Monday, 7 May 2012
Reflections from a spring funeral
Last week I said goodbye to an old friend.
We had met nearly 25 years ago while in working in the same organisation, and had both become - largely through the irrepressible social zeal of the woman who subsequently became his wife - part of an extended and infinitely extendable grouping of colleagues, friends and partners who shared boozy nights, long weekends, idyllic Umbrian holidays and Wednesdays at the Chelsea Flower Show. Cast to the four winds as we eventually and inevitably were, the ties that bound us were, and remain, real. Despite our differences, we were for each other known quantities, and there is a necessary comfort in that.
Those differences included matters of religion. My friend was a convinced atheist. He was a rationalist to his fingertips: any proposition that did not conform to principles of human reason, that could not be shown to be true, was by definition superstition and to be resisted. He believed that religion was, in the main, a force for ill. He thought the Church, at best, rather ridiculous. Yet he was by no means intolerant of those - including me - who saw things differently. He was highly intelligent and humane; and as I underwent ministerial formation and ordination, he maintained a genuine interest in my progress and my life as a deacon and then a priest.
For my part, I see atheism as a logical and entirely respectable position to hold. If you regard human reason as the ultimate arbiter of what may or may not be true; if you can conceive of the existence of nothing above or beyond it; and if you are not disposed to accept a reality that you cannot personally discern, then atheism is where you are likely to end up. All perfectly reasonable as far as I can see. My own belief is that this form of humanism elevates us to the status of little gods, and that that really is the root of all evil. But he and I shared, I think, an understanding of humanity's fallibility: that, however firmly held, however well thought-through, however cherished my convictions about anything - I might just be mistaken. And we live in a post-modern, philosophically anti-realist age, in which no individual's opinion is of inherently greater value than another's. He and I knew we differed in this matter, and it was never a source of conflict between us.
He died young, of cancer. His funeral was to be led by a (secular) humanist minister - styled, slightly ironically it seemed to me, "celebrant" - and I was asked to speak. I knew that my words would need to be carefully judged: this was an emphatically non-religious service, and as a matter of courtesy to him, his wife and family, there was no question of my saying anything of the kind that I would say at a Christian funeral. I was not unduly disturbed by this: I could see that, under the circumstances, something overtly religious would have jarred, and everybody would be feeling jarred enough.
But then I got a message from his a member of his family, the burden of which was that they would prefer it if I did not wear a clerical collar at the funeral. I confess my back went up at this: not only was I not to say anything "religious" (and in fact had not planned to), I was not even to look as if I might. They could not be expected to understand that, for a clergyperson of my tradition, a clerical collar is not a statement of my convictions, even less my occupation: it is an expression of who I am. And so I imagine they would not have realised that they were saying that it was I, personally, who was not acceptable to them.
I did briefly and indignantly wonder if they would have said the same to a rabbi or an imam should any such have been expected to speak, then decided to - as the current argot has it - get over myself. I wore a black suit and tie, and ended up looking like one of the undertakers.
I said my piece, which included this - which no more than hints at the possibility of a non-physical world. I was struck afterwards by the number of mourners who asked me about it, apparently wanting me to go further. Almost none of these were religious people in the conventional sense; but they seemed to need the assurance of a supernatural reality. I suspect this is hard-wired in us (see this); and that to be "religious" is simply to be human.
What is being rejected by many is perhaps not religion per se, but rather dogma and revealed truth. The challenge for the Church, I now see more clearly, is how it engages with that.