Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Chaplain 1, Parish Clergy 0

The chaplain I spoke to yesterday is going to do Ken's funeral. I'd also e-mailed one of the Episcopal churches in Flagstaff -- one with a female rector and a female deacon -- to ask if someone there could do it.

When I was talking to the funeral director in Flagstaff yesterday afternoon, I mentioned this. He'd been chatting happily about how wonderful and flexible the chaplain is. When I brought up the Episcopal rector, he hesitated and then said, very carefully, "She's, uh, a little less flexible. I think the other guy would be better for you." And then, in a rush, "Don't get me wrong, she's a great person! She's just, well, a little less flexible."

That, I guessed, translated into, "Will only do Episcopal funerals for Episcopalians."

This is a tricky issue in parishes, where clergy get very tired of being approached by strangers and asked to perform contortionist sacraments. Often as not, the strangers want God left out of the proceedings entirely. Couples looking for marriage venues are the worst offenders. One of my own parish priests, after being asked to omit the "until death do us part" section of the marriage service, lost his temper and suggested, as politely as he could, that the couple seek clergy elsewhere. Since then, we've had a policy that to get married in the church, couples need to be members of the congregation and to have attended a six-month marriage-preparation course.

Funerals are a little different, though. No one approaches them glibly. Everyone needs comfort during grief, regardless of faith tradition. And in my e-mail, I made it clear that we did need religious content; we just needed content that was very inclusive of a variety of traditions, both Christian and otherwise.

After the conversation with the funeral director, I wasn't surprised to get turned down. I was, though, a bit perturbed by the phrasing of the e-mail from the deacon, which said, basically, "I'm sorry we can't do this; here's the contact info for the Unitarians." There was no expression of sympathy. Surely the refusal could have been worded more kindly? Something like, "We're very sorry for your family's loss, but feel that our Unitarian colleagues would be better able to serve your unique cirucumstances"?

It doesn't matter. We've found someone, after all, and I'm glad the funeral director prepared me for the refusal. But the way the thing was handled left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

In any case, let's hear it for chaplains, who meet people where they are during times of great need, instead of requiring spiritual union cards.


  1. Seriously? I can't imagine being able to deny comfort to grieving people even if they don't grieve (and haven't always worshipped) exactly my way. I'm glad you found someone nonetheless.

  2. I'm sorry you received no condolences from the Episcopal quarter. The Episcopal Church does a lot of things well but is fairly inflexible liturgically. The positive side of this tradition is that the theology underpinning the liturgy is preserved and can't be bent by the officiant du jour. The negative side is well, that it's not flexible. There are times when pastoral needs are best met by a chaplain, and clearly this situation is one of them. I'm so sorry for your loss.

  3. Beloved, I'm sorry to find you again in immediate grief, and so soon.

    So, here I am, torn. As a chaplain, I'm glad a colleague could come through for you and the family. As a priest, I'm troubled that a colleague couldn't come through for you.

    Maggie, I would suggest that it isn't the liturgy that's inflexible, but the cleric. Indeed, the Book of Occasional Services has a model burial office explicitly for "one who does not profess the Christian faith." As a chaplain I've adapted it a number of times over the years. As a priest that hasn't been a problem.

    In any case, Susan, blessings for you, for Ken's wife and family, and for the extended family.


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