THE week’s learning on death, dying, and bereavement had been largely practical. My fellow ordinands and I had visited a crematorium, and gone behind the curtain to watch as a coffin entered the furnace.
We had spent time at a funeral parlour, and sat with the deceased in the chilly chapels of rest.
We had written and delivered mock funeral sermons to mourn premature deaths — imagining teenagers killed in car accidents, toddlers taken by cancer, babies who live only a few hours — and had worked our way methodically through the liturgical salad that is the Common Worship funeral service.
So, when the Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt, standing behind the lectern, quoted Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’’, which heralds the dawn of a new age, and argued for a radical revival of the Church’s “eschatological imagination”, it took a few minutes for my brain to change tack.
She began by challenging the lecture room of theological students to consider whether the Church’s job was to engage in a spiritualised version of social-care practice, as a benign voluntary agency to help people through difficult life challenges — or whether it exists “to proclaim a hope for the world that rests on the dying and raising of the Son of Man”.
WHEN we spoke afterwards, she described how, “in the past, in ministerial formation, we think we’ve been training people about death and dying. Actually, we’ve just been teaching people how to do funeral ministry.
“We need to learn how talk to people about mortality, and specifically in light of the Christian message that there is hope in the midst of death and loss.”
To that end, Dr Collicutt and a team in the diocese of Oxford have written materials for churches, Death and Life: Christian resources for living well in the light of mortality, a largely web-based resource, which was launched in November (www.deathlife.org.uk).
ALAMYThe Doubt: Can these dry bones live? (1855) by Henry Alexander Bowler
It includes a six-week course that covers many practical aspects of preparing to die (such as making a will, planning one’s funeral, considering palliative care), and starter ideas for creative workshops, sermons, Bible studies, and meditations exploring theological questions around death.
In the early stages of piloting the material in clergy workshops, Dr Collicutt was surprised that “many of the participants said that they hadn’t had any training on this, pre-ordination. In church circles generally, outside of Easter services, there is very little engagement with death. Unlike baptism and marriage, there were hardly any courses laid on by churches to prepare people for this ultimate life event.”
She is clear that the course is not aimed at the freshly bereaved. It is, rather, a contribution towards developing a wider theological language in community. A side effect, however, should be that responses to people who are grieving become thoughtful rather than platitudinous.
And yet the new course goes further than initiatives such as Grave Talk, the café-style initiative that uses prompt cards designed to open up conversations about death. Dr Collicutt’s vision is more radical, concerned with putting the uniquely Christian message of the life yet to come back at the heart of our ministry.
“The resurrection is our USP, if you like, and Christian identity is based on this certainty — or, at least, it used to be. The New Testament originates from bereaved and traumatised communities, but they act completely at odds with this trauma because of their hope in the bodily resurrection of Christ.
“The early church Father Athanasius wrote that people who, before their conversion, had been frightened of death were no longer afraid, that they went ‘eagerly to meet death’.
“This feels quite a long way from where we are now. We don’t have that same sense of eschatological expectation or urgency, for we live in the ‘between the times’.
“But we can recover an understanding of Christianity as a truly radical New Age movement: one that is looking forward to the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 3.12 — and the edginess that comes with that.”
The name of the course, Death and Life, is deliberately formulated to speak of the life in abundance which comes after death (the front page of the website uses imagery of snowdrops emerging through the snow to speak of this sense of a new start); but it is also meant to convey that engagement with their death can help people to live well this side of eternity.
“This is really about discipleship. Bringing a resurrection perspective into our lives is not just head knowledge, but has real pastoral outworking, helping us make good endings and helping us to let go of the non-essential.
“These are not just tasks of dying, but tasks of our whole life. This is stuff that many people are eager, if not desperate, to talk about.”
SUPERSTOCK‘The Resurrection of the Dead’ from the Gospel of Vyšehrad, 11th Century
THE theologian Dr Paula Gooder gave the address at the launch of the Death and Life resource. “Most discipleship programmes fail because they answer questions that ordinary people are not actually asking,” she suggested
I was reminded of the question that came up repeatedly during our study week: what do we say to non-churchgoers when asked what has happened to their loved one after death? We were advised to make sure we had “an answer ready” before our ordination.
It was a relief, then, to discover that the Death and Life resource even has an FAQs section, with helpful suggested answers to questions such as:
Will I see my loved ones again in the next life?
My loved one died by suicide — where is she/he?
Is there a hell, and, if so, who goes there?
What about stillborn babies and late miscarriages?
Is it OK to pray for deceased loved ones?
Dr Collicutt advises that we put some of these back to the questioner, advocating that ministers be open to a natural, or “bottom-up”, theology that listens to people’s own intuition about death.
“Several of our resources are designed to uncover people’s operational theologies around death, exploring the various ideas and images that people bring to it, such as death as rebirth, or a journey, or going home, or a peaceful sleep. We need to look at the things which get people through, and ask where is God in them.
“So, if someone says that their child, who died, ‘became an angel’, that might sound difficult to square with Christian doctrine. But if you start to unpack it, what they are expressing is the idea that their child is not alone but part of a new part of a community [of other angels]. It speaks of a psychological need, but also relates to the Christian tradition — to the communion of the saints, the heavenly host, the cloud of witnesses.
“Angels and winged creatures and ideas of taking flight are very much part of secular folk theology. This is a gift to us: rather than avoid it, we should be asking the question: What is it doing for people? It’s strong in the Bible, strong in Christian iconography: we should be using it to speak theologically to how people think today.”
More specifically, one of the voices that Death and Life seeks to listen to especially carefully is that of older people — but not for obvious reasons. The Dylan track that Dr Collicutt quotes in her lecture speaks of a movement that has no use for the old ways because it is entering a new order: here is space for “mothers and fathers” if they lend a hand in the new age; but if they want to cling to the old ways, they need to get out of the way.
She finds that the lyrics resonate with the challenge that she experiences, particularly as the Oxford diocesan adviser for the spiritual care of older people: that Christianity does not have a huge amount to say about old age.
“Jesus himself ‘lived fast and died young’. There are very few older people in the New Testament,” she observes. “But, if we think of Simeon and Anna, we see examples of how Christianity sees older people less as guardians of the old tradition, but rather as having a distinctive forward-facing role.
“The elderly are, instead, an eschatological gift; those who stand at the threshold of their old age and their new age to come, ‘the old men [who] dream dreams’ (Joel 2.28/Acts 2.17).
“Another wonderful example is found in Hebrews 11, where the writer commends the great cloud of witnesses, beginning with Abraham, who was so old that he was ‘as good as dead’. Yet he did not look back with nostalgia to the home he had left behind but pressed on because he ‘saw and greeted God’s promises from a distance’, desiring a better country.
“I have had several older people say: ‘If this is me, then how do I embrace this?’ I think we need to be making more space to listen not just to the elderly, but to the very frail, to people with dementia — those who live in thin places, who can be very attuned to the Spirit.”
New Creation (2016) from Threads of Revelation by Jacqui Parkinson
THE work of L’Arche came up several times in our conversation. The international network of communities, in which people with and without learning disabilities share a common life together, is influential, not only because of the commitment to listening to the voices of those at the edges of society, but also because of the emphasis on the embodied experience of being human.
The L’Arche communities are often described by their founder, Jean Vanier, as being communities “of the body” rather than the word, based on embodied truth rather than a commitment to intellectual ideals, and as places where there is often greater openness to touch among those who are less inhibited.
The thinking behind Death and Life similarly advocates a resurrection perspective that is rooted in the human body. Dr Gooder’s address at the launch focused on the Bible’s teaching on bodily resurrection, and how Christians need to become people who are passionate, embodied beings.
“Paul emphasised that most people think we will be a disembodied spirit,” Dr Collicutt continued, “but this is a Greek notion. The Hebrew idea is that of being a soul, not having a soul.”
The ambition is for discipleship that is concerned with people’s lived and embodied experience, which feeds into the mysterious territory of their resurrected future, while grounding this exploration firmly in human creativity — through painting and collage, making wisdom trees and memory boxes, writing “gratitude letters”, and introducing others to their favourite music. The vision of this ministry is intergenerational, for people of all ages and stages of health, “to be met exactly where they are rather than being told the right answers,” Dr Collicutt said, “bringing God’s story into conversation with their story.”
After my time with Dr Collicutt, I revisited the mock funeral sermon I had given during the study week. The “character” I had chosen was a woman who had died of cancer in her forties, after years of illness and invasive treatment, which included a hysterectomy. She was described as a wonderful cook and host, and I thought I had been very clever in linking these characteristics with images of God’s hospitality, using the passage about the banquet on the mountain in Isaiah 25.6-8.
On review, however, I realised that I had mined these metaphors for their poetic value, with very little engagement with the ideas of bodily resurrection which they imply.
In fact, I had steered well away from all reference to bodies, in light of the broken body I imagined lying in the coffin. I had dropped hints of our heavenly future which were nebulous at best, vague gestures towards a spiritual realm “up” the mountain — certainly not the heaven that Dr Gooder spoke of, one that is closer to us than our breath: a tangible world out of sight but no less real than our own.
I hope not to be a priest who fails to take seriously the truths that she preaches, or one which shirks the questions asked by real people in times of despair.
My hope is that, by the time I lead a real funeral service, the resurrection perspective urged by Dr Collicutt will have worked its way into my ministry, and also something of that audacious expectation of the life beyond — not to reduce the pain of those I comfort, or to speak with too much glib certainty about where their loved ones might be, but to be an embodiment of the enduring human hope that, indeed, the times they are a-changin’.
Jemima Thackray is an ordinand on the Winchester Ordination Pathway.