Suicides were denied the rites of the Church in times past, being buried at crossroads, sometimes with a stake driven through their body. The Church of Ireland still has a rule allowing clergy to choose not to conduct a full funeral service for someone who has committed suicide. Moves are afoot to remove that rule and to ensure those who have committed suicide are treated with the same respect and dignity as other.
The synod of our diocese meets tomorrow and Wednesday and I intend seconding a resolution that our diocese supports the abolition of the rule. The speech cannot exceed five minutes.
I attended a school, long since closed, on the road between the Dartmoor villages of Manaton and Widecombe. It was a wild and beautiful spot. If you walked up the lane at the back of the school, climbed over the gate and took the road to the right toward Hound Tor, after a few hundred yards you came to a grave at the roadside, at a point where a bridleway formed a crossing with the tarmaced road. It was Jay’s Grave and every boy in the school knew why the grave was there.
An orphan, Mary (or, according to some sources Kitty) Jay was an apprentice at a local farm around 1800 and fell pregnant to one of the boys on the farm. A poor girl, with no family to whom she could turn, she could not bear the shame and stigma heaped on unmarried girls who found themselves in her situation, and she hanged herself in one of the barns at the farm.
None of the local parishes would allow her to be buried in consecrated ground and her body was laid to rest at a crossroads between Widecombe and Manaton.
There very quickly grew up a local tradition of placing flowers on her grave, the ordinary people obviously feeling she had been wronged. In 1860, James Bryant, a local landowner who had heard the stories that grew up around the grave, had the grave excavated and having found the bones of a young woman, placed them in a coffin and reburied them. Two centuries have passed since her death. I last saw the grave in June 2005, there were still fresh flowers on it.
According to some traditions, 2006 would have been the 200th anniversary of her death; 200 years of countless people paying their respects to a tragic young woman; 200 years of people regarding the church in a less than glorious light. Whatever the niceties of church doctrine in centuries past, whatever the theological points, when I was at school there was never a single person who thought it right that the Church should have treated a young woman in such a way, if this was what the Church was like, then we wanted nothing to do with it.
The burial of Mary Jay was not just about the treatment by the Church of one individual, it was about the witness of the Church to the whole community. To the people who week by week put fresh flowers on the grave, (and to this day no-one knows who goes to such a remote spot to place the flowers), the Church’s witness has been marred for 200 years. Jay’s Grave remains a witness to people in the 21st Century of the Church’s belief that it had the right to dispense or withhold God’s grace; that it could grant or deny salvation to people.
Suicide is an event that affects a whole community and the Church’s response to suicide is a response that is watched and watched closely by the whole community. We have mercifully moved far from the days of burials at crossroads, but in granting discretion to clergy in Canon 32.2 to refuse a suicide the full funeral service we are placing into the hands of an individual the potential to mar the entire Church’s witness to the grace of God. A person who has been through unimaginable darkness is treated as though they are not worthy of grace; the family of that person has their indescribable pain compounded; the whole community sees the Church as assuming the role of judge, and anything else we ever do is blighted in their perception; all of this is at the discretion of an individual?
Salvation does not come from the Church, salvation comes from Jesus Christ. The Church of Ireland of all churches should know that. The closing lines of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate remind us in no uncertain terms,
‘Praise to the God of our salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord’.
Salvation is of Christ the Lord. Decisions and judgments belong in his hands, they do not belong in the hands of any member of the clergy. May God forgive us for the past and may we be witnesses to the greatness of his grace in the future.