If you haven’t heard the story by now, undoubtedly you will.
A Colorado church cancelled a funeral service for a lesbian woman minutes after it was scheduled to start because the family wanted to show a video that sentimentally highlighted her sexual orientation. Specifically, showing the deceased being proposed to, and then kissing, her partner.
The church asked the family to edit that section out, the family refused, and then the church refused to go forward with the service. Yes, even with the crowd gathered, the flowers in place, and the open casket in view.
A chaplain from the church said that while those who are gay and lesbian are welcome in the church, they ask that “alternative lifestyles be censored while in the church.” As best I can tell, that means you are welcome to come but please do not engage in anything openly homoerotic.
The funeral was moved to the mortuary across the street.
Let’s state the obvious. This was a mess. It was a mess for the church who apparently didn’t watch the video until the time of the funeral. It was a mess for the family and friends who had gathered to mourn the passing of someone dear to them. And now it is a public mess as people on either side lash out – again – in culture wars.
But let’s take a step back.
First, should Christian churches conduct such funerals?
I'll never forget receiving a call from a funeral home in southern Indiana where I served as a pastor during my seminary years. This would be the late eighties.
A young man who was not connected with a church had died of an AIDS related illness. On behalf of the family, the funeral home had contacted pastor after pastor in the area; each had refused to even meet with the family, much less to serve them at the funeral service.
Finally they got to me – the young seminary kid.
He asked me if I would officiate at the funeral, and I said, "Of course I will." I can honestly tell you that it never even entered my mind not to. And I was disgusted and ashamed of my colleagues for not serving a family during such a time of grief.
My conviction remains the same.
But was it fair for the family to ask the church to conduct such a funeral that affirmed the lifestyle choice?
The church was willing to do the funeral. They just asked for the tape to be edited. The family refused. This was certainly the right of the family, but it was also the right of the church to refuse.
I know, I know…but this was all unfolding when the service was getting ready to start. Again, that’s what made it a mess.
So how we can avoid such messes in the future while serving any and all who might reach out for a Christian church at a time of grief?
Here’s four simple steps:
1. Make it clear that if someone is asking for a Christian funeral at or through a Christian church, they must honor the Christian values of that faith community as the church similarly seeks to honor their loved one.
2. Require any and all video tributes to be prepared in advance of the service, as well as drafts of spoken comments and copies of musical presentations, with the clear understanding that they are submitted for the church’s approval. And then of course the church must watch and review them in advance.
3. Just as the family is asked to respect the church, respect the family. If you are preparing the funeral sermon, do not use the message to condemn the person’s lifestyle. Honor and celebrate their life as a child of God.
4. But in light of #3, don’t say what isn’t true. I’ve done many a funeral for someone who, by all accounts, was not a Christ follower. I offered comfort, but didn’t make affirmations about the state of their soul. That is up to God, to be sure, but we must not offer a false gospel despite the grief of those close to the deceased. This can be done without making condemnations or judgments. And should be.
This was a mess, and I feel terrible for everyone involved.
But it was a mess that could have been avoided.
James Emery White
Ryan Haarer, “Protest held after Colo. church denies lesbian funeral,” USA Today, January 14, 2015, read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.