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Today’s sure and certain hope

02 December 2008

Pastors, read these rich essays, urges Geoffrey Rowell

The Theology of Death
Douglas J. Davies

THE great Advent themes are traditionally death, judgement, hell, and heaven; but, sadly, the Church, whether in Advent or at any other time, seems strangely muted in speaking of them; or, when it does speak, uncertain how to engage with large numbers of those who might be prepared to hear.

A critical interface takes place in ministry at funerals. Those con­cerned with that and its changing cultural context are aware of the difficulty of communicating a gos­pel of resurrection, and of the pres­sures — from within the Churches and without — on those trying to speak of death and Christian hope.

Douglas Davies, Professor in the Study of Religion at the University of Durham, is particularly well placed to address these issues. They are matters of life and death not just for each one of us who will one day die, but for Churches and their ministry in contemporary culture.

Davies is both a theologian and a sociologist of religion with a long record of research in the changing patterns of death, dying, and bereavement — from the re-use of old graves, to the social place of crematoria and the rising number of woodland burials. As such, he has given us a challenging book that should be required reading for all in pastoral ministry or training for it.

He notes, rightly, that “clergy and leaders of funerals occupy one of the few available though fragile platforms where ‘the meaning of life’ can be approached at all in a public fashion.”

Tensions with which he engages include both those between Christian orthodoxy proclaiming a resurrection gospel and the popular language about the soul and “going to be with Jesus”, and those that exist for people (many of them churchgoers) who believe that death is the end, and yet are faced with the concomitant challenges to life.

Inevitably, there has to be an engagement with the nature of Christian theological reflection in this most difficult of areas, as well as the reshaping of the parameters of life and death as a result of our “ability to sustain life in the near dead or to foster life in the infertile”.

Cremation, as Davies reminds us, has been “the greatest practical ritual change experienced by Christianity in the 20th century”. Yet it is doubtful that the consequence of this has been fully explored. I was particularly grateful for a powerful prayer that Davies gives us for use in services at the crematorium.

Woodland burial has growing popularity. Davies notes that the issues it raises are more likely to relate to the doctrine of creation than that of salvation. Again, new liturgical material may be needed.

Likewise, the Churches need to attend to the increasing number of civil celebrants at funerals, and the emphasis that they bring to a cele­bration of the life of the departed, with the concomitant of services of thanksgiving rather than memorial services. An articulate and well-trained civil celebrant attended a meeting with the Churches Funerals Group. I reminded her that she would die one day, and asked her what her understanding of death was. Her response — that she was concerned only to respond to the wishes of her clients — reminds us of the subversive demands of a consumer society.

The material in this book is some­times very varied in its register, as the concerns of systematic theo­logy, philosophical questions about the nature of theological language, and the sharp cultural and pastoral questions arising from sociological studies are set side by side. More­over, it includes so much that is rich that, although there are many fertile suggestions and pointers and ques­tions with which to wrestle, Davies gives us no neat answers, and would not wish to.

This is not the theology of death — in one sense, how could it be, given the complexities of the history of Christian eschatology? — but a challenge to engage more than many of us have with these profound issues.

In the Anima Christi, we plead that Christ will “call me when my life shall fail me” (In hora mortis meae voca me). The nature of that call, and how that gives us hope of everlasting life, is essential business for all of us, whether our response draws on the existential under-stand­ing of theologians such as Tillich or Marxsen, or seeks still to frame the Christian hope in what might be considered more traditional terms.

Dr Rowell is the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, and chairs the Churches’ Funerals Group.

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