Easter 4 ~ The meaning of Margaret’s Funeral
If some weeks can be described as having been ‘an interesting week in politics’ – as many weeks are – then I think we can say it has been a very interesting week in Church. Or rather it has been a very interesting week in the Church and in Politics. And in that much it has been a week of irony and paradox, both of which politicians and churchmen delight in. No-one can have escaped notice of, engagement – or deliberate non-engagement with, and certainly not opinion on the subject of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral which took place on Wednesday. And the first irony to note is of course that there was a lady who famously felt that the church should stay out of politics and who got very cross when the church poked its nose into political matters, but whose own funeral brought church and politics together in a way that was not, in fact unwelcome.
Whether you think, as I do, that our Bishop Richard made a fine job of preaching in St Paul’s on Wednesday, or whatever you thought about her as a person, or as politician; whether you adopt one of the three possible stances of love, hate or indifference, there can be no doubt that the way in which Baroness Thatcher’s passing was marked and reacted to, has created a national debate, that inevitably involves, and should engage the church.
On Newsnight on the evening of the funeral, Jeremy Paxman introduced a debate in which he pointed out that it had brought into play the military; politicians of all flavours; ceremonial, and of course it had all happened in church. He quite clearly found this distasteful and tried to set up a debate with folk whom he described as ‘pillars of the establishment’, thereby involving another Baroness, a leading soldier, a liberal cleric who used to work at St Paul’s Cathedral, a professor of sociology of religion and a Peer who writes political satire. He forgot, of course, to include himself as a pillar of the establishment, but then that’s because the BBC often forget that they are not observers upon, but are part of the very scenario they pretend to be impartial about. As the Colonel from the Regiment that supervised the cortege’s journey through the City pointed out at one point – the BBC have more staff than the Army has soldiers. Paxman’s debate fell flat because he asked the wrong questions and didn’t have a panel capable of answering them. They floundered over who the funeral was for, over whether or not its being a PR exercise was a good or bad thing, and whether ‘meeting one’s maker’ – which was the best thing Giles Fraser could come up with - was an adequate account of what funerals are about. No-one had the good sense, wit or courage to point out that Christian funerals are all about hope. Rather Giles Fraser quoted Heidegger – for which Paxman rather amusingly rounded on him – he quoted Heidegger’s not-to-deep analysis of death as something you do on your own. ‘No-one can do your death for you’, as the German epistomologist put it.
Well, I thought, isn’t that actually what the Cross and the Resurrection were all about? Jesus Christ did do our death for us – and indeed, did Margaret Thatcher’s death for her too. That is the whole message of Christianity, the meaning of Easter, and the meaning of life, death and, therefore of funerals.
But one cannot expect anyone to say anything as simple, helpful or even relevant as that on BBC2 after 10:30 at night. And sure enough they didn’t. So, once again, opportunities overlooked, misconceptions endorsed and meaning missed. The ensuing item about the gold standard and prices of gold falling was handled equally badly incidentally, and I now know why I never bother to watch ‘Newsnight’ and shall continue not to bother to do so.
But – and it’s a big but, I am grateful for the heads up that Paxman gave – and then failed to deliver on. For the question he was alluding to was whether it is right to spend £10 million quid on a funeral – not so much for Baroness Thatcher, but for anyone. And his botched debate clarified for me that it was worth every penny. Because at the very least we had an occasion which forces us all to ask what its meaning was or is.
When we put a much-loved, much reviled, highly influential, former Prime Minister about whom few are indifferent - on a gun carriage and wheel her to London’s second most famous building to pray, what is that all about? And is what it might seem to be all about still relevant today? Prince William and Kate got married according to the Prayer Book of 1662, and Margaret Thatcher was basically buried by it too. Behind that modern-looking service was something very old-fashioned. Oh, sorry, I mean, behind that very old-fashioned service was something very modern.
The streets were lined with young people who wanted to be present at what was guaranteed to be a historical event. The Bible was read, words from the Psalms was sung, and anyone who ever attends Christian funerals would have felt very familiar with the content, even if they are not used to the superlative quality of music, diction and ceremonial which was so evident. It was a proper Christian funeral, done exceedingly well.
And yet there are some – notably on BBC late at night - who question the whole thing. On Newsnight, the subject of secular funerals was touched on, and they were described as being basically the same – except that there was no sense of ‘meeting one’s maker’. True. But more importantly, secular funerals are hopeless – in both sense of the word. They are hopeless, in the sense that it is actually very difficult to make liturgical sense in a secular vacuum. There is no liminality – no ebb and flow – because there is no hope. Secular funerals have no hope – and funerals are fundamentally about hope, for the deceased, and for those who are left. That’s why the question, who is the funeral for is trite and narrow. It sets up an either/or between the living and the dead, and the fundamental point about a Christian funeral is that there is no distinction between the living and the dead in the eyes of God. As we heard in today’s reading, we are all bound up in the communion of saints, and funerals are to remind us of this, and make resurrection hope that is associated with them, real and present.
The funeral isn’t for anyone – it’s a necessary rite of passage that focuses our minds on who we are, why we are here, and why we wind up not being here any longer. Funerals have to happen – as Heidegger said, no-one can do it for you – but when it comes to mine, I want everyone to know that I believe and I want everyone else to recognize, that if anyone can and is ‘doing death for me’, it’s Jesus Christ, into whose way, truth and life I am heading.
So it is such a shame that those who influence the opinion of our nation are so stupid, prejudiced or belligerent that they cannot see the message that was written all over Margaret Thatcher’s funeral from start to finish.
And that is a great shame, because, as Bishop Richard hinted at one point in his sermon, at Easter the role and purpose of a funeral comes into sharper focus. Margaret Thatcher’s passing at this time was a strange blessing to us, in its own way. A million miles away from the tragic, sudden, emotionally disturbing death of Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher’s passing presented us with what was after all, a thoroughly, normal, almost commonplace passing. If you have seen the film ‘The Iron Lady’, which contains a quite remarkable performance by Meryl Streep, you will be aware that a major part of that film is about how people are affected by dementia. As Bishop Richard said, in later life and in death, she is one of us. We all go the same way, and many of us get ill and die in old age. It is in the nature of things. In that much, Margaret Thatcher’s final gift to the nation is one that transcends politics and history: it was to bring into focus, among the working, upper, middle and chattering classes, to bring into the focus the question, ‘what is it to die’?
It made everyone reflect – positively and negatively, on her life. But actually, that’s not what a funeral is for. It may be what one does at a funeral, but it is not its purpose. It’s purpose is to put us all in mind of our own mortality and to help us pass through grief and loss, with our eyes fixed on the eternal hope of resurrection life revealed in the sacrifice of Christ and the loving power of God.
That’s what Wednesday was all about.
And it’s what Easter is all about too.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, DD/MM/YY