This year more than any other year we need to make the most of what Common Worship, the Anglican collection of services and prayers, calls a ‘Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day)’, but which I prefer to call a ‘Remembrance Service for past friends and loved ones’. This is the time when traditionally Christians remember with thankfulness all those who have died in Christ. In Anglican churches at the Anglo-Catholic end of the spectrum I am told that only Christmas Eve services are more popular. Significantly in Evangelical Anglican churches it is currently the fastest growing form of church service. It is a popular service even in Baptist churches which have adopted the custom!
This year, however, as we come out of the pandemic, I believe the service could be even more popular. The fact is that so many of us were not able to hold the kind of funeral we would normally have for a loved one. In the case of my uncle John, for instance, we could only have to a short graveside committal, limited to 20 mourners. In the case of my mother, we were given a little more time at the crematorium, but again were limited to 20 mourners. At both services we were not allowed to sing hymns, and at the end we could not hug one another or have ‘wake’. We felt well and truly deprived. What was true in our case was true in the case of thousands and thousands of other people. As a result I believe there is a real pent-up need to celebrate the lives of our loved ones and to seek God’s continued help at this time.
Were I still the minister of a local church, I would be promoting this service in a big way. In the past I used to write to all the relatives of those whose funerals I had taken over the past year and invite them to a special service of thanksgiving for past loved ones. I would also write to all those in the church who I knew had lost a close relative in the year, but whose funeral I did not take. In addition I would make it clear that we would also be remembering all those whose dreams were crushed with a miscarriage or a still birth. It became a big event in our church calendar. However, this year, were I still in pastoral charge I would go way beyond our normal networks and publicise the ‘event’ (yes, I use this secular term deliberately) to everybody in the wider community both through the church website and through all other possible means.
I would do away with ‘churchy’ terms such as ‘All Souls’ and ‘All Saints’, and make it known that we were holding a ‘Remembrance Service’ for all who had lost a friend or loved one in the pandemic – but that others who had lost a friend or loved for other reasons were welcome too. I would invite people to send me the names of their friends or loved ones, so that we could publicly remember them by reading out their names. However, I would want to make clear that the Remembrance Service would not be another funeral – and that the focus would be on those who were travelling the path of bereavement.
I am in two minds as to whether I would hold this Remembrance Service at a time other than a normal Sunday service. In the past I always felt it good to hold such a service within the context of normal Sunday worship. However, this year with all its potential I fear that many churches might not have the capacity to include their normal Sunday congregation together with all the visitors, and therefore might be tempted to hold it on the Sunday afternoon – and all the more so if Covid-infections are still high.
The whole service should be drawn up with the needs of the bereaved in mind. The focus of the sermon should be on the difference that Jesus makes not just to dying but also to living. After the sermon I would read out the names of the friends and loved ones which had been sent in. I would also give people an opportunity to silently thank God for other loved ones who had died, remembering too those who had experienced the pain of a miscarriage or a still-birth.
All this would build up to inviting people to come forward and light candles in memory of their friends and loved ones – expecting many to come forward I would ensure that there would a number of lighting points. As I know from past experience this can be an incredibly moving and cathartic experience, and is often a key vehicle to experience the grace of God. It is, however, important that the congregation understand what they are doing. In that regard, let me offer a ‘liturgy’ I constructed, drawing upon and adapting words of others, with which I think Evangelicals in general would be comfortable:
We find it hard to let go of our loved ones and leave them in God’s keeping. Today I light this candle to remind us that Jesus rose from the dead to bring us God’s new life, and that he is the Light of the world. Today let it be a sign of the new life and love of God. We invite everyone who wishes, whether your loved one died in recent years or many years ago, to come and take a candle and light it in memory of your loved one, so demonstrating your faith that all who trust in the risen Christ are in God’s safekeeping.
Lighting of candles (accompanied by music with perhaps appropriate images projected on the screen)
Leader (after the candles have been lit):
We remember, Lord, the slenderness of the thread which separates life from death, and the suddenness with which it can be broken. Help us also to remember that on both sides of that division we are surrounded by your love. Persuade our hearts that when our dear ones die neither we nor they are parted from you. Let us find our peace in you; and in you be united with them in the glorious body of Christ, for you have conquered death, and are alive – our Saviour and theirs – for ever and ever.
Then after prayers, in which we praise God for the living hope that is ours as a result of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and pray that God will comfort all who mourn, giving them the strength and the courage they need for the living of their days, I would have a well known hymn of resurrection, concluding with the following benediction:
Let us trust God for the past – for the forgiveness of past sins and the healing of past hurts. Let us trust God for the present – for the meeting of daily needs and for guidance in daily living. Let us trust God for the future – for help with tomorrow’s troubles and for the hope of eternal life. So may the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be upon us all.
Then Covid infections permitting there should be coffee and cakes for everybody – the church equivalent of a ‘wake’!
Yes, let’s make the most of All Souls day!