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Celebrate new ways of buying a stairway to Heaven

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue writes on the ways people are changing how they engage with organised religion in this piece for The Times.

We are looking in the wrong direction. Controversies over female bishops and gay clergy may have dominated the headlines in recent times, but they are hiding a significant, slow-developing trend that deserves far more attention.

Organised religion is changing. Core beliefs and structures may be the same, but the way we express them is altering dramatically. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the hatch/match/dispatch departments. Baby blessings previously involved godparents whose main role was to take responsibility for the child’s religious education in the faith. Now, however, many godparents are of a different religion from that of the parents, and the task has shifted from theological rectitude to moral upbringing.

There is also an increasing number of mixed-faith parents committed to giving their child a dual-faith education. Clergy are being asked to omit references that either partner finds difficult, or which imply a religious monopoly. Conversely, readings from the other tradition are added, so that both are represented. Some might see this as a dilution of “the true faith” and regard it as resulting in a meaningless religious fudge. Others will regard it as a wonderful example of building bridges where divisions once existed.

A different type of change is happening in marriage ceremonies, not so much in the religious direction, but in the personal content, so that it now reflects the two people who are getting married.
Many a couple will compose and add their own marriage vows, while close family and friends will read out their own personalised blessings. It is taken for granted that a high percentage of couples will have been living together for several years, and may even be accompanied by children. For them, marriage is no longer the moment of commitment, but the celebration of a lengthy relationship. The clever minister will acknowledge this massive change in the nature of weddings.

Yet the area where there has been the greatest transformation, and the most creativity, is funerals. This is evident in the liturgy used today, with many non-religious passages being included, while the minister’s eulogy is usually accompanied by speeches from family or friends.

It applies also to the music, not necessarily sombre, but often upbeat, while traditional hymns can make way for songs that reflect the deceased’s personality (Frank Sinatra’s My Way), name (Danny Boy), sense of humour (Another One Bites the Dust) or the situation (Stairway to Heaven).

Even coffins now come in different shapes (such as a guitar or motorbike). For those concerned with ecology, coffins can be wicker, while woodland ceremonies are on the increase. The disposal of ashes has also changed enormously — while some are still buried or scattered, others are turned into a keepsake, such as being carbonised into a ring or pendant.

Others elect to have their ashes sent up to the heavens in a firework. Sometimes the ashes are no longer kept together, but divided so that, for instance, a person’s three children can each have some and keep them in a decorative pot. Those who believe in a physical resurrection might balk at this, so this trend infers that many have jettisoned that belief.

All of these developments have been prompted by laity, and show a desire to own religious ceremonies and to make them personally relevant. It is not a rejection of religion, but a democratisation of religion.

Still, it does raise the question of whether it is good for faith or not, making it more meaningful or dumbing it down. Some clergy may resent the invasion of pew pressure, but it would be wiser to rejoice that people are filling old wineskins with new wine rather than simply discarding them.

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