A Pagan-Christian dialogue about Halloween and All Souls

Just as Christian's are trying in places to shine light into and build relationships with Muslims, should Christian's not also be seeking a more accurate understanding of the Pagan faith?
Just as Christian’s are trying in places to shine light into and build relationships with Muslims, should Christian’s not also be seeking a more accurate understanding of the Pagan faith?

Last week a pagan friend sent me this from ACT Assoc of Christian Teachers – ABP3 Halloween2_May 2010_ , and asked a simple question: what do I make of it?

Jane, my pagan friend, only made one introductory comment to me, and that was that the comments on modern pagans ‘stuck in her craw’. Frankly, I’m not surprised.

Whilst neither of us have an issue with the historic background detailed in this paper, the associations made between pagans and illegal, violent acts on page 2 (paragraph c) is a miss-representation of the truth, and in my view falls into the category if ‘dangerous sweeping generalisation’. A more accurate generalisation would I think be to say that most pagans are no more or less likely to harm you physically or psychologically than any other person, Christian, agnostic or atheist. There are however a few, including a ex-witch I once knew and all sorts of others totally unconnected with the occult, who have done some pretty grim things to other people. In the churches I’ve been in over the years I have witnessed mind-less vandalism and terror visited upon people by those who called themselves pagan – yet I know that in real pagan understanding, that which you wish on others is believed to come back to you three-fold, so their behaviour wasn’t authentic to their beliefs! As Jane put it to me; ‘pagans are people, no more good or bad than any other people, and like Christians, we have to strive to be the best people we can be.’

What as a trainee minister worries me still further, is that the document goes on to in my view mis-represent, ‘Diocesan exorcists’. I’m no expert, but my understanding is that places do have memories and histories that can freak people out (battles, burial grounds, the previous occupants of homes, all sorts), and people can find that their past practices, or the past practices of their close family, can have a disturbing effect on their psychology and/or Christian faith. Yes, most diocese have at least one minister who can be called on to help and advise on such issues, who has a range of skills in what I think they would prefer was known as a ‘deliverance ministry’, plus where possible including in medical psychotherapy. This is not a ‘renewed belief in the the reality of demons’, it is a ministry of specifically Christian healing that involves discernment of the real issues, recognition of a variety of medical, generational and other phenomenon, and often a journey through repentance for a person, and or release for a place. That smattering of understanding I got from college day last year with Revd Dr Russ Parker of the Acorn Christian Healing Foundation, and with the book which touches on related matters called ‘Healing Death’s Wounds’ which he wrote with Michael Mitton and he led me to believe he’s hoping to revise. The situations he spoke of were incredibly varied, and often without ‘evil’ at their root.

I was intrigued to discover from my friend, that pagans recognise the end of October as a spiritually thin point in the year, where ‘the borders between the living and the dead are at their thinnest’ and ‘messages of love and remembrance for those we have lost are more powerful.’ So as Christian’s celebrate All Souls with services of Remembrance and Thanksgiving, pagans too use the time to remember their loved ones, especially those they have lost in the previous year. This is why one church I know was able to come together last year with a local study centre to celebrate ‘Life and Lives Lived’.

I also discovered in our conversation that pagan’s have a need for exorcism too, something she herself has been involved with, and I wonder what the spiritual background to such situations are? She suggests that this is a ‘cosmic cleaning job, [where she thinks a] dustpan and brush would be more useful than bell book and candle’!

Halloween is a tricky one to know how to handle as a Christian/Church. Churches often have light-parties, which have many of the fun and games, and simply avoid the undertone of evil that some feel pervades much halloween imagery. But, is this creating fear where their need be none, avoidance where education and understanding should stand in it’s place?

Other churches I’ve heard of have hosted a fellowship evening for those who live alone and/or fear the trick-or-treat visits. In the past I’ve made a Christian cross in a pumpkin & taken it to a men’s prison to preach about All Souls, and when my son was little, we handed out candle’s with a message about Jesus on the holder at my doorstep when the trick-or-treaters came. Most trick-or-treaters I suspect have a much understanding of the imagery behind modern-halloween, as they do of the imagery behind the nativity at Christmas, and it is just that, imagery. Of itself, I’m not convinced it does any harm, just like a nativity scene does no good, unless you’re willing to accept the message behind it.

I agree with Jane’s view that ‘no one should be forced to celebrate what they don’t agree with’ and indeed she doesn’t agree with the modern Halloween either. But her greatest concern is one which I think as Christian’s we also need to connect with. She wrote to me that this style of mis-representation can cause the

children of pagan parents to be demonised and vilified in schools. In fact it seems to be encouraging teachers to tell them they are wrong. There have been cases where primary school children have come home in tears because their teacher has told them their parents are going to hell. It isn’t right IMO to scare children in your care because you disagree with their parents faith and you get the feeling its regarded as OK if their pagan whereas it would not be OK if they were Muslim.

However strong their belief that Christ is the light who has, and continues to, break the power of evil in the world, should Christian’s really be mis-representing those of another faith to the extent that children fear for their parents eternal well-being, and causing the sort of psychological damage that ACT are accusing pagans of in the document that started this conversation?

Personally I don’t think so. I think as Christian’s we need to do better at educating ourselves about what pagan’s really do and believe, and understand that they too have a healthy regard both for the need to remember loved ones who gone before them, and the fact that people and places have histories that can linger into the future and need spiritual healing. The focus of that healing I’m sure differs, but as Christian’s lets not bring fear into the lives of others ourselves where there need be none.

As I called to mind – All Souls

I have to say that preparing my talk for this afternoon’s All Soul’s service was one of the harder things I have had to do so far in ministry. I am indebted to Rosalind both for her comments on my last post, and also the guidance she gave me by email.

Reflecting now on my struggles, I suspect that it was for two main reasons:

  • It felt right to make use of my own emotions at a point of bereavement in my life, and I knew I wanted to focus on the image of feet (my mother’s and Christ’s) – but part of my difficulty was to see a moment in my life that I have until now tended to regard as negative, almost repulsive, in a positive light that would be something that might help others. The result I think is that it has helped me to love my mother more.
  • I was uncertain as to what I understood, or wanted to say theologically speaking. I’m still really not sure what I have said, but I wanted to be sure not only to provide people who have been bereaved with some comfort in the memories heightened by such a service. Knowing that several of them do not have regular contact with church, I also wanted to offer some affirmation that through Jesus the power of death has been broken, and we can hope in a future of love with God and with those who we have lost.

I used readings from Lamentations 3 and 1 Thessalonians 4. The Lamentations reading, is one of comfort that gave me phrases I could hook my talk onto. However, in retrospect I’m not sure the latter was the right reading to chose, but I haven’t yet worked out what I might use on a future occasion.

If you want to read what I finally said it’s here: Service Thanksgiving – Remembering (All Souls 2010) Talk Feel free to comment below if you can spare the time – and remember I will learn most from constructive criticism!

If you want to read a story that someone else used, here is one that Revd Lesley posted this evening, that raised a lump to my throat.

The service also included a poem I found in a book at my father’s. ‘A Psalm of Hope in Bereavement’ written by Jenny Gateau in “Mike’s Story – a Journey of Grief and Grace” published in 1997 by SPCK. In an effort to stick to copyright rules, I’ve not printed it here but I thoroughly recommend both the book and the poem.

Random facts: my mother was called Lesley. Though never wishing to be ordained herself, she was a member of the Movement for the Ordination for Women, travelled to Ripon in 1994 for the first service (I think) where women were ordained to the priesthood, and studied Pastoral Theology at a Catholic theology institute. She died in 1997 before completing those studies.

Struggling with theology – preparing for All Souls

I’ve hit one of those moments when as a fairly rooky Lay Minister not having a Vicar leaves me with less options of who to ask tricky questions of. So, for any of you theological or ‘vicar types’ out there, if you could bless me with a few moments of wisdom I’d appreciate it:

Since I’ve been involved with a few funerals recently, I’m leading and giving a short talk at our All Souls service on Sunday afternoon (31st October) to which we have invited all those we know who have been bereaved and/or for whom ministers in the parish have led funeral services.

I don’t have a theological problem with this at all and I know that pastorally it is very helpful (having been on the receiving end elsewhere in other times). We’re using a format of service used locally for a few years, and haven’t changed much as a Vacancy is not a time to fiddling with stuff un-necessarily.

I was left to chose readings (Biblical) and a (non-Scriptural) reflection and to write a short talk. I felt the service wanted to have elements of comfort and hope within it, and offer the specifically Christian hope that we would like to think that all people who approach a church for a funeral might believe in. I chose Lamentations 3:17-26 and 31-33 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-end from the options that presented themselves through Common Worship Pastoral Services and our diocesan training course.

I’ve got some ideas about how to say something that a few might find helpful, and as I’ve worked on the whole thing, I’ve also developed some ideas on liturgy I might use another year should I be asked to do this again. But I’ve sort of hit a conundrum and I don’t even know if it’s a problem.

I would naturally agree with Michael Perham (‘Handbook of Pastoral Liturgy’) when he says

All the Christian dead are with the Lord and all of us with them are bound together in one communion and fellowship.

These ‘Christian dead’ are the ‘dead in Christ’ of 1 Thess 4 v16, yes? They are in the words of funeral prayers I’ve used recently those for whom

Lord of all, we praise you
for all who have entered into their rest
and reached the promised land where you are seen face to face…

We also read in 1 Thess 4:14 that God will ‘bring with Jesus those who have fallen sleep with him’

But we’ve also prayed at many funerals something along the lines of

Above all, we rejoice at your gracious promise
to all your servants, living and departed,
that we shall rise again at the coming of Christ.

Is this one of those Biblical paradox things that I should understand as ‘both – and’, and therefore that our dear departed are both with Christ already, and also to be raised from the dead to be with Christ at his second coming? Or have I missed something obvious? Or am I worrying un-necessarily?