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Leader comment: Before that hour, it is good to make a will

11 August 2023

AS THE August festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary, traditionally associated with her Falling Asleep (to set aside the debate about the bodily Assumption) draws near, it is timely to remember that all who, like her, are in Christ have the certainty that their earthly lives will end, too; and many of them will ask for her prayers “in the hour of our death”. But leaving it all up to her is not, of course, an idea entertained in Christian teaching, and certainly not in the Order for the Visitation of the Sick found in the 1662 Prayer Book. This is most often turned to for the authoritative and unconditional form of absolution provided for use with a penitent. But it also states the Church’s official position on making a will. “The Minister” is enjoined to examine the sick person: “And if he have not before disposed of his goods, let him then be admonished to make his Will, and to declare his debts . . . ; for the better discharging of his conscience, and the quietness of his Executors. But men should often be put in remembrance to take order for the settling of their temporal estates whilst they are in health.” Moreover, the Minister “should not omit earnestly to move such sick persons as are of ability to be liberal to the poor”.

The Church of Scotland and the Quakers are free to take their own line on such matters; but they and Christian Aid could hardly differ over the second quotation from the Prayer Book as they join with the C of E in the new campaign to encourage worshippers to leave a legacy to their church or to charity, after providing for their loved ones. Television viewers may be familiar with programmes about the intriguing paper chase that often occurs when someone dies intestate. Though this may lead to pleasant surprises for distant relations, it is plain that this is not, for the Anglican, the approved way to go. Now, as in the 17th century, leaving a muddle after death may be an unkindness, though that can be as true of a badly worded will as of no will at all. So suitable help is always worth seeking.

Posthumous generosity is the least onerous and morally least impressive variety, and it can be misplaced: leaving family members short to whom one owes an obligation is not excused by ostentatious generosity to the Vicar’s appeal for a new sound system. We are confident that Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby is not a model that Christian Aid would endorse, either. But an emphasis on youth may well have caused the clergy to neglect the ministry of helping people to prepare for death, which to the young often seems such a remote eventuality. Legacy-making needs thought, prayer, and something like “due diligence”. The disposal of one’s worldly goods is a responsible decision to ponder in the heart.

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