I am pleased to report that the Order for the Burial of the Dead for Claiborne Pell, former US senator from Rhode Island, which took place in Newport at Trinity Church yesterday, January 5th, was lovely and moving. The Burial I office seemed to be followed closely (the broadcast chopped off the opening anthems), the readings were beautifully done by family members, and the hymns were nicely played and sung.
But there were major differences between this service [#] and little Rhody’s next previous major Episcopal funeral, that of Senator John Chaffee at Grace Church, Providence, in 1999 [*]. The differences do not reflect on either extraordinarily – for US senators – honorable, and patrician, gentleman. But comparison of the two funerals does provide a meaningful indication of serious decline in the Episcopal Church over the past decade.
One difference between the two services appears incontrovertable: The CNN video of the Chaffee service is indicated to be just under 50 minutes. The Pell C-Span coverage is over 1 1/2 hours. The relative conciseness of the Chaffee service was (based on feeble personal recollection) a result of Father (and former US senator) John Danforth seeming to be in charge: the service appeared to be liturgically proper, appealing, and complete. Moreover, Father Danforth preached an engaging, and true, sermon. To-be-senator Lincoln Chaffee recited a poem (entirely from memory); his older brother had provided the eulogy. If then-president and in-attendance Bill Clinton took the lecturn, he must have kept it short.
But guess who seemed to be in charge of the Pell service? Politicians.
The initial reporting after Pell’s death indicated that there would be two speakers (the Roman Catholic rubric?): a grandson and a current or former senator. An hour-long service was planned. But what actually took place between the readings and the Petitions/Prayers of the People (there was no Eucharist) ranged from appropriately poignant to unbelievably awful.
Senator Edward Kennedy spoke first (for 7 minutes and 40 seconds). Extremely frail but resolute, he demonstrated a long and genuine friendship with Pell. Bill Clinton was next (8:20) and was his usual masterful self at the lecturn/podium. Then came Joe Biden, who confirmed his blow-hard reputation with a rambling, sometimes incoherent 24-minute schpeel (the TV camera had to turn away from him for the final minutes). RI Senator Jack Reed was next (8:15 … do you suppose that speakers were asked to keep it to about 8 minutes?). His Fort Ticonderoga story was a gem, but his link to Pell seemed otherwise to be no closer than marching together in a July 4th parade. Eponymous ‘Nick’ Pell (7:30) spoke movingly of loved, if peculiar, traits of his grandfather.
Then came RI bishop Geralyn Wolf (7:00). No Danforth sermon from her! Did she have to correct Nick Pell’s assertion that she had returned from Africa for the service? And she should have stuck to her notes when she stated that RI has the most Roman Catholics and Episcopalians in the country (she surely meant proportionately) and referred to RI’s shameful “trade slave.” Somewhat baffling were her statements that “Jesus was all about opportunity” and “Life is always victorious over any death.” (Would that be this life? … or the sleep after death, or final Resurrection? … “Paging John Donne!” “NT Wright, come in please!”) Finally, Bishop Wolf betrayed her thin Pell family relationship with at least one anecdote preceeded by the dreaded “I’ve been told that …”
And should I have winced as I did when the priest who led the Petitions filled in the final “Grant us, with all who have died … ” petition with “… blessed Claiborne and all thy saints … “? Maybe not.
Here are some questions:
When did “The Burial of the Dead” change to “A Celebration of the Life of …”? Will the next Book of Common Prayer use the latter as the title of the office?
Who sanctioned all the awful eulogies/personal stories that now eviscerate what used to be one of the most beautiful liturgies across Christianity. When did “dispatching” join the “hatching”, and “matching” as bizarre variants of the intended Pastoral Office? When did officiants/celebrants stop adequately preparing for these liturgies?
How many more opportunities will there be – i.e. with its burial service, and prominent such occasions in particular – for the Episcopal Church to show that it hasn’t gone totally loony?
–Mr. Pete Haynsworth is a layman in Rhode Island