Over the years I’ve become more and more aware of the two-edged experience I have as a member of clergy when I’m present at an event for which my presence is critical but not particularly universally welcomed. I’m thinking of funerals, weddings and the family-based events.
The couple that choses a church wedding wants a member of the clergy there, and if it’s going to be held at the church I serve, then more often than not that clergy person is me. I tend to get to know the couple very well over the months leading up to the wedding; I do their preparation and that usually means we’ll meet for something north of 8 to 10 hours. If it’s a baptism, there’s less preparation, but I generally know the parents and often a few other members of the family very well, they’re members of the congregation and we see each other regularly. If it’s a funeral, I at least generally know at least one or two of the surviving family members well.
But I don’t know the rest of the people in attendance. They don’t know me either. And most of them don’t particularly want to get to know me almost entirely because I’m a priest. They aren’t comfortable around clergy. They don’t know what to say, how to address the clergy or what exactly I’m there to do. And so they sort of steer clear of me at the following receptions. That discomfort is something I’ve experienced for years, but not really understood why it was important to experience.
Eugene Peterson writing in a short little book written with a group of other main-line clergy that discusses the role of clergy at Weddings Funerals and Special Events though has just put this all into wonderful context for me:
So why are we there? We are there to say God. We are there for one reason and one reason only: to pray. We are there to focus the overflowing, cascading energies of joy, sorrow, delight, or appreciation, if only for a moment but for as long as we are able, on God. We are there to say God personally, to say his name clearly, distinctly, unapologetically, in prayer. We are there to say it without hemming and hawing, without throat clearing and without shuffling, without propagandizing, proselytizing, or manipulating. We have no other task on these occasions. We are not needed to add to what is there; there is already more than anyone can take in. We are required only to say the Name: Father, Son, Holy Ghost.
Peterson, E. H., & Miller, C. (1987). Vol. 10: Weddings, funerals, & special events. Leadership library (16). Carol Stream, Ill.; Waco, Tex.: CTI; Word Books; Distributed by Word Books.
To which I say AMEN. THAT I can do. I guess I knew I was doing it, but I never had the words to explain to myself much less others what exactly was going on. And now I do.