Christianity and Civil Religion: what are we doing at weddings and funerals?

I’ve been thinking again about the relationship between the gospel as I find it in the New Testament and the post-Christendom practices of the Church. The gospel (as I find it) is strongly eschatological and inclined towards rejection of the institutions and ways of life of the society within which it is proclaimed. It is, in a sense, anti-ethical, since any practical ethics involves compromise.

The gospel, on the other hand, tends towards absolutism: “sell all you have”; “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” This teaching, that the coming kingdom of God sweeps away all we know (“At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”), dominates the Pauline epistles (setting aside the pastorals for a moment) and suffuses the gospels.

Similarly Paul’s writings, and many other passages, start from the assumption that the end is very near, so that death among believers is an anomaly. Those who do die will be restored to resurrection life at the coming of Christ. There is little sense of death as release from this world into a heavenly eternity (although something like this can be found here and there). Death is an exception and a problem, to be overcome shortly.

This means that I find it difficult to believe that wedding and funeral ceremonies were an important (or even an unimportant) part of early Christian practice. I would guess (in the absence of much evidence) that funerals (based on Jewish practice and with a strong emphasis on resurrection – cf. this Wikipedia article) probably evolved quite quickly but there’s no record of funeral services until quite late. Weddings are even less well attested and my own view is that the Church’s involvement primarily derives from the fusion of state and church under the later Empire.

Our present involvement with weddings I regard as essentially non-Christian (not, I stress, anti-Christian). It is an expression of the fact that Christianity effectively still functions as the civil religion of our societies (for how long this will continue is another matter). This is even more the case with funerals. When we’re asked to perform funerals for people with no Church connection this is because we are seen as those who know how and who are “authorised” to preside at these important events.

This means that when we are ordained to ministry we are offered two roles: that of Christian minister, preaching the word and administering the sacraments; and that of practitioner of civil religion (performing weddings and funerals for those without Christian faith but perhaps with a more general sense of the importance of the holy and of a “higher power”).

This duality is strongest for the established church but it applies too to the more mainstream and lfamiliar of the free churches. I would guess that Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal independent churches don’t get a lot of requests for weddings and funerals from outside their own communities, they don’t take on much of the civil religious function. Similarly some ministers within more established traditions choose to reject it, refusing to marry or bury those who stand outside the faith.

Equally some ministers effectively abandon the distinctive Christian mission in favour of some version of civil religion, avoiding the more exclusively Christian messages (the unique divinity of Jesus, eschatological hope, the Trinity, saving grace, the cross) in favour of a more generally understandable or acceptable deist/humanist ethical and/or political teaching.

I’m not entirely happy with either of these paths. Both seem to me to be ways of simplifying and thus falsifying the difficult position of the Christian (and hence of the Christian minister) in the world. We proclaim the coming kingdom and also the present kingdom of Christ. We say that he will return in glory and make all things new and also that, in the Spirit, he is with us now. We say that the law has been written in all our hearts and also that it is found only in Jesus.

Both these aspects of our faith are essential but they are also in tension. God is at once to be found in all creation and also exclusively revealed in Christ.

We should, it seems to me, accept both the roles we are offered, but we should also remember and enact the difference between them. This is often difficult but discipleship was never supposed to be easy.

  1. Anne Shearer said:

    Yes, a very interesting commentary on the present predicament which of course will get even more tense if same sex marriages are introduced. But it is still a wonderful opportunity to present people with the truth of the Gospel and trust that God’s word will not return to Him void even if you never see the fruits yourself

    • I entirely agree Anne. The only thing I’d say is that sometimes when one is doing things beyond the Church community (e.g. in a school as well as weddings and funerals) it makes sense to say and do things that are less specifically Christian than those I would do and say in public worship. We should be clear about how and why that is appropriate so we can be clear and straightforward in all we do and feel that we can preserve our integrity.

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