Civic celebration or Christian funeral? The memorial for Sen. John McCain

Say what you will about social media, especially Facebook, it does allow for conversations that are first, important – and second, cross all sorts of interests politically and theologically!

Yesterday I posted some reflections on the memorial service for John McCain which took place in the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the diocesan seat for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (in DC). I was reflecting as a liturgist and a theologian with a vested interest in an Anglican cathedral. Throughout the day, and continuing into Sunday, there were many thoughtful responses, some disagreeing, some agreeing, some offering other perspectives and emphases. And I firmly believe that in what has been overwhelmingly a series of respectful and heartfelt conversations, we have all learned from each other – what could be better?

In presenting part of that social media conversation here, it would be helpful to say that I was not writing for or against John McCain. It was apparent from the event at the cathedral, as well as many of the comments in the posting (including from those actually at the event), that he was loved by his family, and highly respected by politicians and others. Most striking was the admiration held for him by those who strongly disagreed with him politically, a very high tribute indeed.

I have no expertise in American politics, but I certainly knew enough to recognize the underlying political points that were made in many of the eulogies. I also am not attacking the staff of what is popularly known as the “national” cathedral. They worked hard to once again walk a tightrope between a political rally and an Episcopal liturgy.  And while politics is not my field, liturgy is, hence my focus on Facebook and here. I do take offense at those who suggest (as has been the case since the mid-nineteenth century) that liturgists are somehow the equivalent of dilletante stamp-collectors. These are no minor things, but rather the expression and creation of our beliefs, theologized faith. So, on to reflections of the “memorial” service itself…

With many others around the world, I watched two hours and forty minutes of a strangely disturbing and still moving ‘memorial’ for John McCain. As a liturgist, it was a lab for what we do and what we believe about death and liturgy, and an incredibly confusing one at that.

The procession of the clergy, coffin, pall bearers and family began in silence and was eventually accompanied by the ‘burial sentences’ led by the bishop of that diocese. The dean of the cathedral welcomed all gathered with words reminding everyone that this was about God and about a child of God, concluding with a collect. In other words, an Episcopal funeral.

Then it went off to talk after talk after talk about politics, some about the deceased remembered with great love and respect, and others using McCain as a weapon against the current president. It started as a liturgy – ceased being a liturgy – and then picked up again as a liturgy, interspersed with what I found to be particularly disturbing music aligning the truth of God with American military history and concluding with the sight of a processional cross accompanied by “America the Beautiful”.

After the many eulogies, elements of the Episcopal funeral liturgy returned. The OT reading, the psalm (for the enlightenment of CBS, that would be “Psalm 23”), the epistle reading, an inappropriate gospel hymn, then the gospel read (as one can do at the office in Anglicanism), but not proclaimed as at the eucharist (in spite of the structure of a eucharistic liturgy of the Word). After a mercifully brief homily by a Jesuit (who drew on the wonderful poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and focused on the “just man ‘justicing’” – which bridged the gospel and the person of John McCain so well), more jarring music, and finally the return of the Episcopal funeral liturgy with the intercessions and elements of the commendation at the coffin itself, including a sadly spoken Kontakion (which is set to the Russian tune and is one of the most beautiful elements of the Episcopal funeral liturgy) Why?

Perhaps because this was part of a whole series of memorials, perhaps because McCain was no longer a practicing Episcopalian (all reports are that he was a Baptist and found in that worship style more of a home), perhaps simply because this was primarily a civic religious event – the lines and focus of what was going on were very muddy.

If a funeral liturgy is always three things: like all liturgy the worship of God, the commendation of the dead to God, and the consolation of the mourners, I think we could find examples of those there, but the first was quite ambiguous (the worship of God or the worship of patriotism?), and the commendation was finally arrived at in its place at the end – which felt like it was tacked on. Were we simply remembering – which is often the focus of a memorial? The problem with that is the body was present – it was a funeral. So many questions arise, among them why the civic/civil celebration mixed with some elements from parts of the Episcopal prayer book?

Many responses said that John McCain planned the event, so that’s why it was done that way. But, planned by the deceased or not, this was not an unusual type of event at the ‘national’ cathedral. So let’s get to the heart of the issue – was this a civic remembrance of a highly respected politician OR was it a liturgy of the church?

In a country with separation of church and state, how can there be a ‘national’ cathedral (see above for the actual name of the cathedral and its primary purpose)? I am well aware of the 1893 decision of the US Congress to grant the land for the cathedral and its work, and the popular growth which has made it the ‘country’s cathedral’ (as Jim Naughton calls it, “the folkways of official Washington”), but that is an impossibility in light of the church/state divide in the US. The US is very different in 2018 than it as in 1893, it is a pluralistic country without a state church (and one guesses that if there was a state church it would not be one as progressive as Anglicanism). What happens to a civic/secular celebration that is done by clergy of a particular church? What happens to a church that sings “America the Beautiful” as ritual music?

There are many ritual elements to which we could point, but the one which remains the most disturbing to me is both an action and a visual symbol; the centrality of a coffin, in the cathedral, covered with an American flag.

In the Episcopal liturgy, the prayer book funeral is supplemented with the ‘missing’ beginning in what is known as Enriching our Worship, a series of volumes updating and expanding existing liturgies. There, in faithfulness to the ecumenical liturgical movement, the integrity of what happens at the door to begin a funeral has been restored. The military honours and rituals are good and worthy, but at the door, the coffin is welcomed, the flag ritually removed by a military guard, the coffin sprinkled as a reminder of baptism, and then the baptized Christian is clothed one last time in his or her baptismal garment – the white pall.

We do not die in the Lord as an American or a Canadian or a Palestinian Christian. We die in the Lord as a Christian, a member of the body of Christ which belongs to no country or political party. The flag-draped coffin was a powerful visual symbol of the vast confusion of what we were about, and offered a tremendously confusing catechesis to those who see Christianity as the common expression of American civil religion.

May John McCain rest in peace and rise in glory, and may we continue to ask important questions about how symbols express and create what we know of life and death in Christ for every Christian, the politically powerful and the humble disciple.



, ,




25 responses to “Civic celebration or Christian funeral? The memorial for Sen. John McCain”

  1. Mario Villanueva Avatar
    Mario Villanueva

    With respect – your comments as a “liturgist” confirm again to me what our world and our church need today – less legalistic criticism about what “good” or “bad” liturgy is based on rules that did not exist when Jesus walked the earth and more of what he did when he did – LOVE – that touches people and that the Holy Spirit uses to transform and touch people in a way that changes people for God. McCain’s funeral was a message for those with “ears to hear”. Not something for someone’s prescribed method of proper liturgy. God is not confined to proper liturgy – he made the universes after all. Let us not limit God to our prescriptions – let us seek to “see” when he moves, and celebrate that. Mario

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      I”m not sure you read the post accurately. The post is not about arbitrary rules. It is about fundamental questions of allegiance, and the symbolic disconnect of confusion about honor to a human nation-state and honor due to God alone as revealed in Christ. The post is about “proper liturgy” – not in the sense of superficial externals, but in the sense of faithfulness to God above all else.

    2. Lizette Larson-Miller Avatar
      Lizette Larson-Miller

      Mario – I see some of what I would have replied with already in Anthony’s insights (this was not about liturgical rubrics but a divided allegiance) by adding that in the Facebook version many said a variation of what you have mentioned here – “at least it was in a church, at least Christ was mentioned, in an age when no one goes to church, at last there were people there, etc”. I don’t think it is enough that, for much of the memorial event, God came in second, nor do I think for Christians that an occasional mention of the “God-stuff” is sufficient. I was concerned that what was the primary focus of worship was patriotism and – for all the best reasons – a more tolerant political discourse. That is not a bad thing, but it is not the focus of Christian liturgy, therefore my question of whether this was a Christian liturgy or a secular celebration of patriotism.

  2. Steve Binsfeld Avatar
    Steve Binsfeld

    Thank you Lizette. I liked John McCain, even though I did not agree with him politically. As a priest myself, it is always so difficult to balance principles of liturgy so that we remain true to what the liturgy is really about and the grief of the mourners who often have no conception of what are really important tenants of belief expressed through the liturgy of the church. Ritual leads to a high point and departs from that point. It has a flow to it. While John McCain’s Funeral had some good elements, it too confused me.

  3. Bernadette Gasslein Avatar
    Bernadette Gasslein

    Lizette – I posted this on my own FB page, but tagged you:
    I find that it is complementary to your own observations and insights, and to some degree answers your question, “was this a civic remembrance of a highly respected politician OR was it a liturgy of the church”. In essence, its analysis suggests to me that there were two liturgies going on concurrently – and I’m actually not sure that “concurrently” is the correct word; it’s not quite simultaneously, nor is it in parallel. Not even sure if syncretism is the right word … but you raise questions that deserve pondering.

    1. Lizette Larson-Miller Avatar
      Lizette Larson-Miller

      Thanks Bernadette, I like the idea of concurrent ritual events. If one was assuming (hoping for?) a Christian liturgy which, at its heart, praised God, then perhaps one links those elements together and comes up with a quasi-coherent funeral; if one was assuming (hoping for) a ritual event that praised American patriotism through an American patriot, then that is what one saw done with vigor (and the bonus of arguing against the current regime by not tearing down but raising up what is perceived to not be present at the moment)…

  4. Justin Huyck Avatar

    NBC actually cut in during the commendation at the coffin to offer commentary – not on the liturgical action, but to recap the remarks and discuss the political and historical context. Clearly, the “important” parts of the (civic) ritual were understood by the producers to be completed. NBC brought in historian Michael Beschloss to lead the mystagogy.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      Yes, that’s par for the course for all news coverage (except when C-SPAN offers just a live feed with only introductory and concluding commentary) – the talking heads need to “add value” and justify their salaries.

    2. Lizette Larson-Miller Avatar
      Lizette Larson-Miller

      Didn’t realize that happened, oh my…

  5. Christopher lazowski OSB Avatar

    Lizette, thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis.
    One thought it provoked was that a comparison with Margaret Thatcher’s state funeral might be interesting. It didn’t give me the impression of two concurrent events: the Prime Minister read the Gospel (was he functioning as an honorary deacon?), and the Queen was in the front row, but my memory of it was that it was an Anglican funeral on a bigger scale than usual. Perhaps the Church of England being the Established Church helps it do that sort of thing in a more coherent way. I may be totally wrong, this is just something that crossed my mind as I read your text.

    1. Lizette Larson-Miller Avatar
      Lizette Larson-Miller

      Thank you…that’s a comparison I have not pursued. I do think a state church, rather than a separation of church and state, makes a difference. I might be more willing to entertain a national cathedral if we had a national mosque or synagogue too…but perhaps not then either…

  6. charles jordan Avatar
    charles jordan

    View from the Pew – Part I
    Regarding: “…the consolation of the mourners”
    – This is a good article, providing an insight into the expected awkwardness that can rumble through and around funerals of family members, and friends.
    – The televised funeral brought me to an appreciation of how hospitable the Cathedral’s staff and parish were, incorporating into the liturgy what the McCain family clearly needed; spinning those needs into the threads of the warp and woof of the funeral liturgy. That the McCain family allowed the public to participate in the funeral was an act of graciousness and an acknowledgement that no one, regardless of the degree of social rank or status, is so much an island that the sadness and loss is confined only to the members of the person’s home. That the McCain funeral was open to the nation is an indication that ‘home’ expansively means the country which was the beneficiary of much of whom John McCain was, and did. The country responded in the language and with the symbols specific to it.
    – John McCain was everyman with all the flaws, and efforts to do better which we hope to find in the baptized. Baptism permeates a life so much so that everything done in life is of baptism. Even hurt and harm, sin, can not be without the healing consequences of baptism.
    – Dying and death is built into the foundation of each domestic church, household of faith, home of the baptized. Every death requires the members of the home, closely defined or widely extended, to look to the resurrection, but at the same time to acknowledge all of that which the dead the person brings into life after death, the soul shaped by a lived life. Baptism brings each one from death to life already and in baptismal life the holiness that is creation and created is the more apparent, more there.
    – More informed by the article; I am moved by the over all sense of the funeral, appreciating the amount of work and planning, required to meet the needs of John’s household, family friends, and all that was his home, widely…

    1. charles jordan Avatar
      charles jordan

      View from the Pew – Part II
      Regarding: “…consolation of the mourners.”
      – Now more informed by the article, I am moved by the over all sense of the funeral, appreciating the amount of work and planning, required to meet the needs of John’s household, family friends, and all that was his home, widely expressed.
      – For most of us, it is a blessing that the parish church has a liturgy ready to go for the funeral. Perhaps, a way could be found to ask: what of your domestic church and from the life of the deceased can we more closely include in the established liturgy?
      – Perhaps the wake and the funeral liturgy could be more of an organic whole, rather than two distinct occasions. Not sure how to work this out but at times it seems that the wake / rosary / prayer service comes out as ‘this is something we do’ notwithstanding that often a cleric comes to read the gospel and say a few words, and the funeral mass is ‘something the presbyter does’ notwithstanding that the majority of the celebrants are the lay family and friends of the deceased.

  7. B R Smith Avatar
    B R Smith

    I would like to make one correction, Lizette. The cathedral was not granted any land from the federal government. The Diocese of Washington assembled and paid for the land itself, with the help of many prominent families. The government has never contributed anything to its building or maintenance, it was entirely self funded.
    I find these pseudo state funerals rather disturbing, where we are too willing to sublimate the Church’s liturgy to political expediency. The endless eulogies including applause were hard to fathom. The recent funeral of Barbara Bush was even more of the same. King or commoner, I was always taught we would all get the same service at the end. No longer the case.

    1. Lizette Larson-Miller Avatar
      Lizette Larson-Miller

      Ageed, thank you for clarifying

  8. Michael H. Marchal Avatar
    Michael H. Marchal

    It is one of the most clear directives in the RC Order of Christian Funerals that came out in the US in th elate 89’s: The flag and all the military stuff had to stop at the church door. It could be resumed when leaving, but in the church itself the great leveler of gender, age, social status, wealth, education, etc. applies: the deceased was a baptized Christian and n the end that is who is coming for the last time to church for a service. The flag on the coffin does not say that.

  9. Michael H. Marchal Avatar
    Michael H. Marchal

    Just posing a question, inspired by the nomenclature of the “national” cathedral: why was Billy Graham laid out in the Capitol? I can understand Rosa Parks and John McCain because of their civic achievements, but his were solely as a religious figure. I doubt that the Founding Fathers would have been comfortable with this event. I would be more comfortable with it if I thought that a Catholic , Orthodox, Jewish, etc. leader would have a chance of being laid out there.

  10. Mike Burns Avatar
    Mike Burns

    McCain’s funeral was one big eulogy. That’s the danger of making the Liturgy about the person, not the paschal mystery. The Liturgy becomes a raising to sainthood.

    We Catholics struggle with this same phenomenon in allowing eulogies in the funeral Liturgy that sometimes are quite long.

  11. Ed Nash Avatar
    Ed Nash

    So let’s get to the heart of the issue – was this a civic remembrance of a highly respected politician OR was it a liturgy of the church?

    I think the answer to this question is yes. Most likely it has to do with asking people to speak whose first agenda may not be their own salvation but the salvation of the country (which then gets tied to personal salvation). Minnesotans may remember the Wellstone memorial service where a political rally broke out.

    But the deeper question is.
    What happens to a church that sings “America the Beautiful” as ritual music?

    It starts to believe that what the country wants, Jesus wants. It is that reality that makes observers stand back and ask what the separation of Church and State means. All that being said, my grandmother had the Battle Hymn of the Republic sung as the recessional at her funeral and my grandfather had the Naval Hymn sung as a processional at his funeral. Both Catholic. I cried and knew exactly why they wanted those statements of faith.

  12. Pastor Dave Poedel Avatar
    Pastor Dave Poedel

    Did any of you actually expect the staff of the National Cathedral to present a traditional, theologically cogent and beautiful as well? I guess I have been around ECUSA types enough to expect the marginally if at all orthdox rites were likely going to be dumbed down and made PC so as not to offend anyone except traditionalists of the liturgical communities?

    As they are the first on-board with just about every social justice theme out there, I am amazed that they did the McCain funeral and that Holy Scripture was read, if not preached on. The non-Eucharistic vestments were very tasteful, not over the top, as I have seen on some wacky vestment sites, usually showing Episcopal clergy vesting in said vestment.

    The music, as previously stated, was theologically incoherent and largely totally out of place in a Liturgy of the Church, even one in the ECUSA….

  13. Paul R. Schwankl Avatar
    Paul R. Schwankl

    I watched some of John McCain’s funeral and read the worship aid online. I think, without undue cynicism, that the service had as much of God in it as one could expect, for which we should be grateful.
    1. I’m old enough to remember those polite “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” signs once found outside the denomination’s churches. Washington’s Episcopal cathedral “welcomes you” most noticeably by providing Christian funeral services for presidents and other political leaders, services attended by many who are only marginally associated with Anglicanism, Christianity, or even theism. The cathedral’s funerals for Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford were very much like McCain’s. I would urge Lizette to look at the evangelizing aspects of such funerals rather than their departures from an Anglican ideal.
    2. The big way, after all, in which presidential funerals at the Washington Cathedral differ from ideal Anglican funerals is that the Eucharist is not celebrated. To me, this difference opens a broad road to adaptation of the rite, even including some speeches that say more about the USA than about God.
    3. The flag-draping and national aspects of Christian state funerals are found in Lizette’s country as well as mine. People noted the flag on Lester Pearson’s casket, especially since that flag is his most visible legacy. At Pierre Trudeau’s funeral Mass in 2000—which I saw because I live in easy reach of CBC-TV’s then-analog signal—the casket was covered with the flag, not a church pall. And Justin’s “Je t’aime, Papa” eulogy was so nonliturgical that people started wondering whether he might lead the government of Canada himself one day. How fanciful!
    4. I would have appreciated some arguments for why Lizette found “How Great Thou Art” and “Danny Boy” inappropriate, rather than summary dismissal. I didn’t see any musical selection that mingled the nation’s military might with divine approval. Was she thinking of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”? That isn’t about American dominance of other nations; it’s about our civil war. CONTINUED

    1. James Kabala Avatar
      James Kabala

      In Rhode Island, at least, those signs still exist. (And I always thought they were a good idea – not the wording, but the signs themselves. The Episcopalians always let you know that their church is just around the corner – Catholics, who have such a vastly larger number of American adherents, should do the same.)

  14. Paul R. Schwankl Avatar
    Paul R. Schwankl

    4 (CONTINUED). “The Star-Spangled Banner” does indeed invoke God while reminding Canadians that we beat Britain in the War of 1812, but it wasn’t sung at the McCain funeral. And I don’t think the text of “America the Beautiful” bears out complaints like “What happens to a church that sings ‘America the Beautiful’ as ritual music?”; the song is in essence a prayer for the nation. I can’t see forbidding hymns of intercession for the Washington Cathedral’s country simply because the larger church is catholic. I believe Ed Nash overstates the danger in them.
    5. This funeral differed from similar services at the Washington Cathedral in one important way, which Lizette and most commenters have not fully acknowledged. In allowing so many speeches, McCain evidently wanted lots of attention paid to the current condition of the USA; this was his last opportunity to do something about it (with an immense audience). God help me if I would begrudge him that opportunity. Lizette, you say you’re not much for politics, but from as close as London (Ontario!), you surely can see that we’re in big trouble. The Canadians I know typically offer me their sympathy and prayers for my country. I’d appreciate yours.
    6. Pastor Dave, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such venom from you, and not often from anybody commenting in Pray Tell (except for a few distressed Catholic traditionalists, who typically receive a chastening response from the editor). You wouldn’t be happy with what Episcopalians would say about LCMS. They’re trying to be good Christians according to their lights. More charity, please.

  15. David Bains Avatar

    Thank you for these thoughtful reflections. I have one correction and one comment.

    First the correction, Congress did not grant the land for the cathedral. In 1893 they approved a charter the foundation that governs the cathedral. This was common for many non-profits at the time. This was especially true for those that planned to operate educational institutions in the District of Columbia. Schools were as important as a cathedral church to the cathedral’s founders. The land was purchased by the foundation at a later date and paid for by the funds it raised.

    Second, while “America the Beautiful” is poetically addressed to the nation, each stanza concludes with prayers to God for the nation’s improvement. When signing it one prays “[may] God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood.” And also “God mend thy ever flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control.” It could have been used in a more appropriate place in the liturgy, but I don’t think it is out of place in it.

    Thanks again for your reflections.

  16. Brian Duffy Avatar
    Brian Duffy

    Does anyone know what the service at the cemetery chapel and at the grave was like? I suspect that a more prayerful atmosphere prevailed in such an intimate setting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *