In praise of “miserable offenders”

Saturday, October 26, 2013

I recently experienced an extraordinary week, liturgically speaking. I had not expected ever to see its like again.

On a weekday at a lovely country church in Virginia, I (along with a very large gathering) attended the funeral of one of our old friends, an outstanding churchman and servant of the Lord. Arriving early, I sat down to read the program. I could hardly believe my eyes. There were no “reflections,” no “remembrances,” no “eulogies.” There were hymns, Scripture, prayers, the Creed, the commendation…nothing more. I looked again. At the top of the program it did not say “the celebration of the life of…” It said, “The Burial of the Dead, Rite One, Book of Common Prayer.” At my age (76), with thoughts of the end of life becoming more frequent, it was an almost inexpressible comfort to know that this great service still has a future and that not everyone is afraid of the burial of the dead.

When the actual coffin rolled in, my eyes filled…it has been so long since I have seen that happen. It was preceded by the rector, of course, reading the traditional verses, and the large family followed. The hymns had been chosen by the deceased man himself, and reflected both his love of Jesus and his faith in the resurrection. The Gospel reading was the raising of Lazarus, an unusual and very impressive choice.

After the service, everyone walked out of the door, to the tolling of the bell, directly into the churchyard where, with the traditional graveside prayers, the body was laid to rest. That is almost never possible today, but when it is, there really is nothing more perfect. Soil had been brought from the departed man’s beloved farm to put in the grave, and a shovel provided for any who cared to remain and offer this last token of love and farewell.

What made it personal was the long prayer composed by the rector. He began by giving thanks for the life of his deceased friend and supporter, and then continued with various details of his personality and his service to family, church, and community. This was done so skilfully and accurately that it more than filled the emotional space ordinarily devoted to “reflections.”

Afterwards I asked a number of members of the parish church if this was the way that that particular rector and congregation always did funerals, and they said yes, it was…and that the rector was exceptionally good not only at writing but also at delivering the special prayer. (There were several other traditional and beloved prayers from the Prayer Book.) There is much to be learned here. I had the sense that the members of the church were proud of having held on to this form of the burial office. When a rector or senior pastor of a congregation is determined enough and respected enough to teach his/her people that “this is the way we believe it should be done,” so many of the abuses and excrescences that we see today need never even come up for consideration.

The undertakers were a little more conspicuous than I would have preferred, but only a little. When I was in parish ministry (for 22 years) I worked with undertakers, to get to know them and for them to get to know my preferences. I never had any problem. Later, when I was in full charge of a parish for one year, there were many funerals and I very much enjoyed (if that is the right word) working with the local small-town undertaker. We got along very well. He was perfectly willing to follow my directions, including one that I learned from a predecessor in ministry: “Tell the undertaker that his responsibility ends at the church door.” In other words, the pallbearers are friends and relatives who carry the body in and out, and the church ushers direct people to their seats.

The only thing that I would have changed about the funeral is that there was no homily. I do think it is important for the gospel to be preached, even if it only lasts a few minutes. The “old” Prayer Book service did not include a homily, but that is one feature that seems to me to be particularly important. It should be biblical and evangelistic, in that it seeks to strike the ears and hearts of the hearers with the message of life in Jesus Christ, perhaps in a new way. There are many who will not otherwise hear this promise.

The second liturgical event of my week was just a few days later, on a Sunday morning at St Thomas, Fifth Avenue in New York City. Again, upon sitting down and looking at the program I was amazed and thrilled. They were having Morning Prayer, again from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer! We hear it so seldom now in any churches, and hardly ever in the older version. When it was time for the General Confession, the rector read the superb long bidding (read it on pp. 5-6 of the 1928 book), instead of the optional one-liner. I then began to say the Confession by heart, but most others were reading it from the program. I stopped for a second after “we have done those things which we ought not to have done,” thinking that of course we weren’t going to say, ” and there is no health in us,” but we did say it! and mirabile dictu, we went on to say “have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.” I don’t know how younger people or people who have just drifted into church would react to this, but for myself, I was flooded with joy. There is nothing equivalent to knowing that even as one is saying that one is a sinful wretch (for that word “wretch,” look to the hymn “Amazing Grace”!)– even as one is saying it, one is already in that very moment experiencing the prevenient mercy of God. Marvelous word, “prevenient” — it means “going before.” In Jesus Christ, God has “gone before” us to take upon himself the weight of sin and to lift it from us.

Therefore, now that I think of it, there is one more thing I would have added to the funeral and that is the message of the justification of the sinner. Sin does indeed come into the liturgy in the incomparable commendation (“…a lamb of thine own flock, a sheep of thine own fold, a sinner of thine own redeeming…”) but if that is the only mention, or almost the only mention, of our universal sinful condition, there is something missing from the gospel promise. I think we need to hear more of this, whether in the opening sentences, the Scripture readings, or the homily. What we don’t want, it seems to me, is to leave people with the impression all dead people were good and worthy of God’s favor. In that sense, the prayer at the funeral I attended at least partially avoided that mistake, by rehearsing the good qualities of the person in the form of thanks to God.

So all in all, it was a week for gratitude to the Lord, to the Lord’s Church, and to Thomas Cranmer who, for all his “manifold sins and wickednesses” (see Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) bequeathed to the church some of the most resonant passages of prayer, proclamation, penitence, and promise that the English language has ever known.

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