Posted by Richard Rawlinson
Cherishing freedom of speech we often quote the line, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. So democrats proselytise in order to influence others, and sometimes those influenced leave one tribe and join another. A far cry from relativism, the message is, choice is good, but don’t choose them when you can choose us.
Funeralworld is no exception, and no more so than in matters of faith. To illustrate the point, let’s fisk the views of an Anglican priest who embraces the clarity of set liturgy over the burden of unfettered individualism. Fisking in red.
Father Edward Tomlinson writes:
‘In the last few years it has become painfully obvious that many families I have conducted funerals for have absolutely no desire for any Christian content whatsoever’.
Yes, it’s clear many folk book the funeral services of C of E priests without any real enthusiasm for religious significance.
‘I have stood at the crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner, summed up in pithy platitudes of sentimental and secular poets and sent into the furnace with ‘I Did It My Way’ blaring out across the speakers. To be brutally honest I can think of 100 better ways of spending my time as a priest on God’s earth’.
If you were saying noone should ever choose Sinatra, I’d call you a snob and busybody. As you’re saying, ‘why Sinatra and me, a priest?’, I sympathise. So what are you going to do about it? You could perhaps create a sensitive compromise that gently allows God’s presence to resonate: for example, people who haven’t been to a service in years might value their choice of, say, the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love being linked to the words from 1 Timothy that ‘we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out.’ Granted, you might be scratching your head to find such a link with some secular songs. ‘My Way’? If this smacks of fudge, your other option is to decline bookings unless they request pure liturgy.
‘Today the norm is to place the liturgy in the hands of a humanist provider or ancient crumbling cleric who will do as told, in short those who will not trouble undertakers with unavailability’.
The norm is not to place the liturgy in secular hands, although civil celebrants are indeed increasingly chosen for non-liturgical services. However, you’re right that undertakers have retired priests on speed dial due to their availability. But you did say working priests were quite busy enough doing priestly things without sitting through Tina Turner at the crem. Also, it’s uncharitable to refer to old people as ‘crumblies’. ‘Wrinklies’ is more acceptable.
‘I am troubled that pastoral care is being left in the hands of those whose main aim is to make money. And I am further concerned that an opportunity for evangelism is slipping through our fingers’.
It’s wrong to assume civil celebrants and retired priests are just in it for the money. Secondly, while it’s our duty to bear witness, evangelising of a finger-wagging nature is likely to score an own goal at a funeral where mourners have not specifically requested Christian liturgy. I return to the two C of E options: decline the booking or accept it, limiting evangelism to taking the secular elements and gently and resourcefully relating them to God’s universal truths.
‘It is my passionate belief that a requiem mass and the Christian prayers of ‘commendation and committal’ are not mere aesthetic choices in a market place of funeral options. Rather something real and significant is happening, on earth and in heaven, when these take place. Because I am a priest, I want to point the way to Jesus Christ. Naturally there will be those who disagree with my beliefs, I think they should have the right to exercise this choice, even if I think they’s misguided. But if this is your position, why invite me to the party?’
I agree Christian funeral liturgy is profound and sacred, and we both hold it can’t be imposed involuntarily on those who don’t share the faith, whether atheists, Jews, Muslims or Hindus. If you don’t feel you can point the way to Christ within the context of a funeral with secular elements, there’s no alternative but to opt out.
Your frustration is no doubt caused by genuine concern that people are missing out by choosing ‘Simply the Best’ on a sound system over prayers of commendation and committal. Perhaps your exasperation is heightened as you believe more people would share your view if they truly thought about what they wanted from a funeral. Some Christian-lites might, but decided atheists would not. The purpose of a funeral is in the eye of the beholder. That’s not relativism as we can still hold firm views for ourselves.
Footnote 1: I deliberately didn’t fully identify the priest until now as there’s a twist in this tale. Father Ed homlinson shared the above views while he was C of E vicar of St Barnabas church, Tunbridge Wells. He’s since converted to Catholicism where what can and cannot be done within the requiem mass are clearly defined. So no more hand-wringing conflicts between priestly obligations and pressure to offer secular choice. The menu is set, not à la carte. It’s now down to the free will of members of the Church to choose to dine or lapse elsewhere.
Footnote 2: At the time of speaking out, Fr T got a mixed response. ‘I think that most cremations I have been to that have been run by a humanist have all been more than off key,’ said Jane Greer. ‘Give me a good burial with a proper vicar anytime. It’s the difference between Cod’s Roe and Caviar.’ Denise Kantor Kaydar disagreed. ‘It should not matter if someone wants Verdi’s Requiem or Frank Sinatra. I think he is being a little insensitive, but he could be trying to incite a debate.’