On Thursday I went along to an event call Dying Matters: the big conversation, organised by Healthwatch Norfolk. It was an important event, well organised with the aim of encouraging us all to think more honestly about death and to talk to one another. The gathering was shaped by a survey that shows how little we talk about this important subject.
I was invited as I am a friend of a member of the board of Healthwatch who knew I was interested in this topic. As a priest in the Church of England sitting with the dying and conducting funerals has been an important part of my ministry. We were told there are some 9000 funerals in the County each year, yet despite the fact that a significant number (if not the majority) of these will be conducted by the Church, there was no official Church presence, no reference to the role of religion or the work of Clergy.
How has it become possible to organise an event on death and cut out all reference to religion, God or the Church?
Our society seems to have become so nervous about anything to do with religion that we are gradually being written out of the picture. Two of the stall holders, seeing the clerical collar, we very quick to point out to me that they were not linked to any faith as if they were nervous about my (genuine) interest in what they were doing.
But what saddens me most is that the Church, consciously or unconsciously has colluded with this process. Too often we have withdrawn from where people are into a religious sphere where many do not wish to come. Once most people were happy to tick a box saying CofE as the safe refuge of those of uncertain faith and we welcomed this. Now people feel safer ticking “no religion” for fear they are signing up to a particular set of belief.
“No religion” does not mean no faith or no spiritual interest. They are not choosing to tick “atheist” but neither is CofE seen any longer as a desirable option. Sadly the Church of England is losing its art of just being alongside people, where they are, what ever they believe. We are no longer seen as the natural ally of the spiritually curious or mildly interested. The CofE is perceived as having got too religious – and in the public eye that is seen as a bad thing.
So a group like Healthwatch Norfolk feel it is far safer to have a big conversation about death but avoid any reference to Church for fear the involvement of religion will complication not help things. It would seem so obvious that how people feel about death, their willingness to talk about it and plan for it, is coloured at least in some way by their belief system. However we have become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
As counter intuitive as it may seem for some, the Church of England needs to talk less about faith/religion/God, what Christians believe and what the Bible says and instead just be alongside people, be interested in the things they are interested in, support them in the issues they are concerned about. God talk comes a lot later (and for some may be never) but first and foremost comes relationship – without that we are doomed to sit on the sidelines.
Only when we have proved ourselves to be the true friend and companion of our communities, may we, perhaps, once again be invited back into the big conversations.