A Proper Wedding by Amanda Lohrey in the Monthly August Edition 2009 commences,
In February of this year I watched the telecast of the Victorian bushfire memorial service, a unique piece of improvised public ritual that was very much of its time. . . . .
I could not remember another time when a newsreader had been elevated above bishops at an important state memorial service, yet no one in the media remarked on it. This, I believe, is a direct outcome of the fact that for over three decades Australians have been attending weddings and funerals performed by civil celebrants. If any one factor has prepared us for an easy acceptance of secular ritual, both public and private, it is Lionel Murphy‘s reform of the marriage culture.
I commented on this theme and Amanda Lohrey’s insightful analysis on this Civil Religion at the Rod Laver Centre in Melbourne for the victims of the Victorian Bushfires in an article, What song shall we sing? Words of consolation? Or excruciating kitsch? Amanda Lohery writes about this now in relation to marriage and rites of passage in general in Australia.
In what ways have Christians not taken up the opportunities for pastoral ministry to Australians seeking ways, rites of passage, to express love and loss?
The Canberra poet and civil celebrant Mark O’Connor argues that Australia is largely a “post-Christian society, and for many people the old ceremonies no longer fit”. Perhaps this is why so many new ceremonies have come into being over the past 20 years: infant naming, adolescent and old-age rites of passage, pet funerals, menopause parties, divorce ceremonies, new-home blessings -you name it, you can find a celebrant to officiate. Of these, the infant naming ceremony is the most popular, replacing as it does the traditional christening. Again, there is an emphasis on participation and the ceremony often involves the father lifting the infant above his head while assembled friends and family shout the child’s name. One celebrant told me of a naming ceremony where the mother read out a letter in which she apologised to the baby for her post-natal depression. “It was cathartic,” said the celebrant, “not just for her but the whole family. It felt like a new start.” This celebrant is one of the many who are content with their current role and limited function: “I don’t want to be doing any more than I do now. I’m not any kind of priest, I’m just a privileged witness.”
I also note the continuing challenge of building family life: ‘Australian marriages making a comeback’ by Simon Santow for ABC Radio’s AM 1st September. Yet a disturbing trend of long term couples divorcing – http://www.news.com.au/story/0,27574,26009968-421,00.html
In what ways can Christians take up the opportunities for pastoral ministry to Australian men and women, boys and girls, who are seeking ways to express love and loss?
I guess it’s horses for courses but the notion of a funereal read by a retired newsreader leaves me cold. Recently a young member of my family was baptised in an Anglican Service performed by the Rev’d Canon David O Neill. The congregation consisted of family and friends, both churched and unchurched and the overwhelming view, as expressed after wards, was that “he wasn’t a bad sort of a bloke” and that what he said “made sense even to someone like me”. Surely the celebration of life, faith and family which defines the baptism of a child is best facilitated by the padre rather than the bloke who reads the 6.30 news.
When faced with the painful chore of planning my father’s funeral, for us there was no option but the Book of Common Prayer, a well loved hymn and the 121’st psalm. Certainly we chose a piece of secular music too but that was as much about our memories of Dad’s vigorous complaints about “Countdown” as anything else. Once again, for the unchurched in the congregation Rev’d Craig Arnold was classified as conducting himself in a way “Roger would have approved of”.
I know that for us who grew up in the church those traditional rituals provide comfort and certainty in difficult times and parameters for celebration at times of great joy but I have been astounded and humbled by the response, despite initial ambivalence in many instances, by others when such things are imposed and courtesy requires some level of compliance.
Further to that all the small children at Jackson’s baptism were fascinated by the candles and the notion of “shining as a light in the world…” I spent some times explaining the significance of some aspects of the liturgy to the kids but that’s OK, they were just checking what Fr David had told them was right! And in one young lady’s case that Fr Bill had done the same for her years earlier.
While not world shattering in terms of evangelism surely these rights of passage rituals/celebrations are a chance to re engage the lapsed, engage the unchurched and prick the curiosity of children… a seed planted. I think that the challange is to meet the congregation at the point they are at rather than try and impose and perhaps that is the joy of a broad church. A military Chaplin to baptize an airman’s son, a man who has worked in industry to minister to the family of an engineer who dies of asbestosis. Our challange is to maintain our diversity and to reach out without judgement. To walk beside people on THEIR journey not to impose ours on them.
A great encouragement from your experiences of good pastoral ministry for us to continually engage church and society, Gospel and culture. The Tasmanian stories are very much appreciated. I enjoyed the way you yourself took up one such pastoral opportunity. Thanks, Wendy.