Funerals are always acts of social solidarity


Baroness Thatcher, Prime Minister 1979-1990
A personal reflection by Simon Harvey, on the funeral of Baroness Thatcher, which takes place at St Paul's Cathedral next Wednesday.

After several years outside the public arena, we’ve been reminded this week of Margaret Thatcher’s ability to inspire intense feelings of loyalty, admiration, anger and even hatred. This polarised set of responses is probably unmatched by the death of any other recent leader. My friends’ reactions have included loathing and adoration. And that’s no surprise.

In the tributes by her close colleagues and political foes, she has been remembered as a conviction politician. In policy-making, she is renowned for refusing to linger on the reputational risk of decisions. Instead, she set out to find the right thing to do and, once satisfied, to rally support, to confront opposition and to implement her plans. No other peace-time prime-minister has been quite so fearless, or heedless, of opponents. She was always up for a fight and she won often.

In 1979, she won and I lost.

I was sixteen and already politically active. Our house was the local Labour campaign headquarters in the first general election in which she led the Conservatives. My leafletting, badge-wearing and earnest broadcasts from a Morris Marina loudspeaker car had less effect on the people of Wolverhampton North East than I hoped. The majority of our sitting Labour MP was reduced dramatically and by the time that Margaret Thatcher won her third general election, the seat was taken by the Conservatives for the first time in its history.

The ‘Thatcher era’ saw massive de-industrialisation in our town. In the space of a decade, things changed so much. Some of the men and women who used to return to the thousands of identical rented council houses from shifts worked in Victorian factories, like the one in which my father worked, were now paying mortgages on their own homes and seeing opportunities in a new kind of Britain. Others would never work again. It sometimes felt like a place of gloating winners and bitter losers. At the same time, Islington’s Upper Street saw police charge down the poll-tax rioters. Around the country, things changed too. Mines closed. The City boomed. It’s no wonder opinions are mixed.

Exploring the impact of the policies of that era opened my eyes to Christianity and I directly trace the beginnings of my Christian faith to the Thatcher years. In my district, during a hot summer of riots, we watched cars burn and despairing young people fight. I was deeply encouraged by the brilliant Faith in the City report, written by a Church of England commission set up in response to that summer and co-led by David Sheppard, whose public ministry began here at St Mary Islington. I began to see that merely fighting against the most brutal aspects of Thatcherism was achieving little and that the very hostility created by divisive politics was part of the problem of a fast-disintegrating society. The harder we fought, the more we lost. Instead, I found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, radical calls to break down enmity and to work to redeem structures of injustice rather than simply smash them.

A canal-side former industrial site in Wolverhampton in 2013
Funerals are a regular part of my work as a vicar. They are peculiarly private and public at the same time. They mingle the raw grief of those most close to the deceased person with the sympathies and respects of people who are less directly involved. It's not unusual for there to be tension but somehow the space and time becomes hospitable to that and not all truths need to be spoken in order to be recognised.

Every funeral in a shared civic space like a church has a public significance, however large the congregation, however famous the deceased. The last two funerals at St Mary's were of a high-level public servant whose life touched thousands and of an office cleaner who lived her whole life within two hundred yards of the church.

Perhaps in contrast to previous ages, funerals are now also intensely personal – at their best catching something of the essence of the life that has just ended. I am always careful to listen to grieving relatives describe the whole of a life, not just a recent illness and death. As we live more frenetically and at greater distance from the family home, the way that a funeral congregation attends to the life of an individual feels right, proper and good. Increasingly, funerals have the feeling of an unusual punctuation. They make us stop working, bring us together, enable us to share recollections, memories and feelings, in a way that runs counter to the trends of our time. They create opportunities for forgiveness between those once estranged. In a world in which the regular pattern of community-making has drastically reduced, funerals have taken on a crucial role in binding families, friends and colleagues. They remind us that a good life is not lived alone, that community support matters and that in moments of loss and sorrow, humanity means solidarity.

It’s too much to hope that the funeral of Baroness Thatcher might heal the divisions that her significant leadership of our country entrenched. But it would be good if both those who eulogise her achievements and those who protest against her impact would recognise that perpetual conflict and deepening inequality need not be the legacy of those years. Margaret Thatcher saw individual responsibility as a cardinal principle and insisted that for those who looked to wider society to stand with them in times of need, "there is no such thing as society". In fact, society is very much what we all need. We become especially aware of that in times of poverty, frailty, old age, death and bereavement.

So I hope that all who gather at St Paul’s will participate in the social solidarity that proper grieving requires. I hope they will receive comfort and support from each other, that they will hear the resurrection promise of God won by the redeeming work of Christ, and the Gospels' insistence that the Kingdom of Heaven is not an opportunity for personal enrichment but for a society in which justice and peace are shared with equity.