THESE days, the clergy conduct far fewer funerals than when I was a curate 34 years ago. (My record was four in a day.) Statistics show that there was a 29-per-cent fall in clergy-led funerals between 2008 and 2018, and that, in 2019, there were 14,000 fewer funerals than the previous year (News, 16 October 2020).
I wrote a few years ago about the preference of many people for pop songs at their loved one’s funerals, as opposed to hymns (Comment, 27 October 2017). This is beginning to feel like yesterday’s news. Today, there is an continual growth in families’ choosing direct cremations, and no funeral at all for their loved one.
The reasons for this are many and varied, but the pastoral and psychological effects of this innovation are yet to be assessed. Recently, a couple in one of my congregations suffered the incalculable loss of their daughter, who had two young children. Her life, well lived and much loved, though without faith, was one to celebrate, and yet she chose (in her will) to have no funeral, causing her parents considerable pain. The moment I heard this, I asked them: “Would you like us to do something?” So we did, gathering their friends together, none of whom knew their daughter, to celebrate her life. For us, she is a much loved child of God, and that is enough.
It occurs to me that this is the kind of thing that the Church may be asked to do often in the future. As secularisation powers on, leading to unseen side-effects like this, it falls to the Church to “keep the faith” that others have abandoned.
IN ONE of the letters to churches at the beginning of the Revelation of St John, our Lord is quoted as saying: “Wake up and strengthen the things that remain!” The Church would do well to adopt this as its mission statement or strapline for the coming years.
Such words could inspire our care of church buildings. I am blessed with the care of an 11th-century church, kept open every day, whose power to communicate — often to young people — never ceases to amaze me. Every Sunday, we repeat the many prayers requested during the week, sometimes receiving feedback of the most heart-wrenching kind.
This is a recent example from an unknown visitor: “Love your life. Be grateful for breath and the chance to experience the wonders around you. Life truly is amazing if we see it with open eyes and open hearts.” When I hear this, it makes me very angry at the lost opportunities of the first lockdown, when people so needed us, and our doors were locked. Keeping a church watertight and open is much more than that: it strengthens the ties that bind us to the past and to God.
The words from Revelation might also encourage us in the fewer funerals, baptisms, and marriages that we are asked to conduct these days. Fewer means more time spent on them, more individual attention, and more chance to make the timeless beauty of the liturgy speak. So often young, unchurched people, used to registrars and secular funeral celebrants, have said “That was amazing, mate!” when I did little more than I have done on countless occasions.
Finally, the Church needs to wake up to its place in the 21st century, as people in exile in a strange land: few, maybe, but faithful. If the results of the census next year reveal nominal Christianity to have declined again, I hope that bishops and other leaders will not be defensive, but remind the nation that much of our Bible was conceived in exile, when the numbers were small, and encourage the Church’s ministers in its work of strengthening what remains.
“Strengthen the things that remain.” The greatest of these, as St Paul reminds us at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, is love: love of all people, not just our nation, our tribe, our fellow Christians.
IN HIS wonderful book on the mission of the Church in a post-Christian society, Pilgrims and Priests, the Dutch missiologist Stefan Paas speaks of the adventure of exile: “In exile we can learn that God is the God of Babylon, the God of everywhere. In exile we can learn that God is not ours, but that we are his, wherever we are. In this way exile can become an adventure, an invitation to a life outside the gates, and to rediscover your own tradition in Babylon.”
So let us spend our time there strengthening the things that remain, and so be ready and faithful if and when the people’s faith turns once more in our direction.
Canon Hugh Wright is the Vicar of St Catherine’s, Ventnor, and Holy Trinity, Ventnor, and Rector of St Boniface’s, Bonchurch, on the Isle of Wight.