Say what you will about social media, especially Facebook, it does allow for conversations that are first, important – and second, cross all sorts of interests politically and theologically!
Yesterday I posted some reflections on the memorial service for John McCain which took place in the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the diocesan seat for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (in DC). I was reflecting as a liturgist and a theologian with a vested interest in an Anglican cathedral. Throughout the day, and continuing into Sunday, there were many thoughtful responses, some disagreeing, some agreeing, some offering other perspectives and emphases. And I firmly believe that in what has been overwhelmingly a series of respectful and heartfelt conversations, we have all learned from each other – what could be better?
In presenting part of that social media conversation here, it would be helpful to say that I was not writing for or against John McCain. It was apparent from the event at the cathedral, as well as many of the comments in the posting (including from those actually at the event), that he was loved by his family, and highly respected by politicians and others. Most striking was the admiration held for him by those who strongly disagreed with him politically, a very high tribute indeed.
I have no expertise in American politics, but I certainly knew enough to recognize the underlying political points that were made in many of the eulogies. I also am not attacking the staff of what is popularly known as the “national” cathedral. They worked hard to once again walk a tightrope between a political rally and an Episcopal liturgy. And while politics is not my field, liturgy is, hence my focus on Facebook and here. I do take offense at those who suggest (as has been the case since the mid-nineteenth century) that liturgists are somehow the equivalent of dilletante stamp-collectors. These are no minor things, but rather the expression and creation of our beliefs, theologized faith. So, on to reflections of the “memorial” service itself…
With many others around the world, I watched two hours and forty minutes of a strangely disturbing and still moving ‘memorial’ for John McCain. As a liturgist, it was a lab for what we do and what we believe about death and liturgy, and an incredibly confusing one at that.
The procession of the clergy, coffin, pall bearers and family began in silence and was eventually accompanied by the ‘burial sentences’ led by the bishop of that diocese. The dean of the cathedral welcomed all gathered with words reminding everyone that this was about God and about a child of God, concluding with a collect. In other words, an Episcopal funeral.
Then it went off to talk after talk after talk about politics, some about the deceased remembered with great love and respect, and others using McCain as a weapon against the current president. It started as a liturgy – ceased being a liturgy – and then picked up again as a liturgy, interspersed with what I found to be particularly disturbing music aligning the truth of God with American military history and concluding with the sight of a processional cross accompanied by “America the Beautiful”.
After the many eulogies, elements of the Episcopal funeral liturgy returned. The OT reading, the psalm (for the enlightenment of CBS, that would be “Psalm 23”), the epistle reading, an inappropriate gospel hymn, then the gospel read (as one can do at the office in Anglicanism), but not proclaimed as at the eucharist (in spite of the structure of a eucharistic liturgy of the Word). After a mercifully brief homily by a Jesuit (who drew on the wonderful poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and focused on the “just man ‘justicing’” – which bridged the gospel and the person of John McCain so well), more jarring music, and finally the return of the Episcopal funeral liturgy with the intercessions and elements of the commendation at the coffin itself, including a sadly spoken Kontakion (which is set to the Russian tune and is one of the most beautiful elements of the Episcopal funeral liturgy) Why?
Perhaps because this was part of a whole series of memorials, perhaps because McCain was no longer a practicing Episcopalian (all reports are that he was a Baptist and found in that worship style more of a home), perhaps simply because this was primarily a civic religious event – the lines and focus of what was going on were very muddy.
If a funeral liturgy is always three things: like all liturgy the worship of God, the commendation of the dead to God, and the consolation of the mourners, I think we could find examples of those there, but the first was quite ambiguous (the worship of God or the worship of patriotism?), and the commendation was finally arrived at in its place at the end – which felt like it was tacked on. Were we simply remembering – which is often the focus of a memorial? The problem with that is the body was present – it was a funeral. So many questions arise, among them why the civic/civil celebration mixed with some elements from parts of the Episcopal prayer book?
Many responses said that John McCain planned the event, so that’s why it was done that way. But, planned by the deceased or not, this was not an unusual type of event at the ‘national’ cathedral. So let’s get to the heart of the issue – was this a civic remembrance of a highly respected politician OR was it a liturgy of the church?
In a country with separation of church and state, how can there be a ‘national’ cathedral (see above for the actual name of the cathedral and its primary purpose)? I am well aware of the 1893 decision of the US Congress to grant the land for the cathedral and its work, and the popular growth which has made it the ‘country’s cathedral’ (as Jim Naughton calls it, “the folkways of official Washington”), but that is an impossibility in light of the church/state divide in the US. The US is very different in 2018 than it as in 1893, it is a pluralistic country without a state church (and one guesses that if there was a state church it would not be one as progressive as Anglicanism). What happens to a civic/secular celebration that is done by clergy of a particular church? What happens to a church that sings “America the Beautiful” as ritual music?
There are many ritual elements to which we could point, but the one which remains the most disturbing to me is both an action and a visual symbol; the centrality of a coffin, in the cathedral, covered with an American flag.
In the Episcopal liturgy, the prayer book funeral is supplemented with the ‘missing’ beginning in what is known as Enriching our Worship, a series of volumes updating and expanding existing liturgies. There, in faithfulness to the ecumenical liturgical movement, the integrity of what happens at the door to begin a funeral has been restored. The military honours and rituals are good and worthy, but at the door, the coffin is welcomed, the flag ritually removed by a military guard, the coffin sprinkled as a reminder of baptism, and then the baptized Christian is clothed one last time in his or her baptismal garment – the white pall.
We do not die in the Lord as an American or a Canadian or a Palestinian Christian. We die in the Lord as a Christian, a member of the body of Christ which belongs to no country or political party. The flag-draped coffin was a powerful visual symbol of the vast confusion of what we were about, and offered a tremendously confusing catechesis to those who see Christianity as the common expression of American civil religion.
May John McCain rest in peace and rise in glory, and may we continue to ask important questions about how symbols express and create what we know of life and death in Christ for every Christian, the politically powerful and the humble disciple.