Long past time for the Church to take funerals seriously

by
26 June 2015

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From the Revd Jeremy Brooks

Sir, - The Revd Dr Ian Meredith (Comment, 19 June) suggests that one solution to the decline in funerals led by church ministers is to provide for a less religious service: a sort of church-lite version.

I do not believe that new liturgy is required for this. The Order for Funerals is one of the least prescriptive services available to us, and there are always parts that can be omitted. Furthermore, people use civil celebrants not because they do not want a religious service: it is normal for these services to include hymns and prayers. People will use a humanist minister if they really want to avoid religion altogether - and only a tiny minority does.

Two weeks ago, 200 clergy and lay ministers gathered for the first Church National Funerals Conference, "Taking Funerals Seriously", at Stoneleigh, in Warwickshire. The timing and venue were picked to coincide with the biennial National Funerals Exhibition at the National Agricultural and Exhibition Centre, where we had a stand; and, as part of the conference, all 200 of us turned up at the show. Funeral directors to whom I talked were delighted that we had come, and surprised that we had never had much of a presence before.

If we want to take funerals seriously, we must take our relationship with funeral directors seriously. Dr Meredith offers some good ideas, such as training laity, and ensuring that there is good pastoral care, but unless we invest in the relationships with the gatekeepers, we will not have the opportunity to offer these things.

 

JEREMY BROOKS
The Fitzwilliams Centre
Windsor End
Beaconsfield HP9 2JW

 

From the Revd David Primrose

Sir, - Dr Meredith's excellent article on funerals correctly highlights how much we can learn from civil celebrants, and the importance of good relationships with local funeral directors. It also points to the Church's willingness to engage with grief that finds little space when the emphasis is on "celebration". These messages came out of the Funerals Project, piloted in his diocese, which resourced the national conference "Taking Funerals Seriously" this month.

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The conference affirmed the spiritual and missional significance of the Church's funeral ministry, and the support for the bereaved which can follow. High-quality resources are available on the website www.churchofenglandfunerals.org and churchsupporthub.org, including GraveTalk (News, 22 May), which we have used extensively to provide safe spaces where people can talk about death and dying.

Currently, Anglican ministers take one third of all funerals. This can rise to two-thirds - for example in Walsall, where we are working with the local credit union to address funeral poverty. The national conference coincided with the launch of the Fair Funeral Pledge, part of a campaign to reduce from one in seven the number of families who struggle to pay for a funeral, which now averages £3500. The emotional cost of a death must not be compounded by the financial cost of a debt.

 

DAVID PRIMROSE
Director of Transforming
Communities
1a Small Street
Walsall WS1 3PR

 

From Alan Stanley

Sir, - I have been working as a funeral celebrant for the past five years, and have encountered both strong support and strong opposition from clergy. To give a solid theological and practical rationale for what I, and others such as Dr Meredith's congregation member, do, I have written a Grove Booklet, The Challenge of the Funeral Celebrant: A mission opportunity for the Church which will be published in August (www.grovebooks.co.uk).

Dr Meredith's point about the Church's offer of ongoing pastoral care is well made, and in many cases it might be possible for those civil celebrants who are also Christians, or sympathetic to the Church's ministry, to routinely refer their clients for pastoral support to local churches.

Rather than trying to "reclaim funerals", constructive dialogue and understanding could result in a powerful synergy where the strengths of both local churches and civil celebrants are brought together.

 

ALAN STANLEY
Assbridge Lodge
Cattle Lane, Aberford
Leeds LS25 3BN

 

Sir, - The deanery in which I minister and live has seen a marked decline in the number of parochial clergy in the past decade. It also has relatively few retired clergy.

In recent years, stipendiary clergy have seen their responsibilities increase, not least in the area of administration. Funeral directors can no longer finalise arrangements in one phone call. Sometimes, a cleric is not available for a fortnight.

The consequent loss of pastoral contacts may be contributing to the decline in church attendance. It is certainly reducing the funeral-related income of the diocese.

It was suggested some time ago that deaneries could follow the example of the Roman Catholic diocese of Liverpool, where lay funeral ministers have assisted the dwindling number of parochial clergy. The proposal was rejected on the grounds that such lay funeral ministers could not preach, even if they could be supplied with authorised sermons.

The number of secular ministers has now mushroomed, to the extent that they are becoming the first port of call for funeral directors. They are more readily available, and may take on responsibility for the production of orders of service.

Dr Meredith's piece takes no account of hard-pressed clergy in poorly resourced deaneries. What is needed is the imagination and will to follow the example set by the RC diocese of Liverpool, before it is too late.

 

NAME AND ADDRESS SUPPLIED

 

From the Revd Christopher Morgan

Sir, - I am a priest in an independent denomination, and also a funeral director. As such, many of the services I conduct with my ministry hat on are very similar to the civil-celebrant approach, except that there are families who welcome the comfort of a clerical collar.

Of course, the inflexibility of some Anglican clergy has, in part, contributed to a rise in civil celebrancy, although the Church of England's drive to be more "user-friendly" in relation to funerals of late has had quite an impact on those of us who are effectively freelance clergy. I, for one, welcome a sea-change as far as the C of E's approach is concerned. I have heard too many horror stories from families upset by the vicar who took a funeral for their family.

 

CHRISTOPHER MORGAN
3 Queen Street, Swaffham
Norfolk PE37 7BZ

 

From Robert Andrews

Sir, - I welcomed the article on funeral ministry by Dr Meredith, but one aspect that he failed to mention was the financial implications for the Church of reducing the number of funerals it takes.

Having taken early retirement, I now work part-time as accountant for a funeral director with four offices in east London/Essex. It is our company policy always to offer "notional C of E" funerals to the appropriate parish, but we are finding it increasingly difficult to get local clergy to conduct funerals. Indeed, a newly appointed priest in one parish told us in no uncertain terms that he does not conduct funerals except for people who have regularly worshipped in his church.

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It is not just civil celebrants who are now conducting funerals, but also clergy ordained by the C of E, who resign or retire and then operate without a bishop's licence as professional funeral-takers. We now have to use such people for more than 50 per cent of the "notional C of E" funerals. As a parish treasurer and a former member of the Diocesan Finance Committee, it pains me to see several thousand pounds paid to them each month - money that should be contributing directly to PCC and diocesan funds.

I hope that clergy who regularly refuse funerals do not complain when their diocesan parish share increases, because, as a result of their actions, the diocese is losing a valuable source of income.

Dr Meredith touched on the pastoral importance of funeral ministry. I am also an organist, and, when I play the organ for a funeral conducted by a professional funeral-taker, whether ordained or not, it is often clear to me that the first and only time that they will meet the family is when the hearse arrives at the cemetery chapel.

At least when a member of the parish ministry team conducts the funeral, there is an opportunity for continuing care of the family.

 

ROBERT ANDREWS
3 Sewards End, Wickford
Essex SS12 9PB

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