‘Our God is God not of the dead, but of the
living’ (Mk. 12:27.)
The other day I was reading an act passed by Parliament in January 1645: “An Ordinance for taking away the Book of Common
Prayer, and for establishing and putting in execution of the Directory for the publique worship of God.” When I was growing up as an American Presbyterian, we called this the Westminster Directory of Worship.
What struck me was the fact that, unlike the Book of Common Prayer, there was no provision for what we would call a proper funeral. The Directory requires burial of the dead ‘without any ceremony’.
Why was I reading this obscure seventeenth-century document? Some of you may know that I have taken a sabbatical. Ministers generally take a
sabbatical every seven years. Since after seven years in ministry in Chicago I moved here to serve the Ely Pastorate, I didn’t get to take the break I was due to take then. I did take a sabbatical seven years later, when I was in Birmingham, but when I was due for my next one, as minister of City URC,
I was so close to retirement I didn’t think it was fair on the church to take one at that point. So some weeks ago, feeling emotionally exhausted and having a huge research project begging for my attention, I decided the best thing for me to do was to take that missing sabbatical.
That’s how I wound up looking at the Westminster Directory. My research project is in seventeenth-century ecclesiastical and political history.
The Directory goes on to explain WHY funeral ceremonies are discouraged:
Because the customs of kneeling down and praying by or towards the dead corpse, and other usages in the place where it lies before it is carried to burial, are superstitious, and for that praying, reading, and singing, both in going to and at the grave, have been grossly abused, are in no way beneficial to the dead, and have proved many ways hurtful to the living, therefore let all such things be laid aside.
Praying for the dead was a holdover from medieval Catholic
understandings of purgatory, but for seventeenth-century Calvinists, the salvation of the deceased had already been predestined long before death, in God’s eternal decree made before the beginning of time. It was out of our hands. All there was to do was have faith in God’s grace and be
Instead of the old traditions, the Directory recommended ‘the Christian friends which accompany the dead body’ might ‘apply themselves to
meditations and conferences suitable to the occasion’ and the minister, ‘if he be present, may put them in remembrance of their duty.’ The deep
reason for the lack of ecclesiastical ceremony or even the presence of the minister is that burials in Scripture never involve the church (or the
synagogue). In the Bible, friends bury their friends, and our spiritual
forbears did what the Bible said (and didn’t do what the Bible was silent about).
Jesus said, after all, that God is God ‘not of the dead, but of the living’ (Mk. 12:27). In another place, he says, ‘Let the dead bury the dead (Matt. 8:22). Jesus wasn’t big on funerals.
In practice, people did pretty much as they wanted. Conservatives
continued to follow the Prayer Book. Others not. Richard Culmer, a
minister in Thanet, Kent, faced recurrent trouble from more conservative parishioners when he refused to conduct graveside funerals (though he was willing to preach sermons focused on the needs of the living in the church following the burial). ‘He would not be chaplain to the worms, to say grace to them before they go to dinner,’ explained Culmer’s son in his defence. The traditional practice, he said, pandered to ‘ignorant and
superstitious people, as if some good came to the dead by the minister’s speaking over the dead at the grave.’
At the end of the Interregnum, in 1661, a gathering known as the Savoy Conference brought Presbyterians and the more conservative clerics of the Church of England together to seek out common ground in making possible revisions to a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer. The
Presbyterians asked for modifications to the Prayer Book’s order for the burial of the dead. ‘We desire it may be expressed in the rubric that the prayers and exhortations here used are not for the benefit of the dead, but for the instruction and comfort of the living.’ The request was refused.
The only change to the burial service came at the request of the high church ceremonialist John Cosins, the rubric that the burial service was ‘not to be used for any that die unbaptised, or excommunicate, or have laid violent hands upon themselves.’
As I indicated earlier, I was familiar with this Westminster Directory for Worship growing up as an American Presbyterian, though these funeral details skipped my attention. The Presbyterian Church USA published the Directory alongside various confessional documents of the Reformed
tradition, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second
Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter
Catechism, the Larger Catechism, the Barmen Declaration–documents our local churches and presbyteries (regional church bodies) were looking at as our denomination was engaged in producing a new confessional
document. The Confession of 1967, as that new document came to be called, was all about reconciliation and was responding to the difficult
political and social challenges to the faith, the Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam—social changes as momentous in many ways as what this country was facing in the 1640s when the Westminster Directory was
What are the social and political challenges to our faith today? Where do we stand? From time to time it is good for our communities to stand up and say what we are committed to, and these statements of commitment will always differ as the challenges of the times differ.
It might be interesting to have a church away-day to come to some
common understanding of what is facing us and where we need to stand as a community of faith. And, as far as funerals go, and at a time when
card-carrying, pensioned ministers are thinly stretched, if they exist at all, it is good to remember that in our nonconformist tradition friends minister to friends.