The Sunday morning after the horrendous events of September 11, 2001, my husband and I made our way to church in England’s Cheshire countryside. It was a long way from New York City where I had lived in the 1980s and 90s before we were married. Disoriented and upset, feeling far away and powerless to help, I was looking for connection, solace and acknowledgement of loss in a congregation I’d known for five years.
Moments before the service began, the minister came over to me and whispered in my ear: “I feel we should carry on as normal this morning.” I felt my stomach turn over and my back stiffen. What followed was a service with barely a mention of events an ocean away. Prayers towards the end of the service included a few generic words about what was taking up 24/7 television coverage on almost every channel. There was no sign of the specific prayer request for my young goddaughter in New York City whose best friend’s mother had been missing since the attacks. I felt sick. Following the service, individual congregation members sought me out and kindly asked about family and friends in the United States. However, by that point, my husband and I couldn’t get out of that sanctuary fast enough. We didn’t go back for more than a decade.
I have never forgotten the feeling of devastation I felt that morning in church. The lack of any real mention of these terrible events during an act of worship, where I expected them to be acknowledged and prayed over, made it worse.
I came away from that Sunday morning with some valuable lessons that I’ve carried with me ever since, especially into my work as a chaplain in Britain’s National Health Service.
One morning I arrived at a specialist mental health facility to the terrible news that a young doctor on her very first day had collapsed on the wards within hours of her arrival. She died never regaining consciousness. The medics on duty immediately had begun CPR compressions within a minute of her collapse—right there on the ward in front of staff, patients, and visitors. They continued heroically for the better part of thirty minutes, until the ambulance arrived.
What seemed to make it worse was that no one who knew her personally was present in this catastrophic moment. The very first thing I did was to confirm her name and how to spell it. Within a few hours I managed to find a staff member in another part of the organization who trained with her. He told me she was in her early 30s, married with two young children and had hopes of a career as a general practitioner. He also let me know that she was a practicing Muslim and that her body would likely be flown back to her home country of Pakistan for her funeral. In the facility’s small multi-faith room I set out electric candles, a book of condolences and a single white rose on the table. I wrote a brief paragraph about this young doctor and placed it next to the rose. I sent out a message to staff and patients welcoming them to stop by that multi-faith room for a chat or just a moment on their own, should they need it.
Two days later my Muslim chaplaincy colleague and I held a ten-minute “time of reflection.” It wasn’t a religious service but included prayers from the Koran recited in both English and Arabic. The gathering spilled out into the hallway. Afterwards, it was the medics, usually the first to leave to get back to their clinics, who lingered to talk. They received multiple reassurances from others that they had done everything they possibly could have to save a colleague whom they would never know.
It was terrible that this doctor’s life ended so suddenly and unexpectedly and that in that moment we hadn’t been able to do more for her. But together, we could say that her death mattered. We could name a sense of loss and acknowledge the pain of powerlessness, wishing this young woman’s first day with us could have gone in a different way for her, her family and for those who will never know her as colleague, doctor, or friend.
In a 2007 New England Journal of Medicine article called “The Code,” Dr. Katherine Treadway described the evolution of her own simple ritual following the death of a patient. As a young trainee hospital doctor, she was frequently called to drop everything and run to assist in emergency resuscitations of patients who had “coded”—meaning that their hearts had stopped beating. After one such failed attempt, and on her own in the resuscitation room, Treadway recalls that “half remembered words from the end of a Requiem Mass came into my head and I said out loud: ‘May choirs of angels greet thee at thy coming’—less a statement of faith than a simple attempt to acknowledge the passing of a life. Since that day, I have never had a patient die and not said those words—my small attempt to remember what it is that we are ultimately doing: trying to protect our patients’ lives.”
Too often the shared Christian rituals that we call liturgy or worship become spaces where only certain forms of words belong.
The article that she wrote about this received an unprecedented response from the medical community. Many clinicians wrote to say that they applauded Dr. Treadway for acknowledging the emotional toll that such work takes. A number of them went on to describe their own personal rituals and processes for honoring the end of a patient’s life. Such a response underscores the need for the ritual marking of significant moments in life, whether in secular or religious settings, in some meaningful way. And yet, sadly, there are many people who do not find their losses and struggles explicitly named or acknowledged within traditional worship settings. Nor do they carry away potentially important words of support from that worship into their everyday lives.
Too often the shared Christian rituals that we call liturgy or worship become spaces where only certain forms of words belong. We are used to praying together in specific ways and with familiar words. There is a richness and power in such repetition and familiarity. However, what’s “missing in action” is often exactly the less formal words associated with the pain and challenges as well as the joys of ordinary life—the work and experiences that make up our lifetimes.
This came home to me not long ago when I received a phone call from a parish-based clergy colleague whom I’ll call Caroline. She was looking for liturgical resources that address marital breakdown. “I’ve come to realize that most of the real-life troubles and pain that our people live with are just not addressed in our traditional liturgies,” she lamented.
In the past, she and I have talked at length about the challenges of supporting families who are grieving over less visible losses such as a failed fertility treatment, or struggling with crippling regret over breaches that they can no longer rectify with parents, children, or partners. Both of us agreed that too little of our worship directly and explicitly mentions the circumstances of some of our deepest losses and suffering.
Caroline explained that she had been supporting a woman who was struggling with guilt over leaving a marriage in which she had known years of domestic abuse. While supportive pastoral conversation and informal prayer had helped, her parishioner continued to feel beyond God’s forgiveness for breaking her marriage vows. A gifted liturgist herself, Caroline had suggested that the two of them might create a liturgy together that could acknowledge her parishioner’s feelings of guilt and offer solace and release within a formal act of worship.
A week later, Caroline got back in touch. Making use of both her denomination’s worship tradition and more contemporary liturgical resources found online, she was able to create what I believe was a sensitive, powerful and specific piece of liturgy that flowed from relationship and tears shared in pastoral conversation and a deep longing for a new beginning and release. Caroline’s parishioner read through the service and liked it, but after consideration, decided not to invite anyone else to take part. It would just be just the two of them together in the sanctuary, a sacred space where her parishioner had first made her wedding vows. They lit candles. Caroline put on a recording of some appropriate contemplative music. Then, together, they began the liturgy that they had created, drawing on long, cherished church tradition, but also naming explicitly the painful life experience that had brought them to that place. Shared prayers expressed desire for healing, wholeness, and, at her parishioner’s specific request, forgiveness.
“Jesus gave authority to the Church to bind and to loose, so we loosed her from her marriage vows,” reflected Caroline. “Lighting the candle, playing some music, creating a prayerful place of worship. . . . [my parishioner] left knowing that she would still have to come to terms with her emotions. They would not disappear overnight. But she had that sense of an actual release happening. And she can go back to those words again and again when she feels overwhelmed. . . . The formality of liturgy offers a way of looking at what we believe in a form that we can go back to and use as an anchor to carry us through difficult times.”
This intimate and personalized liturgical experience provided acknowledgement and release for Caroline’s parishioner in a particular way that nothing else had. But in other circumstances sharing a scarring or traumatic experience also can be healing precisely because it is shared with others who have lived through that experience.
Conor Stainton-Polland is a Roman Catholic priest who understands a thing or two about the important role that shared ritual and liturgy play in the life of whole communities who live with trauma. He grew up in Belfast as the son of one of Northern Ireland’s few Catholic police officers during the violent years of The Troubles. He laughs, observing, “I had a very balanced upbringing in that nobody [neither Catholics nor Protestants] liked us.”
Today, Stainton-Polland is priest in charge of two Liverpool parishes, one of which is on the doorstep of the Liverpool Football Club (a professional soccer team). In 1989, during a league match at the Hillsborough Stadium, ninety-six Liverpool supporters—including many children and young people—were crushed to death in what has come to be referred to as the “Hillsborough Disaster.” For years, he has supported this community in public and private acts of worship as they live with lasting effects of unresolved trauma and grief. In both large public and smaller church settings, finding well-chosen words, as well as the poignant silences—something he learned from his Quaker education—has been integral to his regular professional parish life.
Stainton-Polland says he is grateful that Catholicism has centuries of tradition that have instructed and informed the set liturgy. “Liturgy can provide words and formats where the weakness of us as ministers and members fails,” he explains. But he also says that it is crucial to “make room for people.” He describes the set liturgy as “scaffolding” around which there is an opportunity to “dress it” for different individuals and their experience. Fr. Conor believes without question that you “can’t just stick to the rules” and that the Christian message “must always be the assurance that no one is alone.”
In March 2019, Stainton-Polland took part in an ecumenical service at London’s Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, supporting a different community: those affected by suicide. This annual service is called “A Time to Talk,” and people attending come from across London and beyond. He was there to tell his story about the night that he considered taking his own life.
The church’s vicar, The Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells says that Stainton-Polland’s talk of “his own near-suicide was an electric experience of one who many might think of as a judge becoming a fellow sufferer—a truly incarnational moment.” He adds, “Sometimes you just have to create the right context and let the Holy Spirit do the rest, and this was one such moment.”
Wells maintains that “more than anything, the service is an opportunity to overcome isolation” for those who have lived with suicidal thoughts, been bereaved by suicide and those supporting such bereaved people. In his book, Liturgy on the Edge, Wells emphasizes the importance including shared informal time over coffee after such services to help extend the time of support and sharing.
Some, understandably, may feel suicide is not a word or subject that belongs in a formal liturgical setting. Stainton-Polland, however, believes that excluding it, “excludes [people’s] grief and pain from the Christian experience, which is about reaching people in their darkest places with compassion (suffering with) and communion (unity with).”
I couldn’t agree more. In her essay, “Ritual Formation,” worship designer and professor Marcia McFee asks if we really invite our communities of worship to speak about “the deepest things.” “Do we truly believe God invites us to speak honestly in the context of our rituals of worship, of pain and uncertainty? . . . We need rituals of care that provide safe spaces in which to feel the full range of emotions.”
Pacific School of Religion professor Dr. Karen Lebacqz explains why this is essential: “Bland worship avoids both pain and joy. In our anesthetized life, we are so afraid of pain that, in our desire to mute suffering, we sometimes stifle joy. The gospel is good news. But it is good news in the midst of pain and suffering. If we try to avoid pain and suffering, we will not be able to hear or embody the gospel. We will not be able to incarnate the Word.”
We can never really know the full extent of what people, even those whom we have known for many years, bring with them into worship—what need or connection or grief or joy or doubt or hope they come looking for. But those needs, griefs, and joys will be there in the room, in the sanctuary. We cannot know who will linger for a moment and, seeing little of their life in the worship experience, never return. They turn away not so much in reaction to what is there, but to what has been left out or glossed over, not named, or simply not noticed of their life and the life of the wider world.
Our liturgies, informed by rich tradition and reflection, can make space to name and reflect on our present real-life struggles with personal disillusionment, terrible losses, and difficult emotions that are hard to acknowledge even to ourselves. They can be amazing places of connection and comfort and healing. They can be something “that we can go back to and use as an anchor to carry us through difficult times,” as Caroline observed. They can be a place of an “incarnational moment.” Or not. Even to begin to try to acknowledge more of life’s hard times in our liturgies is an act of faith and healing.
 Katharine Treadway, M.D., “The Code,” New England Journal of Medicine(September 27, 2007), 357.
 Marcia McFee, “Ritual Formation: Liturgical Practices and the Practice of Peacebuilding” in Conflict and Communion, Reconciliation and Restorative Justice at Christ’s Table, Porter Thomas, ed., (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2006), 67–77.
 Karen Lebacqz, Word, Worship, World, and Wonder: Reflections on Christian Living (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 72–73.