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View from the Pew III: On Death & Liveliness 4 November 2012

Posted by Dr Moose in Changes, Chaplaincy, Church, Faith, Ponderings.
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It’s been a busy week on Chaplaincyland.  Last Sunday saw me back at the church we have decided is right to go to as a family, mainly for the children, with the service leaving me feeling the same as I used to feel after Sung Evensong in Lancaster so many years ago – critical all the way through, but leaving knowing I had met God despite myself and the perceived shortcomings of the service. It’s a very strange and rather uncomfortable experience: a reminder that God is bigger.

A different sort of discomfort was to well up the following day, the Monday. Some two weeks previously a much-respected and long-serving member of the university staff, one of those important people who make sure that the place runs on a day-to-day basis, rather than one of the academic staff (valuable as they are too) collapsed and died suddenly, with all the associated shock, dislocation and grief that manifests within a large community.

I wasn’t asked to do the funeral, and neither did I expect to be. I had met the lady on a number of occasions, but always briefly and in connection with her duties. However, when details of the funeral were announced it was right and proper that one of the Chaplaincy team should go. And so I did (leaving my Monday lunchtime crew in the lurch). This put me in a strange place again. The dog-collared faith professional sitting amidst a large number of University colleagues, whose faces were known to me, even if their names all were not, sitting in the congregation. Sitting there not in any great grief or loss, but on behalf of others and for the benefit of those around me.

It’s an odd thing, but I have usually felt Funeral ministry to be if not an enjoyable part of the vocation then at least a fulfilling one. And there I was, reduced to powerless passivity (that is, with the exception of being one of the few people who sang!) All very strange. I didn’t know the church although I knew of it, and I don’t know the name of the minister, although I had met her a few times before, a recently-priested curate if my memory serves me correctly. It is perhaps, a sign of increasing age when some curates look terribly young (and somewhat nervous)! I am loathe to pass negative comment on fellow clergy, as I know that I am open to judgement myself. (Indeed I am sure many colleagues may harbour deep suspicions about whether a University Chaplain performs a real clerical ministry, especially in a place that has no Sunday worship….) All I can really say is “I wouldn’t have done it that way.” We all have our own ways of doing things within the liturgy, and our own different stresses and interpretations. Partly they represent something of what our training incumbents taught us, and partly about how we perceive our ministry, but the Christian Hope, while not being absent, was not really articulated and there was no real sermon. I am not one of those who can simply “let the liturgy speak for itself” – precisely because the liturgy, with good reason, explicitly presumes Christian faith on behalf of the congregation and the departed. It is, to my mind, totally improper to issue a direct challenge to faith to the congregation, but likewise, there has to be some explicit mention of the Good News of Jesus Christ other than that implicit within the prayers (and the inevitably brief collection of common funeral hymnody, in this case All Things Bright and Beautiful and Abide with Me).

I suppose it made me ponder again how I have done my funerals for the past 12 years. I’ve always sought to balance hope and comfort against platitudinous certainty (and I can remember no case at all in those 12 years where anyone has actually asked me whether the departed has gone to heaven! There have been cases where the ‘diagnostic indicators’, for lack of better words, have been clearer than others, but only God can clearly answer that one!) It forced me to consider my approach, even if I have to admit that I can’t say I would do any differently from what I have.

At a different level it was rather nice to see the friendly faces of the undertakers again! And I did have some good, if rather superficial conversations with other staff after. Nothing deep. And sometimes, in fact often, Chaplaincy is as much as where you are than what you say…

If I should need a link to today, I suppose the “where you are” is as good as any. Although it is not within any contractual obligations (a phrase most of my clergy colleagues would probably find bizarre) I feel that it is part of my ministry as University Chaplain to visit local churches every so often: not every week, but maybe once or twice a month. There are a number of reasons behind this. I can’t deny that one is to be able to worship (and receive) in different ways and places, another is to act as a link (with those churches that have students) and also as a bit of a stirrer (with those who have never considered the presence of 13,000 students in town). It would be disingenuous of me also to fail to note that if I am seen out and about by my colleagues I also have a better chance of arguing that I am of value should any cuts be needed to clergy numbers and my value be doubted… which is why I need to get to Deanery Synod too!)

This morning was the first time I’d tried this policy, although it could barely count as “playing away from home” as Central Vineyard meets in the University’s largest lecture theatre (but they don’t fill it and there’s plenty of room for growth). Being on home turf was complemented by knowing quite a few of the members and congregation, being either ex-students or current ones, and also having had a long chat with the pastor, Steve, a few weeks ago and discovering that we were on the same sort of wavelength about faith, if not about ecclesiology. It must also be said that my 8 years experience on Charismatic Pentecostalism worked in my favour!

The service was preceded by refreshments (good real coffee) and the worship was provided by a suitably competent and musically tight band (and not an organ in sight!) It was a delight to have a good hymn (O Lord my God) and some good choruses, the experience being spoilt somewhat by both my mental theological criticism of a tendency to a “Jesus only” theology (far from unusual in choruses) and two which can only be described in terms of “Jesus is my boyfriend”. I long ago decided that integrity was preferable to conformity, so was more than happy to hum along, but decided I was not happy singing something I would need to seriously nuance – too much syrup!

After half an hour of worship, with a measured use of silence (which was also good) and opportunities for congregational participation in sharing, the service paused for another round of coffee and refreshments (I especially enjoyed having a doughnut in church). The nearest Anglican equivalent would have been to share the Peace and then break for coffee, something I would still dearly love to do! After this the notices were given and a collection box passed round one way, and a box of sweets the other (thus avoiding any unfortunate connotations that you might be buying the sweets!)

As part of their sermon series of people’s encounters with Jesus Steve then spoke on Zaccheus, Luke 19: 1-10. The style was engaging, entertaining, informative but also thought-provoking (and I was reminded that as a Theology Graduate my needs of teaching might be rather atypical! This probably explains some of my critique, or at least, questions when I sit in the congregation). I liked the illustration from Set Theory of the Belonging, Believing, Behaving model of faith/church membership, and the reminder that all the “wrong” sort of people seemed to be drawn to Jesus, and all the “holy” ones, despite occupying similar grounds in theology and devotion were not. Nothing new to me, but good nonetheless. (As a complete aside of a political nature I found myself wondering how long it would be before some arch-Conservative proposed the Roman model of tax-farming as suitable for the collection of taxes…)

The service closed with further space for prayer, sharing and ministry. I was struck by the lack of formal closure, in the sense of song or closing prayer, although that’s not to say that the end was unannounced. One thing I really found I missed was some conscious, corporate intercession, although I barely noticed the lack of any formal confession or creed (and wouldn’t expect them in this context).

I hesitate to say that I enjoyed myself, as it makes church and worship close to entertainment, but there has to be something to engage, even if we are reluctant to speak of entertainment, so I will admit I did. I could see why many would find it scary, disconcerting or downright odd… but that may apply to anything that falls beyond our normal boundaries of experience.

I’d rather be lively in faith than deathly…. and I wish the powerpoint slides spelled “Licence” properly!

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