Sexual irony – speaking well of the dead

by Andrew Lightbown

Andrew Lightbown (Rector of Winslow) recently wrote a blog post about the sad irony that he was able to officiate at the funeral of a gay man at which the 40-year relationship that had been at the centre of his life was celebrated, and yet the Church of England had been unable to celebrate or even acknowledge that relationship during his life.

You can read more of his blog posts here.

Earlier this week I was privileged to take the funeral of a lovely man, let’s call him Frank. The funeral took place in a crematorium and was extremely well attended. Frank had spent much of his adult life living in a rural part of Oxfordshire but originally hailed from Birmingham. I reckon that just over 100 people attended the funeral including Frank’s civil partner, let’s call him Jim.

Everyone at the funeral was asked to wear a rainbow emblem, which they did without shame or embarrassment. I wore one on my stole. Frank had an old-fashioned Anglo Catholic faith and Jim asked me to make sure that this was reflected in the service. I was asked, no instructed, to make sure that I wore a purple stole (which I would have done in any case) over my cassock and surplice.

I don’t know this for sure but I suspect that the majority of the congregation were heterosexual, and yet they sported their rainbow emblems with pride. Their love for Frank and their delight in his civil partnership with Jim was clear and manifest. The beauty and dignity of their forty-year relationship was honoured through the tributes. As far as I can tell everyone was thrilled that Frank had been able to enjoy a long-term, monogamous, faithful and latterly covenanted relationship with Jim. The love and support for Jim was both heart-felt and genuine. It was a beautiful service. As I say: to officiate was a privilege.

And yet driving home from the funeral I felt a real sense of sadness and, to some extent – well a considerable extent – shame; shame that we, the Church of England, were able to speak well of Frank in death when we couldn’t bring ourselves to do so in life.

Shame that we could speak well of Frank and Jim’s relationship in death, when we couldn’t formally, liturgically, affirm it in life.

Shame that the funeral liturgy makes it clear that ‘you (Jesus) offered eternal life to those who believe,’ whilst so often the Church of England wants to add ‘but terms and conditions apply.’ It’s a shameful irony that so many of those who would count themselves as true heirs to the reformation seem so insistent on a theology of salvation through (sexual) works.

Shame that I was able to ask God to ‘remember for good your servant Frank as we also remember him,’ in the expectation that God will ‘bring all who rest in Christ into the fullness of your kingdom where sins have been forgiven and death is no more,’ when a very significant constituency in the Church of England continue to insist that homosexuality is the unforgivable sin.

Frank and Jim’s civil partnership was, by all accounts, a beautiful ceremony, followed by a wonderful ‘wedding banquet.’  I know that they both enjoyed their big day, but the shame and sadness is this: Frank wanted his relationship, his long-term, faithful and monogamous relationship, to be formally and liturgically affirmed, signed, sealed and delivered by the Church and, in a church.

I am grateful that I was able to do for Frank in death that which the church wouldn’t do in life, but at the same time I felt a deep sense of sadness and shame.

The fact that the Church of England liturgically enables her ministers to speak well of an individual and their relationship at death, but not in life, is the cruelty, the hypocrisy, the irony, the sadness and the shame.