swift and intimate understanding of those he meets

  • In the Healing at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-15) before Jesus heals, he sees and learns about the man’s condition and it’s duration, and then tests his psychological state by asking the question ‘Do you want to get well?’
  • There is discernment and healing of a different sort offered in the forgiveness given the women with the alabaster jar and the simultaneous challenge given to Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50.

Of course, the Bible also gives us examples of those who reached out to touch Jesus:

  • At birth Mary took the child she had given birth to, wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger (Luke 2:7) – the Mother, ignoring her own post-natal needs in grim conditions to tenderly provide warmth, and protection to her helpless child;
  • When the beloved disciple leans back against Christ at the Last Supper to ask who will betray him (John 13:25) is that the last time Jesus is touched, without betrayal, ridicule, and torture?
  • Some like to depict a grieving Mary holding her sons body when it is taken from the cross. What the Gospel does tell us it is that Joseph of Arimathea takes Jesus’ body, wraps it in a clean linen shroud and lays it in a new tomb (Matthew 27:59) – like a mortuary attendant respectfully caring for a victim of crime; like a loved one taking the hand of a dead partner, making the fact of their death, a reality;
  • Then there is Thomas, who having not seen, needed touch to enable to proclaim the divinity of his risen Lord (John 20:19-29)

If we understand ourselves to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and we apply St. Paul’s teaching that Christ was made in the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4), then then such intimacy makes us more fully Christ-like.

This theology tells us that the object we look at as an individual human, becomes the relational being we describe as a person, through our interaction with them: our intimacy with them gives them their person-hood. Intimacy of look, focus, concentration, conversation, gesture, prayer AND touch make them, and importantly us, more fully human. The more of these types of intimacy we are able to offer, the better able to fulfil our God-given task.

In a book by therapist Brian Thorne called “Infinitely Beloved” it is emphasised that an environment of trust and such person-centred intimacy “offer[s] a psychological and emotional climate in which pain can be faced and transcended” and self acceptance gained, enabling the patient to be more responsive to their own needs, as well as that of others.

And, when I worry about my own inadequacies and hang-ups, and the constraints of the physical and social environment in which we often have to minister, I know I also have to remember that God has so much more to offer, and will not be forestalled! As I venture stumbling steps to fulfil my potential to love as God loves, I too have to trust him to dwell within practitioner and patient alike “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” and not simply “according to his power that (we are aware) is at work within us”, but to his boundless and “infinite glory, and to all generations”! (ff. Ephesians 3:20-21)

To conclude my presentation I asked my group of fellow ordinands to stand,  to take a minutes silence while standing alone in which we each prayed for the two people standing nearest to us, and then, whatever our normal practice, to join hands and look at each other, trying to catch each others eyes as we prayed THE GRACE over each other.

Questions for discussion:

1. Does look and touch change our experience of prayer, both as practitioner and as recipient?

2. From our own experience and ministry, can we offer ourselves some guidelines regarding our use of touch?

The house that God built – 1 Kings 8 and Luke 7:1-10

All Saints' Church Basingstoke, photographed in 2009 during my Reader Training Placement
All Saints’ Church Basingstoke, photographed in 2009 during my Reader Training Placement

This morning’s sermon was for the occasion of the ‘Friends of All Saints Basingstoke’ annual Eucharist (followed by an excellent bring and share lunch!) (Note: colleagues with whom I might be undertaking preaching practice next weekend probably don’t want to read it – they’ll be hearing something similar!)

Lord, take my words and speak through them,
take our thoughts and think through them,
take our hearts & set them on fire with love for you
through the power of the Holy Spirit,
and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Four years ago, this church took in a foreigner. She wasn’t from these parts. She came from another place, somewhere outside this town, though not so far away that she couldn’t commute quite comfortably for services and the like.

She was warmly welcomed, challenged about the importance of certain Christian traditions, had her calling questioned, was perhaps healed of certain prejudices, though probably not all of them, and once departed, was invited back.

Then, I was a trainee Reader. Now, I am a trainee priest. This place, and you people, have been part of the journey of this ‘foreigner’, one element of God’s grace visible in my life, and it is wonderful to celebrate with you today as a Friend of All Saints.

“Foreigner” is a rather loaded word these days. It possibly conjures up in our minds other words: on the safe side it might infer “tourist” or as some New Forest folk say when sat in a traffic jam, “grockel”! Less helpfully it comes loaded with words like “immigrant”, or “racist”. Sadly, it may therefore no longer be a word that always holds a welcome.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, “foreigner” refers to someone from outside the Promised Land, an occasional visitor who bore no part in the life of Israel. Meanwhile, the centurion of our Gospel reading was a Roman and therefore presumably Gentile, a non-Jew.

And yet because God’s gifts are available to all who call on his name, the expectation in both cases is that God will act: Solomon asks that God will act according to all that the foreigner asks of him (1 Kings 8:43), and the centurion declares: “only speak the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:7).

Perhaps surprisingly, but in common with all the people of Israel, once in the land of their covenant promise, the foreigner of Solomon’s prayer is only expected to pray towards the house of God’s name, the new Temple in Jerusalem. It is being in the land and honouring the authority of God’s name that is important.

And in this version of the healing of the centurion’s servant, the centurion doesn’t enter Christ’s presence in person, but rather in his humility sends representatives to speak on his behalf. The centurion sends the Jewish elders to seek Jesus’ healing for his servant, because of what “he heard about Jesus”. It is God’s authority heard to be active in Jesus, that is so attractive.

Much as there is a building involved in both these stories, the Temple made by Solomon, and the synagogue funded by the centurion, it is not the buildings that attract the faith of those outside of these places of worship, it is what they have heard of God. It is God’s name, “his mighty hand and outstretched arm”, and God revealed in the person of Jesus, that in words of our Psalm this morning have the authority to “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.” (Psalm 96:3)

Solomon after all, despite, or almost because of his Temple building exploits, was about to prove that unfaithfulness destroys the people of God, rather than attract people to faith. Solomon suggests that the Temple honours the covenant that brought the people of Israel to the Promised Land, and the promises that brought about his kingship. But he’d built it not in partnership with his fellow Israelites, but with Israel’s indentured labour and foreign craftsmanship and materials.

If you read on through 1 Kings, Solomon will also show his lack of understanding regarding his responsibility to the land God has covenanted to Israel, through his sale of twenty cities as a gratuity to the timber suppliers. The intention was that the name of God prayed over the Temple should highlight God’s presence, making it a listening post and sounding board for God. Instead, the list of Solomon’s prayers surrounding this mornings passage, makes it seem that he’s put God in a box, like some performing animal, required to do tricks on cue!

The centurion on the other hand, was a seeker whose synagogue honoured what St. Paul would later describe as his “unknown god” (Acts 17:23), and which celebrated the faith of a conquered people. He had built a relationship with the Jewish community that led him to hear about Jesus. All this had brought him to a point where he could proclaim with humility the healing purposes of God revealed in Christ in a way many Jews couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge. Unlike Solomon’s shopping list to God, the faith of the centurion had integrity.

So, when we build a house of God, it isn’t really the building, however formal or ornate we make it, that proclaims the authority of God to those who may contribute to, or see it from a distance. Rather it is the integrity with which we show ourselves to be “living stones, being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5) that proclaims the authority of Christ “as the chief cornerstone in whom the building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:20-21).

Today, it is probably better to think about the “foreigner” as the “stranger in our midst”. Though it might not fit his spirituality, there is the famous quote of W.B.Yeats that “There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet”, which holds within it a note of God’s mission to the world, in which we are called to collaborate by reaching out to the stranger and the stranger’s need, in a way which names our faith.

Though I don’t subscribe to the doom-merchants of church statistics who proclaim the decline of faith in God, it is very easy to slip into the habit when thinking about mission, of measuring its success by the statistics of bums on seats! Solomon’s prayer, for all its faults, asks the question of our modern context: do we expect too much by wanting the strangers who know the name and acknowledge the authority of God, to enter the churches we’ve constructed to make his name visible in our communities?

Although it is right to celebrate and proclaim his name in worship and fellowship within God’s house, we know God’s authority and commission stretches beyond the walls of our churches. I believe that the success of such projects as Street Pastors is because they are done in God’s name, by his power, and that his name used wisely still has an authority that people trust.

Then again, Luke’s account of the centurion’s humble faith, begs the question: who are the representative voices of our communities, and what are the stories of distress and pain that they are trying to share with us? Our communities are often transient and encountered only briefly in their births, deaths and marriages. At the same time it seems that even if the passing strangers of our car parks and alley ways are daily visitors, there is no means to share their pleasures or understand their pain without translating their graffiti or picking up the broken glass of their lives. Who are their spokespeople, and what are their concerns? Does their individualism isolate us from attending to God’s mission?

When I read this morning’s Gospel, I am left wondering about the Jewish elders who spoke up for the centurion who built their synagogue. They honoured the giver, the stranger in their own land, by leading Jesus toward him. They heard the testimony of his friends who met them on the road, proclaiming the centurion’s faith that God was at work in Jesus Christ. I wonder if, when they returned together with his friends to the centurion’s home, they too believed?

Throughout the week, whilst working through these passages, I’ve been reminded of an old nursery rhyme and cumulative tale, about the house that Jack built. You may recall it from your childhood, as I do from mine. It doesn’t tell the story of Jack’s house, or even of Jack who built the house, but instead shows how the house is indirectly linked to other things and people, and through this method tells the story of “The man all tattered and torn”, and the “Maiden all forlorn”, as well as other smaller events, showing how these are interlinked.

As we worship in and quite rightly celebrate this house of God a gift of promise to the people of Basingstoke, we remember today Solomon and the centurion who each built houses for God, and for his people. But perhaps we too need to remember that unless we engage with people outside of the building in the name of Jesus, then we aren’t really engaged in the mission of God that makes us the living stones of the Kingdom, to which Jesus Christ brought healing:

If, this is the house that God built,
then these are the chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here are the streets that carry the strangers,
who mutter in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t see these chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here are stories of God in action,
that name the faith which proclaims and heals,
hid from the streets that carry the strangers,
who mutter in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t see these chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here’s the hope of the people of God,
who only return to restore their strength,
with some of their stories of God in action,
that name the faith that proclaims and heals,
out in the streets among the strangers,
who’d muttered in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t need the chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
who are the house that God built.