24 November 1998
The Church of England's new funeral arrangements reveal much about Christianity at the end of the millennium, argues Mark Ryan
On Tuesday 17 October the General Synod of the Church of England discussed death. However, their concern was with death not as a moral or spiritual question, but as a way of raising environmental awareness and assisting the caring professions.
They proposed the following. First, a 24-hour national helpline (yes, another one) for those who have been bereaved, giving advice on how to bury their nearest and dearest; bereavement counsellors to be present at cemeteries to be ready to 'offer support'; the replacement of expensive and ecologically unsound wooden coffins with biodegradable cardboard boxes; the recycling of ancient graveyards and the use of forests as burial grounds as a way of reducing the ecological footprints of the dead. (How the poor gravediggers might squeeze the cardboarded stiffs into the impenetrable forest floor is a practical question their lordships the druids did not consider). At least two implications arise from all this. Firstly, the Church of England no longer has much faith in its own spiritual powers or ability to make sense of death, and will happily pass such matters over to the caring professions. Secondly, in common with the 'new age', it sees the profound questions of human existence and mortality purely in terms of waste disposal.
The C of E can not be accused of arrogance in the role it has outlined for itself. In its desire to keep control of the funeral industry its stated aim is to provide a better delivery service for the bereaved with the help of its 24-hour helpline. While the church is anxious to keep control of the 600 million-a-year funeral industry, it is ready to hand over the spiritual side of the business to the bereavement counsellors. The whole assumption at the Synod is that counsellors, not clergy, understand death and its implications for the bereaved. Compared to the accumulated wisdom of the caring professions, the Judaeo-Christian tradition it would seem has little to offer.
It is astonishing how quickly the Christian churches have surrendered their spiritual authority to the new counselling industry. All the churches are engaged in this handover. It is now common practice for Catholic priests to receive counselling for the supposed plethora of life problems they face, from the strains of celibacy to the temptations of the opposite sex and of young boys. All this is done with apparently little concern for its implications. No man or woman who seeks such help could ever command spiritual authority.
The readiness with which the churches are surrendering their pastoral duties and spiritual authority to the counsellors is turning the latter into a new priestly caste. On the same day that the Synod debated its own redundancy, the government announced that it was to set up teams of 'Diana nurses' for the comfort of dying or seriously ill children. The proposals, described predictably as 'fitting tribute to the memory of the Princess', show how the remit of the carers is all the time acquiring a broader spiritual dimension. Unlike the old priesthood which had its spiritual roles strictly limited by an increasingly secular society, there are no boundaries to the march of the caring battalions. From the simplest functions of putting food into our mouths to the great metaphysical question of death, the new priestly caste observes no limits to the expansion of its empire.
The second aspect of the Synod's deliberations further underlines the way it now views spiritual questions from a new-age perspective. In Christian mythology, Christ's crucifixion charged death with an immense spiritual meaning. Not only did Christ redeem the human race as a whole through His sacrifice, but the individual human soul acquired for the first time a uniqueness and definition through the possibility of eternal life (or, of course, eternal damnation). The individual could die physically, but his soul would live forever. That is why death was always the trump card of Christianity. The solemnity which surrounded the act of Christian burial was no more than a recognition of the importance of death in the progress of the soul.
The Church of England, however, now sees death in the more practical terms of how to dispose of all the garbage produced by its highly lucrative funeral industry. Death now stimulates reflection not on questions of redemption and immortality, but on environmental concerns of recycling and the eco-friendly disposal of corpses. All the churches are well on the way to becoming new-age institutions in which the worship of the Earth and contempt for the individual replaces the worship of God and a sense of the uniqueness of man. The millennial prayer agreed by all the churches, for example, deletes all mention of God and replaces it with a call to respect the Earth. It looks as if the end of the millennium heralds not a new milestone in the Christian tradition, but its end.
For more on the churches at the end of the millennium, see the December/January issue of LM.
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