The Episcopal Way of Death

I shall spend a considerable part of my work today thinking about how to help the congregation here to face death. Face their own deaths and face the reality of the deaths of those they have known through the years – the reality of those whom they have loved with a passion and the reality of the deaths of those whom they have not loved too.

Death is simple. It shows us the complexity of life.

As today is All Souls’ Day, we’ll be having our annual requiem. This is a service at which we remember by name those who have died. The intercessions consist of remembering the names and praying, “Rest in peace”.

It is not the case, I think that most people come to this service thinking that they can somehow by praying for the dead in this way liberate them from hell or punishment or limbo though given the changing history of Christian attitudes to death it is possible that some will come for that reason. For most people, it is more that we pray that our memories of them might be allowed to be at peace – that the ways we think of them might not prevent us from living. In remembering that the dead are safe with God, we pray that all that they were might be at peace in the memory of them that remains as part of our grief here on earth.

Tonight’s service is intense. It is supposed to be. But it is pastoral too – it allows us to let the dead be dead and can allow griefs to be eased. We remember with intensity for a moment so that we can let go of that intensity and live again.

The annual requiem which many of our churches keep is but a part of the Episcopal Way of Death.

The requiem is always a communion service. It always feels to me as though heaven and earth draw close at this service. As we remember those who have died, we eat and drink the bread and wine united in some way with them as they share whatever it is that the joys of heaven are. I know nothing about the joys of heaven, but I never conduct a funeral without feeling that the person who has died is now with God.

The funeral service that we have in our church is very simple. You can find it online here: – http://www.scotland.anglican.org/who-we-are/publications/liturgies/revised-funeral-rites-1987/.

There are many important things about our funeral service, but perhaps the most important is to quote from the introduction: “Such words as are printed here are no substitute for the pastor’s own use of sensitivity and imagination.”

The service begins not in church but with prayers to use with relatives at the time they are bereaved. There are prayers for the closing of the coffin and for a time when a coffin leaves the house and begins the journey to church.

It seems to me that these prayers are not used that much these days. Even in 1987 when the funeral rite was written it was more common for a coffin to be kept at home before being brought to church. Now everything seems to point towards the coffin being kept at the premises of the “funeral director” and I’m not 100% sure that’s a good thing.

There are a number of lovely things about the Episcopal Way of Death and chief amongst them is bringing the coffin to church to rest overnight before a funeral. It isn’t always possible but it is a lovely thing when it happens. Our prayer is largely the prayer of silence but this simple ritual allows those most bereaved to see the coffin and think about what might take place on the next day. Generally I find that people say that the coffin coming to church the night before makes the funeral much easier somehow.

Simple words and silence uphold us.

Father,
give peace to your servant.
whose body now rests in this place:
May the prayers of your whole Church uphold him/her
and support us in face of death’s mystery;
may the stillness of this house enter into us,
and our silence be the token of our trust. Amen.

After a time of silent prayer, the evening collect is said:

Lighten our darkness. Lord, we pray,
and in your mercy defend us
from all perils and dangers of this night;
for the love of your only Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Episcopal Way of Death is under threat at the moment from those who seem to want to make death smaller and forgettable. In particular it is under threat from undertakers who seem to think that they know best.

Get a few clergy together and get them talking about death and it will not be long before someone says, “Oh, I had a funeral recently where they wanted to take the body and cremate it first and then have a ‘celebration’ in the afternoon”. This seems to be becoming more and more popular and most clergy I know hate it.

We hate it because it has all the symbolism of getting rid of a body so that you can get on with celebrating. And although that isn’t at the forefront of people’s mind, this is an area where symbols matter. Matter hugely.

The Episcopal Way of Death is a journey with the person who has died. We take the body somewhere. We accompany someone though something. The symbols of a Christian funeral have been forged in the crucible of grief and pain by way of doing something that is helpful.

The idea that a funeral with a coffin present cannot be celebratory is nonsense too. When I think back to notable funerals, I find myself thinking of funerals with hearty singing. When I go I want them to sing Easter hymns in the same manner they sing them on Easter Day. Loud Easter hymns are the perfect response to death. I find myself thinking of funeral addresses that have been funny, celebratory, sad, profound and heart aching all in one. I remember one slightly bawdy one from a great preacher that made me laugh and cry in equal measure. The tears and the laughter are all part of the journey.

People do themselves out of a lot of good if they try to have a funeral without the body present. And anyway, it isn’t the Episcopal Way of Death – any priest is entitled to say, “Well if you want that kind of secular service, who is going to conduct it and where will it be? Our liturgies don’t provide for that kind of thing, and for good reason.”

A funeral is a journey. It is a pilgrimage. It is a pathway. And it is supposed to help.

If the people gather without a body, they will miss hearing things that can comfort.

Go forth upon your journey from this world,
dear child of God,
into the hands of the Father who made you,
to find life in Christ who redeemed you,
to rejoice in the Spirit who renews you.
May the heavenly host sustain you
and the company of the redeemed enfold you;
may peace be yours this day,
and the heavenly city your home. Amen

Note, those who undertake to do things for those who are bereaved are Undertakers. Funeral Director implies a profession which tells people what to do and is not in my view a helpful designation.

If someone is a communicant in the church, there is nothing more fitting than to have a Eucharist for the funeral. People sometimes worry that there will be those there who don’t approve or who do not feel involved. I’ve never heard this from those present – indeed, I’ve heard very often an expression of admiration for a liturgy that connects with the faith that the person had in life.

I remember once celebrating the Eucharist with the family when they brought the body to church the night before and that was a lovely thing and appropriate for them. But a full requiem with the coffin present can be incredible, life affirming and life changing.

Which brings us back to the service tonight. It is a requiem for those who have people they need to be prayed for. It is a requiem for those who have no-one else to pray for them. It is a requiem for the forgotten as much as for the remembered. It is a requiem about ourselves – there’s no getting away from the fact that when I’m preparing it, I’m thinking about how I will die and how I hope someone will pray for me. And it is a requiem about life as much as about death.

It is open to everyone and I often find myself urging those who have joined the congregation from other traditions to come and simply be there with whatever memories and griefs they have.

Death can be cruel. Grief is agony. But let it not overwhelm us. Beauty and love are good for all that hurt us.

O Lord, support us all the day long
of this troublous life,
until the shades lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, Lord, in your mercy
grant us safe lodging,
a holy rest,
and peace at the last;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Love means Love

Members of the Scottish Episcopal Church voted earlier this year to allow the marriage of same-sex couples to be able to be conducted by those clergy who wish to conduct them. We voted on that after years of discussion. It was passed by the 2/3rds majority in the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy (just!) and the House of Laity (over 80% in favour). The bar to getting this vote through was set so high a few years ago that it seemed impossible to achieve to those who were wanting to nudge the church towards change. However, we carried on, because we believed that love means love. We believed, informed by the bible, by our own experience of God and by our contact with ecumenical and other Anglican friends from across the world, that the love that same-sex partners share has as much potential for the sacramental as the love the opposite-sex couples has.

We voted knowing that there might be consequences to this in our relationship with the Anglican Communion, which we once helped to found. Our beloved friends in the US-based Episcopal Church were told in 2016 by the Anglican Primates that the Archbishop of Canterbury would, for three years, bar them from representing the Communion in ecumenical conversations and that they would be excluded from certain discussions about doctrine. It is important to note that the Primates themselves have no power to do anything other than listen to one another. It is the Archbishop who determines whom he will invite to take part in some discussions and the Primates asked the Archbishop to refrain from including American Episcopalians and he has, to some extent at least done so. Remember that these are the Archbishop’s Sanctions that the Primates have suggested not the other way round – that’s important. They are imposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury personally and by his authority. We do not have an international magesterium in Anglicanism. The Primates have no authority to impose anything.

Being sanctioned in this way is a bitter pill to swallow – not because of the sanctions themselves – they probably affected a dozen US Episcopalians out of a church of hundreds of thousands. Bitter because it has the whiff of pettiness about it and of being branded as being slightly naughty by the Anglican Primates – the gathering of senior bishops from across the Communion. The sanctions are more symbolic than real. They have no teeth and everyone involved knows this far better than the media who persist in rather lurid headlines about punishment and even banishment. None of this is real. I’ve struggled to think of even half a dozen people in Scotland who might (and only might) be affected. For these tiny few, there is the frustration of being barred from something for which they have a passion and for which they have worked. We must bear witness that collective punishment is the ugliest form of bullying and that the Primates are wrong, quite wrong, even to impose a symbolic sanction for what we have done. For the rest of the church, the sanctions will have no effect whatsoever other than getting us a bit of welcome profile as an affirming and inclusive church in the media, and life will go on precisely as it did before.

It fell to our new Primus, the Most Rev Mark Strange to articulate where the Scottish Episcopal Church is right now and he did so brilliantly.

In June the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church voted to change its Canon on Marriage.  This decision was ours to take as a self-governing province of the Anglican Communion.

However, I recognise that this decision is one that has caused some hurt and anger in parts of the Anglican Communion and that the decision taken at the last Primates’ Meeting, which was to exclude our brothers and sisters in The Episcopal Church from debate on Doctrine and from Chairing Anglican Communion Committees, is a decision that now also pertains to us. We will continue to play our part in the Anglican Communion we helped to establish, and I will do all I can to rebuild relationships, but that will be done from the position our Church has now reached in accordance with its synodical processes and in the belief that Love means Love.

This has clearly gone down very well with very many in Scotland. Remember, there were big majorities for what we decided and Mark is much loved and much prayed for by Scottish Episcopalians at the moment.

It is perhaps worth thinking about what it means though.

When I think of the phrase, “Love means Love” it takes me right back to the time when I started to bless same-sex couples who were entering Civil Partnerships. I remember them trying to devise ceremonies that reflected who they were and what they were saying to one another. They would say, “Of course it isn’t a marriage” and then when I asked them what they wanted they said, “Oh, we want to make vows to one another in front of our family and friends and exchange rings and have a blessing”. And I remember realising, perhaps even before some of the couples whom I was blessing realised, that what was going on was an altogether ancient archetype that I knew only too well. Whatever the law might have said at the time, what was clear to me was that they were married in the eyes of God and married in the eyes of their families and friends. In their ceremonies they were enacting the simple truth – Love means Love. It isn’t partial or biased or owned by anyone. Love is something that we can know by its absence and something that can overwhelm us by its presence. And as I conducted those ceremonies I was often overwhelmed by the love given and received right in front of my eyes. I learned that Love means Love from people who were bravely loving when there seemed to be no route map for their journey. The fact that they have ended up arriving at the same destination as couples who have been marrying for millennia still has an element of surprise about it. It is as though the full expression of Love was hidden for so long – occluded by law, prejudice, convention and expectation. Yet somehow, encouraged by activism, boldness, conviction and wanton cheek, that Love has managed to dawn in a new way upon this particular time in humanity’s story. And the warmth of love’s blessing is holy and powerful and true.

Now, the truth is, no amount of purple prose and joy-filled tears of those of us who worked for this can change the fact that some are upset about this. As I sing the glory of Love meaning Love, I have to remember that some people within the Scottish Episcopal Church are probably having to love me through gritted teeth right now. Their generosity and love is costly and kind and that particular Love means Love too in a very real sense at the moment.

I think that +Mark made it clear to the Anglican Primates that this matter is settled in this part of God’s church. We respect the consciences of all and increasingly I am sure that this will be seen within Anglicanism as the way in which this issue can be managed internationally. We bear witness that we have an answer to the troubles of the communion which we have wrestled fought and prayed for. Don’t be surprised when we seek to bear witness to what God has done for us. It is what Christians do.

I recently presided over one of the first marriages of a same-sex couple in the Scottish Episcopal Church. It suddenly occurred to me during the service that though the rest of the Anglican Communion will believe that we have just started doing gay marriages, in fact, we have just stopped doing them. For Love is Love, and marriage is marriage. We don’t gay marry people, we just opened marriage to all couples. And God is blessing them and God is blessing us as we do so.

Our message to the Communion is a familiar one – “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”

And yes, the Love that we know have known through the ages, just means Love.