An Agnostic's Funeral
But he wasn’t really a believer. This is a frequent response when I say to a family planning a funeral or memorial service that they must choose a reading from the New Testament. And then it turns out the deceased was fascinated by the conundrum of faith’s ambiguities and often talked about it.
This is broadly, but not specifically, true of Dan Wilson whose funeral I conducted on Saturday. When we reached this point in devising a service that would respect all that the gifted and long suffering Dan was, we reflected on who the service was for: obviously for Dan – to mark his multiple achievements and to dignify his distressingly premature death – but also for us to mourn him and give thanks his life, hopefully the beginnings of a cathartic process that would help to heal our emotional wounds. So the faith and beliefs of those who mourn must also carry weight in deciding the nature of a person’s memorial.
Yet the remaining ambiguity over the question of a Christian service for an agnostic man caused Dan’s parents to suggest I attempt some sort of clarification in my introduction. What sprang to mind was the story in St Mark of the father who brings his epileptic son to be healed by Jesus. The fits have caused the child to fall both into the fire and water. Jesus says that anything can be done for those who believe. Then the father utters the famous words, ‘Lord, I believe help thou mine unbelief!’ – a sentiment echoed, it seems to me, by the majority of those who are seeking to glimpse the nature of transcendence.
Then I quoted Pascal who put into the mouth of God words to the effect that ‘you would not be seeking me if you hadn’t found me.’ If that seems excessively paradoxical, he must be right to suggest that to search for God means you’re at least half way there. It’s an idea suggesting the search for the divine other, the meaning of life, is a hit and miss affair. Too scandalous a view from a clergyman? I think it’s true to experience, though. And this was borne out by the large number of people who came up to me afterwards to say they had particularly appreciated what I said – both for Dan's sake and for themselves.
A NEW PRAYER FOR THIS OCCASION COMPOSED BY ME AND KATE WILSON
O Lord Jesus Christ, whose own suffering encompasses ours, help us to accept the seeming injustice of Dan’s illness and premature death, and to look beyond this to rejoice in his optimism and love of life. We give thanks for Dan’s resilience and good humour in the face of suffering, for his wonderful smile, his delight in his children, Anna and Sophie, his continual enjoyment of friendship and his gratitude for all that he had been able to experience in life. We ask that we may celebrate a life richly lived and draw strength from the example of fortitude in the face of adversity which he has offered us. Amen.