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Dear Friends

Our funeral services, if conducted correctly, are not random sandwiches of items, but should have a proper shape. Apart from opening prayers, hymns and music, etc., they should work broadly as follows, with a structure, a progression and a balance.

Firstly, we hear something about the deceased, a eulogy or tribute, by someone who knew them well. Officially this is meant to be short. We often stretch a point here, but it should not be a huge part of the service. Then we get to Scripture. l am often a little disappointed that New Testament — Christian ~ readings are not more popular! Then the minister is instructed to give — at least a short ~ sermon. speaking of the Christian gospel in the circumstances of the present bereavement. They would often refer to the reading, and — particularly if there is no earlier eulogy — say something about the deceased. That is followed by prayers, for the departed. thanksgiving for the blessings of their life, prayer for the mourners, and for grace to pursue our own lives in the light and hope of the Gospel. The prayers end with The Lord's Prayer. The climax of the service is when we stand to commend the departed to God, - the Prayer of Commendation. The Commendation is about the person, not their body. The Committal follows afterwards. and possibly elsewhere.

These days we have less funerals than in former decades conducted by Church of England clergy in our churches, at cemeteries or crematoria. This is scarcely surprising, as it is now less 'the done thing' to show adherence to the Church or Christian things, and people feel free now to be more honest about what they really feel - which is not in itself bad. Over the years people have actually asked clergy to 'leave out the religious part', as they, or the deceased, were 'not religious' or 'not very religious'. Now there are secular celebrants willing to be employed. Some clergy have themselves taken to conducting non-religious funerals for those living in their parish, but I am far from sure that this is a good idea. Either, a funeral will focus on the deceased, and all concerned, in the hopeful context of God, or it will become a godless focussing on the deceased. A secular ceremony, with 'a bit of religion thrown in' is probably the worst of all worlds!

Our funerals are public services of the C of E. They should be led by those authorised by the local bishop to minister in that place. Funeral directors, if they understand the Church's rules, do not necessarily like them, or feel an obligation to foster adherence. Their focus is on finding someone to officiate whom they think will keep their customer happy, preferably someone they themselves know and can get hold of easily. Busy parish clergy have sometimes been hard to contact, but in this technological age they ought to make themselves accessible. A pensioned cleric like me with Permission to Officiate, should officiate only when asked by the parish authorities. For a full service at a crematorium now, the whole fee is supposed to be paid to the Diocesan Board of Finance, and the parish church concerned receives nothing. The Diocesan Board may pay a cleric in my situation a percentage of the fee, but the cleric has no rights, and this payment will shrink or be abolished, if a diocese falls on hard times. It is, therefore, tempting for clergy with Permission to Officiate, or ex-clergy without any Permission to work in the C of E, to take on cremations for a friendly undertaker without reference to the diocese, or the relevant parish, and pocket the whole fee! Sadly, some clergy and ex-clergy are not always as moral as we might hope and expect!

Fees for funerals in church bring in revenue for the Church, and without them life would be harder than it is for congregations. Sometimes, however, it is proposed to abolish funeral fees, apart, perhaps, from churchyard costs, and perhaps travelling expenses to the crematorium. We would simply conduct funerals for the deceased linked to our parish, when asked to do so. This might have the merit of putting - partly at least —— some less-desirable operators out of business. And, in that situation, we would offer only a properly Christian service.

Fr Roger

Marriages have been badly disrupted this year and many couples have had to make difficult choices: postpone or go ahead in circumstances which were not ideal. lt is not only Covid which has caused changes, also the abolition of Marriage Registers on 4th May, (after over 180 years), and even Brexit has potentially impacted any who are European nationals. The current rules about which church buildings you can have your wedding in give lots of opportunities, but can seem rather arbitrary and don’t meet everyone’s hopes.

‘Marriage is a gift of God in creation’, says the Marriage Service. The couple are the ministers of the sacrament. The priest ensures that they do things correctly and that the whole service is properly conducted. The priest is the chief witness, blesses the marriage, leads prayers and arranges for other witnesses and for the Government to record the marriage. But the couple actually marry themselves.

Much of the Church of England acknowledges that marriages can fail and then be deemed to have ended. Much in life is not ideal and individuals may, or may not, be at fault. The Gospel is, in any case, about repentance, forgiveness and new starts, and many ofthe clergy feel it right to bless some new marriages after a divorce. The more conservative clergy, however, will never conduct such marriages and they may refuse to let other clergy conduct them in church buildings for which they have responsibility.

For those willing to conduct a new marriage, each situation should be given careful thought. We cannot ‘bless an old infidelity’. If the relationship in the new marriage was a clear cause of the breakup of the first marriage, then clergy should normally refuse. This is why Archbishop Rowan did not marry Prince Charles and Camilla. A service of blessing after a civil marriage is not the same as blessing the marriage. ln some circumstances, however, we might fully bless a civil marriage soon alter it happens, if it could have happened in church but didn’t for some reason. This seems common practice in many churches on the Continent, where the legal part of the marriage may always need to be with, perhaps, the mayor.

You are certainly married on the day, but we no longer have signing of registers at a wedding, nor does the priest issue certified copies of a register entry. However, a substantial break in the service to sign registers and have music and photographs is etched into people’s expectations. Some clergy want to be ostriches and pretend that nothing has changed, but that seems crazy to me. Now we have a few quick signatures, not on large permanent records, but on a temporary chit of paper. The Registry people make the permanent entry on their computer and issue the certificate. we should do what is needed quickly and decently and not try to sentimentally perpetuate a situation which has gone. we need to focus on the real priorities of the service.

Roger

Dear Friends,

For well over fifty years now l have been involved in baptisms, marriages, and funerals, both in my Church duties, and in my own family, and thought to reflect a little on those events in some of my monthly letters.

The first thing to notice is that baptisms have become less, and Christian marriages and funerals led by authorised Church ministers have become less. Time was when baptisms, marriages and funerals were 'the done thing', although not always coupled with obvious religious conviction. Regarding baptisms of children, with a decline in these, older people have to stop themselves talking about, ‘Christian names’ — many people don’t have them. It is forenames, first names and last names, or name and surname. For many, names are not linked to any faith, and there are people from other religions around too.

Baptisms of babies have often been a bitter-sweet experience. Great visions in the service of God’s eternal love and of the community of his people and great promises made. But very little afterwards, and ~ whatever parents and Godparents have done, or failed to do - maybe the Churches have not been perfect in providing for children and families. At all costs, the Church must be welcoming and encouraging to parents.

I have sometimes imagined a Cub-Scout Leader having a nightmare. Parents come to say, 'We want our boy enrolled into the great fellowship of Scouting, but we don’t want him enrolled when the local Cubs are meeting, and he won’t be coming to Pack meetings, but he may grow up to have his own sons enrolled as Cubs!' With ‘private’ baptisms over the years, it has often seemed disturbingly like that!

The first Christians often had a Jewish background and would know that when a family sometimes converted to Judaism, the whole family, including children, would join. It was, therefore, natural for babies to be baptised as Christians, as well as their parents, with the expectation that they would be taught Christian things and be part of a Christian family and congregation. Through that experience the child had the best chance of discovering, understanding, and choosing Christianity for themselves as they grew up.

The first impoitant Prayer Book of the Church of England, in English, was published in 1549. That, and everyone since, has advocated baptisms happening on days when many of the congregation are present and involved. It can be inconvenient for baptism families. Some within congregations may be uneasy. But it is the right thing to do, and please be supportive when we have such special occasions.

Roger.

We all like the idea of progress, it seems positive and encouraging. Fifty-six years ago, on leaving university, I arrived in the delightful small city of Wells, living near the medieval cathedral, in a medieval house, to study Theology. It was a big change, as for years I’d been working on Physics and Maths. For some men who arrived there, their original degree had been in Theology, and they felt rather superior. One day they announced to us, rather grandly, ‘there is no progress’!

That seemed bizarre, but eventually I began to discover what was meant. In Science we are used to progress in understanding the world, the universe, the multiverse even, and plant and animal and microscopic life. We see businesses progress. Computing has changed our lives in many useful ways. How can we say, ‘no progress’? The scientific effort to combat Covid and other health issues has been very impressive and significant. Without progress there, many more would be perishing. I probably owe my life to the arrival of penicillin in the 1940s.

The timeless stories in the first chapters of Genesis have the message that humanity’s problems stem from a failure to work with God. Not only that, but we are told that we cannot get ourselves right without embracing God’s help. Help, which the Bible goes on to say, is offered, especially through the prophets, and supremely through Christ.

Without some better way forward, it seems that nuclear power will always give us the threat of nuclear war, chemical progress brings chemical weapons, biology, biological weapons, computing, cybercrime, useful social media, misuse and harm. Education produces more sophisticated criminals as well as much that is useful and fulfilling. Reckless industrialisation damages the environment. New and positive developments seem always to bring with them a dark side. A look at the newspaper will soon tell us that, as time goes by, we do not steadily and automatically become more civilised.

This is, surely, because people are short of love, unity, goodwill and vision. If they are to find those things in the way of Christ, it will mean several things. Our life is for doing and giving. Christ told us to lose our life to save it. And our focus has to be beyond what is commonly seen as ‘success’ in our present situation, with hope in things eternal.

Fr Roger  
Dear Friends

It was a great joy to be able to join with you all as public worship resumed once more at St Mary’s on Easter Sunday morning. As ever, we were deeply indebted to our Churchwardens for their impeccable advance planning and organization, which ensured that the service could be socially distanced as required and yet audible to those in the parish rooms as well as those who patiently sat outside in the churchyard! Despite the necessary restrictions, it was a truly uplifting occasion and thanks must be extended to all who helped to make it so special — particularly to Mary Monnington and her team for the beautiful flower arrangements, our Director of Music for planning the music so thoughtfully, the choir, who were in fine voice, and Fr Roger for an inspiring and thought-provoking sermon. For Margaret and myself it was, of course, a particularly poignant occasion as we had to say ‘goodbye’ to you all, but, again, we were so thankful for the excellent tribute from Mike Allisstone, which was perceptive as well as kindly, and offered a perfect balance of humour and seriousness! And, we need hardly add that we were completely overwhelmed by the generosity of the presentations — the beautiful colour wash (a kind of watercolour) of the church, which will be given pride of place in our new home in Chichester, the wonderful photobook, compiled by Lesley Bromley. containing so many precious memories of our happy times here in Sidlesham, the cards, flowers and far-too-generous cheque (which we hope to use for a holiday once such ventures are again permittedl). Thank you all so much — you will always be in our thoughts and prayers, and we wish you God speed for all that the next chapter here at Sidlesham will bring.

Fr Stephen
Dear Friends

The question might often arise, "When is Easter this year, (or perhaps next year)?" A tricky one, unless you have a calendar handy! Linking us with the Church’s early days, Easter Day is calculated, l believe, as the Sunday after the full moon on or after a (notional) Vernal Equinox! Understandably, there is always pressure for a more ‘convenient’ fixed date! But the service of God is demanding, and needs discipline, and to start focusing on our convenience is not, surely, an appropriate priority. To make the effort, and the sacrifice, to keep church festivals on the right day, conscious of our unity with Christians in many other places, is a healthy discipline. Our Church is more than our parish! There was the bizarre case ofa certain St John the Evangelist’s parish. St John’s Day, for them, was inconveniently right near Christmas, on 27th December. (lt was doubtless placed there as a special honour for St John!) That feckless parish thought it convenient to celebrate their parish patronal festival on St John’s day, 24th June. They did not care that that June date is for St John the Baptist - not their man at all!

But the calendar takes us only so far. lf celebrating Easter is anything properly real to us, it can happen every day, helping us to be focused on more than the usual pressures and demands of life - money, career, family, and the rest. At his crucifixion, Jesus cried, “lt is finishedl”. He didn’t mean, “l’m finished,” but, triumphantly, "My life and work are completed!"

That life was tackled by attending to his Father, and helping others, in love. This involved effort, discipline, sacrifice, encountering opposition, and finally meeting death. As St John’s Gospel tells it, Jesus did not have his life taken away from him, but voluntarily gave it up. And he told us to take up our own crosses and follow him, and to leave self behind, and lose our life to save it. Life ~ in our secure and prosperous pan of the world — can oten be lived for long periods dodging serious threats and stresses ~ completely ignoring the fact that eventually we will lose our possessions, our strength, and our life itself. As Graham Norton once wrote, so delicately, “all of our lives end up in the skip”. A frail old person once said to me, sadly, of their life, “I have set store by the wrong things”. The pandemic may have brought home to us — very usefully — that, even in our society, this life is fragile and finite. But Easter says that a way of life which is looking to God and, having a vision of life as challenging but hugely hopeful and eternal, can transform every day.

We watch quiz shows and sometimes realise that many in the community have no real idea at all of the Easter story. So, we may think that they need information, and indeed they do. But the key thing is that they need to encounter Easter people, - those who are not just well-informed, but who have something special about them —~ a quiet living relationship with God, a sense of the sacred, and the stability and strength that gives them. A real and attractive and humble humanity, willing to be open and vulnerable, not focused on self, status and control.

Finally, two quotes:

"Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us." -  [Desmond Tutu (apparently referring to Easter)]
"Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." - [St Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1]
Roger

 Dear Friends

It is with great sadness that I must let you know that, in all probability, this will be my last pastoral letter to you as Priest in Charge. You may have noticed over the past year or so that I have become increasingly unsteady, not only ‘on my pins’, but also in conducting public worship, and, approximately two months ago, I was diagnosed as suffering from vascular dementia. This is still in early stages but it is affecting my cognitive and physical capabilities, as well as my mobility, and I have therefore tendered my resignation to the Bishop as I feel I can no longer fulfil my duties here in the way which would be expected.

I’m very sorry to have to do this during such an unsettling time for us all, but I feel sure that the Bishop will not allow you to be left without help and leadership, and will find a replacement for me in due course, who can lead you into the next phase of ministry here. Meanwhile, Fr Roger will be on hand for advice and pastoral care, and I would like to record here my sincere thanks to him for all his support during my twelve-year tenure, especially lately when I have been obliged to ‘shield’ from the virus.

Now would be the time. too. to express my most grateful thanks to Chris and Janet. who. for so many years. have proved to be the very best of Churchwardens. constantly going above and beyond the call of duty, ably supported b) their spouses — as I have been by Margaret. I could not have continued in ministry. or served here for so long, without her unstinting support, and I do thank her. and Chris and Janet, from the bottom of my heart for all they have done. and continue to do.

Finally, I would like to thank each and every one of you for all your generosity, kindness and friendship over the years. It has truly been a privilege, delight and joy to serve in this beautiful parish, and Margaret and l shall miss you all very much indeed, but will be taking many happy memories with us into retirement. As of the time of writing, we are not sure whether it might be possible to hold a socially distanced service for Easter Sunday (please see a note on this elsewhere in this issue), which would be my last Sunday in the parish, but, should this not prove to be the case, please be assured of my prayers and the very best of wishes for the future.

Stephen