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Bleak funerals for gay Christians

Renee Smith looks at some of the difficult issues that gay Christians face when dealing with the funeral of loved partners.

Anyone grieving for someone close to them has difficult situations to face. Dealing with the essential practicalities, and at the same time organising a memorable final event, can seem almost impossible. For a small, but significant, minority there can be additional dilemmas.

In secular society being gay is considerably less of an issue than it used to be. Most of the major ’institutions’, health, education and the law for example, grant those who identify as gay, equal rights with heterosexuals. I still perceive society as fundamentally heterosexist, but in most situations outright homophobia is treated with the contempt it deserves.

At the end of our lives this is important. Relationships between same sex couples are treated as having validity and in civil partnerships are granted ’married’ status as far as the law is concerned. However, the Church of England and many other Christian organisations do not hold to the same view. For gay Christians this can be extremely difficult.

The need for spiritual support 

Where can the Christian, who happens to be gay, find the spiritual support he or she needs? Who will be there to provide the necessary context in which appropriate rites of the end of life can be achieved?  If the gay Christian would like to be buried in the church burial ground, how careful does he or she have to be when deciding on the wording on the headstone?

These are quite difficult questions and I don’t have all the answers. I’m hoping that together we can share our experiences and insights and come up with some helpful suggestions.

Changing Attitude is an organisation of ordained and lay Christians within the Anglican communion whose vision is to see gay Christians completely accepted and their partnerships seen and blessed as valid, both in the priesthood and in the congregation.  A register is held in which those congregations throughout the UK who are open and welcoming to all gay or transgendered persons can record their intention.

Uncertain welcome for gay Christians 

There are 29 congregations on the register at this time. There are, I think, approximately 16,000 congregations in England alone. This means that in the vast majority of churches a gay person, whether a committed Christian or not, cannot be certain of a welcome. When we are grieving and especially when we wish to arrange a Christian funeral service, this can be an added distress.

Even those of us who have been members of our local church for some time and are known as ’a couple’, who feel ourselves to be loved and know that we are prayed for and cared about, cannot usually be as open in sharing our life issues as our straight brothers and sisters. We often have to be very careful what we say and to whom.

Hardly anyone asks us where we met, when we had our Civil Partnership, or indeed anything which might encourage us to share much information!  Most of the time this is bearable. We accept this in order to worship with our local family in Christ. But how difficult is this when we are dying or we have lost our life partner.

Most committed Christians want a church funeral, memorial service or thanksgiving. There are of course many priests, curates and lay readers who are sympathetic and would take a service with wholehearted compassion. But who wants to search a list of 16,000 churches if one’s own is not amongst them?

There are many more who accept gay couples into the congregation, knowing they have little choice as we insist God has invited us. But can they speak those hugely important words at our final departure with integrity?  If not, we will know it.

Face the issues in advance 

It is important to think these issues through in advance if possible. Ideally we will have been able to have an honest, open discussion with our priest, but frequently even seemingly understanding incumbents actually have rather sore bottoms from sitting on the fence.  Those who do not understand us are less than ideal for singing out the truth at the recital of our last song!

Our Christian brothers and sisters, with whom we worship, will want to attend our funeral. We have to be sensitive to the possibility that many of them have been selective in how much information about our relationship they have taken on board. If possible, we need to have planned what we want said about us, or our partner and chosen someone wholeheartedly on our wave length to say it. Close friends and family members can often deliver tributes and eulogies brilliantly.

Going Forth by Bill Kirkpatrick is an excellent book, full of helpful information and resources. Written from the perspective of a priest working with HIV/AIDS, his suggestions for readings and prayers can be adapted to suit individual needs.

Taking control of how we want the funeral or thanksgiving to be, choosing readings, music and tributes will greatly increase the likelihood of it being a ’good’ experience.

What can be put on the gravestone? 

In regards to a church burial I asked several people, my own vicar included, how acceptable is it for the term ’Civil Partner’ to be recorded on a headstone in the burial ground of the Anglican Church?  Changing Attitude gave me a prompt and clear reply.

There should be no problem, though all gravestone wording has to be agreed by the incumbent. If the incumbent objects, a faculty can be applied for, a faculty being a license from the diocesan consistory court in order to change something in a church or graveyard.

It should not come to that. Guidelines usually agree that a stone can have the name of the deceased, dates of birth and death and relationship to others in the grave. A simple inscription is also allowed.

To any gay Christian in an isolated situation, organisations such as Changing Attitude, Integrity, Courage, LGCM and Quest are priceless. Connections made form bonds which can lighten the load, and the heart, in the bleakest of situations.

This article has probably raised more questions than answers. I hope though that it will raise awareness and stimulate discussion.

What do you think?

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