Saturday, April 24, 2010

Death, Community & Southampton District Synod

The Saturday Guardian is one of life's little pleasures (and frustrations).  Contained within its well designed pages are ideas of a better world alongside adverts accentuating the smugness of Guardian readers.  It is a random mix, one that the 'Family' accentuates.  Fluctuating from well timed, well phrased work one week to rather twee and self indulgent the next week I always start with it and am buoyed through the rest of the day after a few pages.

This Saturday wasn't to involve reading the paper in bed or in the bath though.  I was sat on a train heading out into the world!  Reading the Family section first (I go Family, Weekend, Main Section then others) I was gripped by an article written by Clement Freud's daughter.  She was reflecting on his death and subsequent funeral and I must admit I found it highlighted a strange paradox of funerals.  Notably, throughout the article were littered little references which indicated his potential dislike of certain aspects of a potential funeral and they promptly occurred at his.  I was struggling with this but before I imploded in a small self-righteous mess my train reached its destination and little did I know that soon my thoughts would return this article.

Poole, part of Southampton Methodist District, was today’s destination.  Charged with leading a workshop on a particular subject,I was also privileged to see part of synod in action. Synod, for those unaware, unsure or uninterested, is a key decision making body within the Methodist Church.  It acts as a regional body passing policy, providing oversight and making suggestions to the Connexion (national church).

Towards the end of the day a moment or two is shared where ministers nominated for ordination are proposed (including lots of I do’s!) and ministers and deacons who have died are remembered.   I’d been looking forward to hearing the testimony of the person being proposed for ordination but it wasn’t to be.  However what I did hear was a strangly moving reading of obituaries from the last year.

An obituary is an art-form, an editors nightmare and sometimes the time when scores are settled and history confirmed or re-written.  Its a written form of funeral address.   As today’s Family section shows, it can be understood as much for the benefit of those attending - potentially going against the wishes of the deceased - as it can be a chance to celebrate the life of someone now deceased.

In the Methodist Church it is part of recognising the ministry of an ordained minister or deacon to publish their obituary in Minutes of Methodist Conference.  Their deaths are marked once a year at Methodist Conference at a stunningly moving service where names are read and prayers said.  What I experienced at Synod was something similar but different.

This year there were 5 people remembered and each had their entire obituary read out.  As the first obituary got a few sentences in I began to sense a new quietness coming about the room.  We were no longer checking watches or reading ahead in the agenda, the room was drawn to one individual reading words of a page.  Yet the words were coming alive and spreading themselves around the room.  Like walking through an art gallery we were having many representations of similar themes, some heavy and others light yet all showing and celebrating one thing.  After a suitable number had been read a pause occurred and piano music slowly filled the air.  As the melody rose and fell I found myself drawn into thinking and remembering.   When it all came to end the District Chair said a prayer and we then went onto the next item of business.

As a wannabe be amateur history buff I am always amazed by social history.  People’s lives have the ability to show - far beyond the boundaries of any one statistical history book - what living is really about.  As a keen supporter of the methodist cause it was a pleasure to be a part of a ceremony that not only celebrated the future (presenting the ordinand) but took the time to reflect and remember those who had passed away.  The Methodist Church, like any institution, can sometimes be accused of many not so positive things.  This was the sort of moment when I felt in the presence of a wonderful community moment and it was a pleasure to share.