Funerals and liturgy as God’s basket for people’s grief

I’m not sorry that funerals are becoming a rather large part of the focus of this blog, because it reflects one of the main elements of my workload at present, and the privilege I feel at being asked to do them as a representative of the local church. So I thought I’d do a bit of ‘reflective practitioner’ stuff that’s been brewing for weeks.

Until last autumn we didn’t have many funerals. There are some historic reasons for this, including poor management at the local undertakers (now thankfully changed and much, much better), and an incumbent with too much to do. Until last year, he had no Readers/LLMs to help develop the ministry he recognised as being important to our role as a parish church, but felt powerless to support it single-handed on top of all the other things he was meant to be doing. (He may well read this blog, so he can correct me if I’m wrong.)

Together with one of my fellow Readers we were planning to develop this ministry, when our vicar left for pastures new. It seemed right to carry on our plans for development anyway with the support of local deanery clergy, and then we had the sudden focus of that Royal Marine funeral I keep banging on about. It has had a huge impact on my ministry, but it also raised the awareness of both our fellowship and the wider community to this important part of parish ministry in the CofE.

Since Christmas the two of us committed to taking funerals have been kept surprisingly busy, both with funerals for members of the congregation, and with the funerals of those who want a Christian Minister to take the service (whether in church or crematoria). It has also become the focus of various people’s blog posts (at least Clayboy here and here, and Always Hope here) and some of my reading.

Reaching out with the Christian gospel should be key to our Christian lives, individually and corporately. Alongside taking funerals, I’m also involved in baptism preparation, and I would say that from what I have seen so far, people attending a funeral are far more likely to engage with the Christian nature of the service (wherever it is) than they are as guests at a baptism. I believe it is the elements of ‘need’, and perhaps ‘confusion’ as well as raw emotion which are present at a funeral, that makes this the case.

Families being visited before a funeral are more likely to accept, and be relatively comfortable with being prayed with and for, than they are at a baptism preparation visit.

However, my current practice is not to ‘preach the gospel’ extensively at a funeral. The deanery clergyman that trained me suggested it wasn’t appropriate, and I happen to agree; but that doesn’t mean that the gospel and the love of the Lord Jesus for the bereaved is not shared during the service.

Whatever the deceased’s understanding of God (through the eyes of their relatives) I’m trying to do two things when I create a funeral service:

  • I try to find some connecting point between the life of the deceased, the values they seemed to emphasise by what they did during their life, and the example of Jesus in the Bible. For example, those for whom family life was a high priority gives me the chance to emphasise Jesus’ love for all; if the deceased made many sacrifices for others, or gave a lot of time to help other people, then that too is a relatively easy link to the example and teaching’s of Jesus. This usually happens in a couple of sentences towards the end of whatever sermon/eulogy/thoughts I’m able to give.
  • I take the time to work through the options in Common Worship and select and adapt the prayers to reflect the person, the degree of loss the family feel, and the circumstances of the death, within the wider gospel message – it’s like the liturgy is the basket that holds the grief of those present, a basket that is held by God.

I have discovered that putting together and taking a funeral service, is probably the most creative act in worship terms that I am able to do as a minister that is solely down to me (and God of course). The process of doing it provides me with some of the times in a week when I am closest to God.

All this takes time. At present I reckon, that including visiting the bereaved, the admin and conversation with the undertakers, perhaps conversation with parishioners who knew the deceased, and interestingly sometimes the florist (ours are members of the church and I find pick up on bits about a family that I might miss at a visit), each funeral takes out a whole day of my life, before I actually take the service. No wonder over-stretched clergy with no other ministerial support are not able to make more of such needs and opportunities!

However, I believe it’s vital time, well spent! If you’re an minister with experience of taking funerals, how do you approach the process of taking the Gospel into people’s place of grief?

Turning corners

Talking about things helps, especially when there’s such an encouraging bunch of you reading this drivel I churn out.

I’m not totally sure if it was meant for me, but this felt like it, for starters. As you’ve said Andy, there is a ministry in blogging, and you’ve just exercised it!

The process of responding to your messages off-blog has actually been really helpful – considering the validity of your points against what I’m thinking, has helped start to put things in perspective a bit, a bit like turning corners on a road and revealing new views, among the same scenery.

One of my real senses I mentioned yesterday is that I don’t love enough to minister – I’ve been reading various things for the Mission Module, and two of them (Bosch and also Singlehursts ‘Sowing, Reaping, Keeping’) have talked about mission and ministry being an overflowing of love towards people. I don’t think I do, at least not enough.

Added to this is a sense that my conversation with God is very God orientated, I’ve never had a big thing about Jesus, which might sound daft, when I know what he did, and why he did it was for me, and for everyone. My conversation however is with God, through the Holy Spirit, and Jesus doesn’t necessarily feature in that though he is the supreme example of that love stuff I was just talking about. This is however making all the stuff about Mission that we’re doing, which in my mind at least is very Jesus centred, a bit tricky.

Then there’s the whole ministry thing being about ‘taking up your cross’ – very Jesus-centric. I suppose yes that’s what I’m doing, though I’m not sure exactly what that cross is at present – just the shear doing of ministry stuff I suppose, especially when with big L-plates, I don’t feel that comfortable doing any of it. If ministry is to bring me Life with God in Jesus in a new way, I know it won’t be dull. Usually I don’t want a dull life – even if it seems attractive right now, but that’s probably just the physical tiredness talking.

Lay ministry does feel right, at least in the sense I know that I’m just not ready for the other step that others have suggested to me over the years. If I can get this hung up over Licensing, perhaps God knew that was all I could cope with at this stage in my life, and even if it feels a bit tough at present it means he’s actually being quite gentle with me.

One person contacted me off-comment and suggested that
a) God had helped her through my online ramblings in the past which was quite startling (interesting since although we have a mutual real friend who isn’t a Christian, she is, but we’ve never met)
b) that this could well be the devil trying to stop God’s work: “The devil really won’t want someone like you to be put into ministry – it really won’t be good news for him. He knows that God has got a tight hold on you so the only way he can try to influence you is via doubt.”

This rings true with various things that have happened in the past – G spent a week in hospital when he shouldn’t have needed to, just after we’d agreed to start an All Age ministry here at St Ps 10 years ago, but before we actually got it going. So perhaps time to kick the devil’s work out then?

I’ve been asked for an image or quality that I would like to be prayed for… and yes, LOVE would be a big thing, love of Jesus, and love of others, real love for people especially if they’re ‘not my type’, not just the social justice sort of love that means Micah 6:8 drops off the tongue easily. From that I guess the joy and enthusiasm, as well as the insight might all come as side benefits, along with some I don’t anticipate if God acts true to his usual self!

A 36 hour days would help as well, but perhaps praying for the ability to balance life better might be more realistic – so a 12 hour day then!

Tonights baptism-prep visit went a little better I think, but then they seemed a little interested in starting a journey of faith with the little step of a child’s baptism. Please God they are authentic to their words.

Baptism – engaging people in a journey

Baptism preparation is going to be among my parish ministry roles as a Lay Minister. I’ll be making the second of 3 visits made in my parish to parents and children prior to agreeing a baptism date.baptismstrichardsterling

I’m hoping that alongside sharing my faith and encouraging others to develop theirs, it will provide a chance to talk to young families in the community and tie my Mothers’ Union interests in with parish life. I’m also realising it’s the beginnings of grappling with the parochial responsibilities that many ministers, usually clergy, have to decide how they are going to handle.

Some of the issues surrounding infant baptism have been highlighted in the Church Times over the last couple of weeks. Revd Robert Reiss of Westminster Abbey (whilst commenting on the role of the Church of England as the established church being one of responsibility rather than privilege) stated (17 April) that

“the rights ordinary people have to their parish church… [include]… If parents want their child’s birth to be marked by baptism, then most clergy will readily do so, even though, wrongly, some may try to impose conditions, contrary to canon law.”

This week Ian Robins in a letter of response comments:

“How can it be wrong to respect the integrity of the participating adults who are being required to commit themselves to the Christian faith and to involvement in the Body of Christ?

To “turn to Christ” must mean something.”

Yesterday I shadowed our curate doing a second visit. We showed the CPAS DVD First Steps, discussed the wording of the baptism service, talked about various activities at church for young families and the choices to be made regarding Godparents. During this and in discussion afterwards several things became obvious

  • as ministers we want to make the most of the opportunity to proclaim the Christian message, show our faith as being relevant and our community as being supportive and fun to be involved in
  • parents (often dominantly the mother) aren’t often that worried about what they are saying, it’s more a case of ‘doing the right thing’ or an excuse for a party – perhaps that is a comment on how people generally have a poor regard for the integrity of what they are saying
  • as ministers we want people to understand the seriousness of what they are doing and saying on behalf of their children – and to encourage them to turn to Christ seriously
  • it’s almost more about reaching the adults involved than the children being baptised!

I will be a lay person, and a fellow Mum, making a visit between two visits by clergy. I may therefore have revealed to me more clearly people’s real reasons for bringing their children for baptism (they won’t be saying the ‘right thing’ for the vicar), and be viewed as more approachable with their real concerns… I wonder if this will prove true?

So as someone new to this role, how do I strike a balance that will overcome parents lack of engagement with what they will be saying during a baptism service, whilst not being so prescriptive as to put them off from taking a small step in what many would say was a belief in God?

I think the answer has something to do with God’s Grace – do I do my best to show them that God really loves them for this little step they are taking, and then leave it to him?

Update: (thought of this on the way to bed after posting last night)

The curate said to me afterwards that they prayed silently during the baptism visit. What would be the impact of closing the visit with a short verbal (in simple English) prayer for and with the family? Would it frighten them off, give them an example of what we think prayer is and how to do it, what?