On Friday the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane welcomed retired Senator John Danforth as celebrant and homilist during the national funeral for Ronald Reagan. In this interview with Nan Cobbey of Episcopal Life, Chane discussed the elaborate advance preparations for the funeral. Some of Chane’s fellow bishops, who have shown certain imperious tendencies in recent months, would have behaved more like this.
National funeral for Ronald Wilson Reagan
The National Cathedral, Washington
I’ll try again. Good morning!
[Mumbled, reluctant response from the congregation.]
I should begin by thanking the Reagan family for agreeing, after a few days of tear-filled negotiations, to respect my canonical authority to preside at this service and to preach this homily.
I was unable, as a matter of conscience before God, to allow John Danforth to preside at this service. John Danforth was the protector and patron — the Sugar Daddy, if you will — of the Supreme Court “Justice,” Clarence “Uncle” Thomas. Such a person has no place in the inclusive Realm of God, as I think we all agree.
Don’t even get me started on the idea of Billy Graham occupying this pulpit yet again.
Besides the inappropriate beliefs of John Danforth and Billy Graham, there was the far more important doctrinal issue of episcopal jurisdiction. I do not wish to bore you with minutiae, but Title III, Canon 9, Section 6(b) clearly states: “No Priest shall preach, read prayers in public worship, or perform any similar function, in a congregation without the consent of the Rector or Priest-in-Charge of that congregation” — and in the absence of a dean at this cathedral, I am that authority.
A pretty heavy thinker once put it well: Where the bishop is, there is the church. I am here this morning, practicing the ministry of presence, because I am a humble servant.
So thank you, Nancy, Patti, and Ron — oh, and I almost forgot you, Michael. None of you had any real choice in this matter, of course, but you were gracious in defeat.
[Soft weeping by Nancy Reagan.]
I never much liked Ronald Reagan. I considered his movies corny and sentimental at best and, in their darkest moments, crypto-fascist. You cannot watch his performance as the heavy in The Killers, originally shot for television in 1964, without seeing a blueprint for the “greed is good” America of the 1980s. The very best film critics are pretty much unanimous on this: When Ronald Reagan slapped down Angie Dickinson, he was subjecting of all us to domestic abuse. And yet we loved him anyway, like so many passive victims, because he knew how to tell a good yarn!
[Confused mumbling among the congregation.]
I did not vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980. I did not vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984, when the bitter harvest of his policies was becoming clear to anyone paying attention. But we live in a democratic republic, for better or worse, and Ronald Reagan was the choice of the people, or at least of the privileged elites who can take 15 minutes out of their day to vote.
In Lady Thatcher’s videotaped remarks — nice impersonal touch, there Lady Thatcher — she referred to Ronald Reagan’s calling God “the Big Fella.” So impressed was she by this colloquialism that she repeated it in her closing remarks. I must rebuke this appalling lapse in liturgical taste and orthodoxy.
We all know that gender is a social construction. We all know that God is genderless. To refer to God as “the Big Fella,” especially in the sacred space of my — pardon me, our — National Cathedral is sexist, patriarchalist and heterosexist. If you were a priest, Lady Thatcher, I would depose you. This will not stand.
[Shouted response from a Brit: "Would you be so kind as to get round to your point? Cheers."]
I thank you for the cheers. While it would be gauche to dwell on the worthiness of the minister, I would insult God if I did not accept your compliment. As Jesus taught us, you cannot love others until you first love yourself. Or, in the more cornpone version I have seen on fliers from ministries in Appalachia, “God don’t make no junk.”
Before I close,
[Vigorous applause, whistles and one "Whoo!"]
Oh, thank you again. Yes, I know.
Before I close, please indulge me as I offer a few basic words of comfort from my seminary days, including my doctoral and postdoctoral studies.
Jesus was a sinner, just like you and me, which made Jesus fully human and actualized. But Jesus accepted God’s forgiveness, and — more important — Jesus accepted Jesus’ self as God made Jesus’ self.
I shall not patronize you with saccharine language about heaven or seeing our loved ones again or slipping the surly bonds of earth or touching the face of God. We all know those are mere symbols for a most primitive and childish set of beliefs.
Ronald Reagan is dead. His body will rot. I seek no false comfort in the heaven described by fundamentalists. If the God they describe is so unconcerned with justice as to allow one soul — yes, one soul — to choose an eternity apart from God and God’s people and God’s Realm, well, the conclusion is obvious: This God is not worthy of my respect, much less of my worship.
My God, the God who has revealed Godself through the collective experience of God’s people, expects us to make our own meaning.
Some of you will find it through money. If you are a Republican, I expect you know this temptation perfectly well. If you are a Democrat, I expect you know that you’ve atoned for any sins of Mammon by writing indignant letters to your Congressperson. The issue is not whether you have much money or even how you spend what you have. The issue is how frequently you speak truth to power by urging the government to do your works of mercy.
Some of you will find it through the sacrament of sex, and we’re doing our best to find a liturgical language for naming and blessing that sacrament in all its configurations.
Some of you will find it through power. I love power as much as the next person, but may I point out the obvious? As you’re exercising your power, be sure to do a little good out there. Practice random acts of kindness. Leave a dime in the proverbial expired parking meter of your neighbor, and no — don’t ask a network news camera to record your generosity, even if you are the president.
Today we commit Ronald Reagan to the earth. This is the day the Lord has made!