Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Child of my time?

I'm currently working on the funeral service for a lady of the parish who left instructions with her (non church) daughter that she wanted "A traditional Anglican service".
It sounds pretty straightforward on one level.
Depends what you mean by tradition, though.
Not a modern language service, clearly,- reading from the King James Bible, and no lapses into a chatty approach to the Lord.
As someone who loves the poetic beauty of 17th century English, that's fine by me- and I'll just have to trust that the congregation is comfortably familiar with the phrases, and can grasp the meaning without difficulty.
But when it comes to closer scrutiny of the Book of Common Prayer itself, it's the meaning that is giving me pause. In fact, I'm really struggling - not, alas, to understand, but to see how I can use the material with any integrity.

The emphasis of the service is so much on the misery of the human condition, and on the terrifying judgement of God
("We consume away at thy displeasure and are afraid at thy wrathful indignation");
on the belief that we suffer in accordance with God's will;
on limits set around salvation ("beseeching thee that it may please thee of thy gracious goodness , shortly to accomplish the number of thine elect").

I know that the Book of Common Prayer emerged from a theological context that is worlds away from this one, but what I need to remember is that the view of God that it encourages will be the one that many of my congregation grew up with.
Born in the 60s, my earliest liturgical memories are of Series 2,- but I'm pretty certain those revisions only applied to the Eucharist, so my parents' funerals (in 1978 and 79) must presumably have been according to the BCP rite. Incidentally, it may be salutory, bearing in mind the anxious hours that clergy pour into crafting prayers and addresses for funerals, to note that the only thing I can actually remember from either of those services is hearing the Nunc Dimittis read slowly as the coffin was carried from the church. On the whole, reading the text I'm glad about that. The words I needed to hear then were those I seek to share with bereaved families whenever I can...assurances of God's love and mercy, shown to us in Christ, the love which is stronger than anything, even death.

Two years after those services in St John the Evangelist, Upper St Leonards, the ASB arrived and with it an underlying theology of hope,- that also characterises the Common Worship service which I know best. Thankfully, then, this head-on conflict with the liturgy I'm asked to deliver is not a regular feature of ordained life. As far as the forthcoming funeral is concerned, I'm plundering the (outlawed) 1928 Prayer Book for material that is consonant with the Book of Common Prayer, but less determinedly gloomy. I'll use the Burial Sentences, of course, and the words of committal, just as Cranmer left them. I trust that the lady concerned will look on this compromise with tolerance, if, indeed, she is not so swept up in enjoying the glory of God that she takes no further interest in her own funeral.
I'm meeting the family this afternoon, and as always will share with them my hopes for the service
  • that together we will share memories and thank God for the life that is ended
  • that we will commit their mum to his loving care
  • that we will seek and find comfort in loss
I will express my belief that the service should be helpful in providing a safe space to mourn, but should also be a resource to enable them to begin to move on into a new reality.

For me, despite all the beauty of its language, the Order for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer does not seem to achieve this. It probably didn't intend to. Life in 1549 was nasty, brutish and short for the majority, and death a regular neighbour. I'm thankful that I'm living and ministering in another time and place.

3 comments:

Songbird said...

I wonder if they will let you say a word about how much the beauty of the language meant to the deceased, but allow you to give a word of hope, too? You are able to do that beautifully yourself, without being merely "chatty."

Anonymous said...

When I've been asked to do something similar, it turned out that the main concern was the verses on the way in and the Lord's prayer in traditional language, & probably also the bible reading, One of the problems iwht BCP is that the language is liked but there is often not a background to get underneath that to see the problems that there can be, particularly in C21 life! (speaking as someone who presides at BCP 2x for every 1 CW!

St said...

I remain convinced that the best possible way to remove the distraction that is the Book of Common Prayer from everywhere except festivals of literature is to do it, exactly as it is written, when requested.

When you get to the bit about the deceased's vile body please feel free to raise your voice.

After the service give an appeal to any in the congregation who are presently unbaptised to come for baptism on Sunday.

My sister-in-law asked me to marry her using the BCP. I enjoyed looking her fiance Bob in the eye and telling him this was not being done to satisfy his carnal lusts and appetities. People still talk about it.

Get in there.