Friday, November 18, 2005

Unknown yet sometimes recognised

No respecter of persons

This week, I had the funeral which was postponed from last week. One unexpected feature was the arrival of one of the mourning family handcuffed to a prison guard. A reminder of how death intervenes without concern for anything else that's going on in human affairs. One of the crematorium superintendents told me while we awaited the arrival of the cort├Ęge of the occasion when he had been obliged to call the police, as soon as the funeral was over because rival factions within a family started fighting just outside the chapel, their hatred for each other overwhelming their grief. Not on this occasion however. Close relations of the chained man took the opportunity to hug him warmly. He evidently appreciated the attention and smiled like a celebrity and his guards were content to indulge him for five minutes or so before returning him from whence he came. I didn't find out what he was in for, or for how long. As is often the case, nodbody was interested to converse with me after the perfunctory handshakes.

The invited stranger
The priest is often a stranger to the bereaved 90% of the time nowadays, as that proportion of the population don't go to church and aren't interested in socialising with clergy. People are generally content to go along with the convention of having an officiating minister, as proposed by the funeral directors. It's a service provided which works, which makes no demand, but is there if anyone wishes to make use of it. Families are often widely scattered and may meet up together with decreasing regularity, so a funeral is one of those times for catching up with relatives, friends and acquaintances. The pastor has to settle for being a stranger who looks on, available if needed. Nothing is gained by being intrusive. I imagine it's quite different in a rural area or a village community where the local parson is still a more visible figure in the locality. So many people live and pass daily though any urban area that it's easy even for quite prominent people to go about unrecognised. Anonymity is part of the way of life, and community doesn't grow out of living familiarly side by side in the heart of the city. So in a way, the urban priest of today has to learn to live with being an unfamiliar, obscure person, even when recognisable by uniform. If anyone want to talk, it's a gift and a privilege to be available for them. Clergy no longer have 'rights' by virtue of their office, as seemed to be the case in times past.

Goodbye Rose
Later in the week, a second funeral at St John's. Rose, the sister of one of our small team of organists. She was 69, and had suffered from ill health for a year or so. She died in hospital at the very moment a week last Saturday when the Remembrance Garden blessing cermony was coming to an end. I was asked to go quickly to the hospital by a member of the congregation working in the tea room, who had received a phone call during the church service. It took me an hour to get to Llandough hospital - through the crowds of cars coming in for the international rugby match, where I found Marje and Vanessa quietly waiting for me in the coffee room. Vanessa said : "When we knew the end was coming, we felt we should say a prayer, and so we said :

'O Lord support us all the day long of the troublous life
till the shades lengthen and the evening comes
the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over
and our work is done.Then, Lord in your mercy,
grant us safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen' "

I was moved by their response. I couldn't have chosen better myself. It's encouraging to see how the priestly instinct is shared by all God's people. We went together and gathered around Rose's bed. She was no longer wired up to monitors and drip feeds, and still had some colour in her cheeks, resting quietly after her ordeal. I used some familiar prayers and Psalm 23, and we entrused her soul again to God before going our separate ways as sunset drew near across a chilly autumn car park.
It was such a privilege to be there, known and welcomed by friends to share a parting moment. Rose came regularly every Friday to church to help her arrange flowers. Everyone knew and loved her. A tall, gentle woman, always smiling, pleased to be among friends. Although not a regular worshipper, she was at home in St John's, with St John's people, and many of them turned out to say farewell, along with people from her home village of St Fagans.

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