‘No doubt we’ve all seen scenes from Italy of funerals taking place with only a priest present and lines of coffins in churches, and from what we’re told it’s only a matter of a couple of weeks before we’re in a similar situation here in the UK. We’re also acutely aware of the fact that families are facing the death of loved ones with no ability to be with them at the end. The challenges we now face are unprecedented within our ministerial experience, so I’ve asked the Revd’s Jonathan Woodhouse and Cole Maynard to reflect on their experiences of ministering as Army Chaplains in extremely demanding and stressful situations around the world. Both Jonathan and Cole are Baptist Ministers. Jonathan was Chaplain General before retiring and currently serves as Moderator of the United Board which commends and supports Baptist Ministers serving. Cole was, until recently, Deputy Assistant Chaplain General before taking up the pastorate at Colchester Baptist Church. I hope what they share from their experience may prove helpful as you seek to minister in Christ’s name.’
Andy Hughes – Ministries Team Leader
We have been asked to offer our perspectives on this. We do not have smart answers but we offer these perspectives from our experience of many years of military operations and war.
The military discovered that it is normally best that chaplains are not the bearers of bad news, because that can damage the pastoral follow-up. We normally follow on close behind the news bearer, bringing spiritual care and pastoral support during those early hours. In the critical early stages, it is important to allow the news to penetrate. Denial or disbelief is common, so we don’t use platitudes or unhelpful metaphors. Speak calmly, and clearly, using simple non-flowery language.
Our ministry is one of presence, not answers! We are present to support, sit, listen and be. If they rage, we listen; if they cry, we listen; if they stare in silence, we listen. The one thing we do not do is stop praying in our hearts for them and those who are broken by this event. We minister at all times in the power of the Holy Spirit, so as we pray for them, we pray for ourselves, for wisdom and sensitivity. We stand with the family in their grief, remaining ready to help, both professionally and personally, but during those early hours it is the being there that counts. In current circumstances, much human contact will be the paradox of being with them virtually.
3. Young death
The loss of future potential can be a double bereavement for parents, with the loss of a child, future grandchildren, and the dreams that have abruptly been shattered. Anger can be volatile and as the representatives of God, we can become its lightning conductor. Let it strike and love back, never with platitudes but the robust presence of being a minister, loving the family unconditionally even in a barrage which may include expletives and theological invective! The storm will pass, and often a greater respect emerges, when you make no mention of it. As Christ once stood and received the anger of God on our behalf it is fitting that we too should stand in that gap and receive the invective aimed at our Saviour!
4. Funerals and ritual
There could be times when even close family members were unable to join in the collective grief via a burial or cremation. Prayer can be offered at the same time at a different location, with people being allowed to share their memories, prayers said, and the lighting of a candle. This happened a lot on operations where family in UK and colleagues in a military theatre overseas were unable to meet. This is especially relevant in the Coronavirus situation. Do not be afraid to use symbols and rituals which may help if funerals are being streamed or recorded. This may take you out of your comfort zone but such circumstances are uncomfortable.
Symbols speak visually and in the theatre of war, we found them, as Baptists, to be powerful. The lighting of a candle can be seen as a symbol of Christ, who shines, giving light and hope in the darkness of grief. If protocols allow, anoint a body with oil, with the sign of the cross on the forehead; it is a powerful rite not just for the bereaved but for the medical staff who often find comfort when the chaplain offers to pray adding dignity and meaning to death. Giving the dying a wooden ‘holding cross’ or a bible are tangible symbols which can bring comfort. Ritual and symbols assist with gravitas and that can include our dress. Sensitivity is key here, but with families from an Eastern European or Anglo-Catholic background, they may find symbols from their childhood a familiar and recognised comfort. Flexibility, creativity and sensitivity in this area we found well worth considering, alongside our own convictions of faith and hope in Jesus Christ.
5. Multiple casualties
One of the realities of military chaplaincy, is that we are not always afforded a simple death scenario with the luxury of time and the dignity of giving exclusive attention to just one event and family. At times we were faced with multiple deaths following a single incident which in a war zone would mean organising a funeral event for several people at once. In the desert mass gatherings of military personnel could draw enemy fire so put the mourners at risk. Therefore, we always had to strive to provide a simple, short and significant burial rite,
With COVID-19 this is also a reality. Multiple burials are not ideal, but in a crisis situation we adapt and evolve the pastoral response to meet the spiritual need. We must not be precious but responsive, retaining the calm and dignified persona that helps in a one to one situation.
Personal names are essential but references to the cause or time of death are more generalised. There will be a time later, when this crisis is over, for a more personalised and individual response to the life of those who have died. The focus is on a dignified rite which also protects those potentially endangered by a funeral service: the few mourners, those directing our funeral services and you, the minister.
6. Dignity and depth
Ministry in times like these can be very demanding and tiring but beware of the trend for emotion and sentimentality. It is the calm and reassuring presence of the minister that is most valuable in the face of death. We were always conscious of holding and acknowledging Light and Shadow, Pain and Hope, Tragedy and Faith and these paradoxes helped to navigate between the twin rocks of triumphalism and despair, encouraging soldiers and families to get on with life again with purpose and a measure of peace and reassurance in the face of death. This was especially so on operations where the risks continued and the overall mission had to carry on.
As normally, if you were very close to the deceased, then that changes the dynamic of your relationship with the family. Even then, helping the family rather than appearing in need of help yourself, then that calm presence of faith and hope, even in the face of death is the most valuable role a minister can offer. This happened on operations to those we knew well and were friends of ours.
7. Staying resilient
Having led such funerals, we knew there would be more to come on an operational tour of six months. We found the importance of pacing ourselves for a Long Haul, sharing our own vulnerabilities with other Army chaplains who knew what all this felt like, was never to be underestimated. It brought its own strength, as did praying together in a location when circumstances allowed. This needs to be done virtually in the circumstances of Covid 19. None of us military chaplains were supermen or superwomen. We learned to stay steady and get on with the ministry God had called us to.
We don’t have all the answers, but we know a man who does, and while we don’t offer these as solutions, we look in his direction so that others, overcome by grief and sadness, may follow our gaze and be encouraged by the One who has overcome death.
The Revds Cole Maynard and Jonathan Woodhouse
[undated, before November 2020]