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Picture of flowers in a graveyard

Ministry Monday: Gospel Presentation and Eulogies Part 2

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Posted by Tiffer Robinson, 19 Jun 2017

There are two schools of thought about how to weave the Eulogy or Tribute in to a Christian funeral. Either, as envisaged by Common Worship, it’s a separate item usually at the beginning, or it is done as one with the sermon, after the bible readings. There is of course a huge benefit to personalising funerals, and it is very much what families are looking for nowadays, and I think that it can be very powerful to use the eulogy as a springboard into presenting the gospel. But there are a number of reasons why I keep the eulogy and sermon separate.

Firstly, I believe that a eulogy and a sermon are different things, with different purposes—the eulogy is for presenting the deceased to the mourners in a concise but representative way whilst the sermon is for proclaiming the Christian hope as revealed in the scriptures. Where else in our preaching would we merge a sermon with another element? I wouldn’t merge the intercessions with a sermon, or the notices (though I have heard the latter done, and I didn’t find it edifying!).

Secondly, I don’t want to be misleading with respect to the deceased person themselves. The Church of England’s approach to funeral ministry is predicated on the “generous assumption”, that despite someone’s religious background we offer all in our cure a Christian funeral without prejudice.  But the liturgy is, for the most part, clear that it is the resurrection of Jesus that we have assurance of, and not of Mildred in the coffin. Some have criticised our liturgy for being too subtle in this nuance, and I think it would be wise not to add to this confusion in the sermon—which is for proclaiming the gospel to those still living rather than applying it to the life of the deceased in a direct way.  I also want to ensure in my services that the eulogy does not become the focus—I want the gospel to be the focus.  I keep the eulogy and sermon separate to avoid the impression that we are primarily gathered to remember the deceased, rather than being in an act of Christian worship.

Thirdly, there are practical reasons I do this. I have heard clergy quoting 4-7 hours work for each funeral they take in total, including visits, preparation and travelling to and from crematoria etc. Some personalisation of the sermon is preferable, and different funerals require different approaches, but there’s also benefit to using tried and tested messages given the sheer number of funerals some clergy need to do. Increasingly families want to do the eulogy themselves, whether that’s writing it or delivering it, and so a separate sermon would then be required anyway. Worryingly, I’ve known some clergy simply drop the sermon in this circumstance, as to preach a “stand alone” sermon at a funeral would be outside of their experience!  Although it can be done well and it can be particularly appropriate in certain circumstances, my concern is that it perpetuates a view which sees preaching at occasional offices as largely redundant or irrelevant.

I would like to see the sermon reclaim its rightful place as the place we hear God speak whether it be at Sunday worship or a Funeral.

Tiffer Robinson is the Rector of four small villages in rural Suffolk, and a member of General Synod. He has a small boat named Hilda. He also happens to be married to Amy, with two small children.

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