Recent reports from funeral directors and burial authorities have noted a very sharp decline in Church and Christian funerals. Newspapers have commented on it. They have confirmed what many of us have noted with much sadness over a number of years. Funeral “services” can now be conducted by a great variety of people and are expressive of a wide variety of “religious” or philosophical beliefs, or no particular beliefs at all, atheism included. The former customary Christian monopoly of funerals has vanished. So hymns, scripture readings (of which there are so many comforting examples), talk of life after death and prayers have largely disappeared. Churches are used for funeral services very much less than they have ever been. To some this is a welcome sign of liberal progress and “inclusivity” (a great watchword of the secular world). To others it is regrettably a clear mark of a society that has forgotten and turned its back on a Living God. It is undeniably a mark of a huge cultural change toward an increasingly secular society. It has happened within three or four decades after centuries of a foundational Christian culture.
This does not mean that such modern “services” are taken without sympathy or sensitivity. On the contrary the last one I attended was a model of sensitivity, and much appreciated by the family concerned. And of course there have been Christian services which unhappily at times have showed very little sensitivity or personal concern. Such modern services centre on the life of the deceased, with no dimension of any future life after death. Appreciations of the life of the dead person figure very highly and are more often than not given in a thoughtful, informed and appropriate manner, and at length. Such appreciations are, of course, very much a part of Christian funeral services, where a person’s life is celebrated along with their faith. Readings in the secular funeral are generally poetical in content and sentimental; strong Christian biblical affirmations of life after death are noticeably absent. There is music, but exclusively it seems centred on the favourite songs of the person who has died which tends to make any form of music feel appropriate to the particular occasion. There are very rarely any hymns. There is no prayer. Most people with little or no experience about funerals will normally be guided into these kinds of services; they are convenient for planning and organising, and circumvent additional planning with the churches and further expense.
What is lost here is, of course, a massive spiritual dimension. There is a clear absence of any recognition of the concept of a Creator God, along with an omission of any exhortation to make sure our lives are being lived in a manner acceptable to a Living God who looks for righteousness and godliness in human living. The moral quality that is required of us as living beings before our Creator is not mentioned. Much less is any concept of glory in an after-life brought to people’s minds; such areas are “no go” areas for the secularist who will inevitably be pleased rather than saddened by the omissions.
As with funerals, so with weddings! Again the Christian church has lost its overall coverage. In our generation marriage can take place anywhere (even on the wing of a flying airplane!), and any suitably legally qualified person can conduct the proceedings. Once again there is no hymn, no scripture, no prayer, and no kind of exhortation or guidance in the contractual procedure, no kind of indication of the enormous importance of the undertaking and the relational issues and challenges involved. Once again the convenience of the process steers a couple away from any church and any spiritual input, and so, not only has marriage itself declined in the face of civil contracts and simple “living together”, but what marriage is left is predominantly secular in nature.
Again many are pleased at such a “progressive outcome”. But many of us see a great void when comparing the modern “service” with the Christian version. The Christian version makes very clear the virtue of chastity before and the virtue of faithfulness during a marriage and insists on the sexual restraints that are so cripplingly absent in modern society. It insists that such reminders are not outdated. It has no easy word of “try it and see if it works before you marry” philosophy. But it does imply the need of very careful consideration of the mutual compatibility of any couple before the step is taken. The great image the Christian version presents of marriage is in terms no less than that of Christ’s relationship with his bride, the church, where not only faithfulness is foundational, but where the level of mutual love and commitment required is expressed in terms of Christ giving his life for his bride. The promise “to love and to cherish” is a profound verbalisation of that commitment. Sermons or talks are very frequently precisely down that line. Ignoring these things is a great loss; they give substance to crucial vows.
Marriage has declined for a number of reasons. One of the more bizarre and more recent reasons appears to be the current overriding notion that a “wedding” has to be a “celebrity” style of event, an occasion which necessarily demands a very large financial outlay and years of “saving up”! It seems to be the outcome of the “celebrity culture” which the media has spawned so widely. Weddings which the social elite put on for personal display are very far from what weddings are really intended to be. Even if they are special they are not a good model for most people to follow! When people begin to think a wedding can’t be a proper wedding without such an enormous splash they are tempted stop thinking “wedding” and take other options. A simple “wedding breakfast”, however, is not to be despised; the vows and the commitment and the genuine support of close friends are the important things.
I’ve reflected on these “straws in a secular wind” simply as examples to draw attention once again to how far we have as a society turned our back on our Christian heritage and the moral undergirding that such a heritage has provided for us. For the secularist this is all progress, enlightenment and freedom. For those of us who still take our guidance and standards from a Scripture revelation this is anything but progress. It is regressive. It’s regressive because it is a retreat from God, a turning way from God. If Scripture has anything to say to us, it is that turning away from God always has dire consequences for humanity. For a nation not to have ever known God is a great lack, but for a nation that has known God’s blessing for many centuries and been an instrument for good in the hands of God and yet turns away from God it is utterly disastrous. This is theme I have explored more fully in the pamphlets under the heading of “The Nation that Lost its Soul”, which is a study of Judah’s historical rejection of God and the great distress it brought to that nation. Take a look at it if you have time.
N.B. There is a new study on the Bible Page. This is no 4 in the series “Godliness in an Age of Judgement”. To read more click here.