Last week I wrote of how my final prayer before I turn to sleep is a prayer in which I commend myself to God’s love and mercy. This week, I want to pursue that theme, albeit slightly differently, by relating it to funeral services.
Some time ago I was attending the funeral of a friend. It felt a little strange. In the past I would have been taking the service, but now I was just a member of the congregation. The service was well led. It was also thought-provoking. For in his address the minister made a statement which I had never heard before:
The most precious experience a priest can have is to help a person to journey from this life to the next.
I wonder, how many of my fellow Baptist ministers would identify with such a statement? Sadly, I suggest that very few would. By and large we Free Church ministers do not do death well.
In that regard, I was reading again Talking About End-of-Life Wishes: Not If, But When (Grove 2020). Written by Susan Walker, a United Reformed Church minister and a former hospice chaplain, it is a helpful guide to enable terminally ill people to talk about their end of life wishes. Yet nowhere does the author say anything about helping people to make the transition from this life to the next. The booklet simply states:
Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians tend to observe the custom of the priest administering the last rites – the sacraments of confession, anointing of the sick and final holy communion (‘viaticum’). Some Lutherans and Anglicans also observe similar traditions. Whilst this is not the norm for many Protestant denominations, something like this is occasionally asked for.
I checked out the most recent Baptist guide, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples. In the section entitled ‘Visiting the sick and praying with those near death’ there are just two prayers, neither of which are of any real help to enable the dying to make their transition into glory.
By contrast the Pastoral Services volume of the multi-volume Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England provides rich resources for helping the dying as they make the transition from life to death. Seventeen pages are devoted to ‘Ministry at time of death’. In addition to a section on ‘Laying on of hands and anointing’, it includes some beautiful prayers in the section entitled commendation. For instance, there is the following introductory prayer:
(Name), go forth from this world:
In the love of God the Father who created you,
In the mercy of Jesus Christ who redeemed you,
In the power of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you.
May the heavenly host sustain you
And the company of heaven enfold you.
In communion with all the faithful,
May you dwell this day in peace.
Another prayer of commendation reads:
Into your hands, O merciful Saviour,
We commend your servant (Name).
Acknowledge, we pray, a sheep of your own fold,
A lamb of your own flock,
A sinner of your own redeeming.
Enfold him/her in the arms of your mercy,
In the blessed rest of everlasting peace
And in the glorious company of the saints of light.
Although Baptists do not have a prayer book to follow, I think they in particular have something to learn from our Anglican friends. We may not use a prayer book, and yet there is a place for drawing upon liturgical resources from other churches so that they may help the dying to entrust themselves into the hands of God, and then to help the bereaved to entrust their loved ones to the love and mercy of God.