Why, in spite of the invitation, I won’t be at Baroness Thatcher’s Funeral

Posted by on Apr 10, 2013 | Comments Off on Why, in spite of the invitation, I won’t be at Baroness Thatcher’s Funeral

As a parish priest in Bethnal Green I was asked to take the funeral of Reggie Kray when he died in 2000. In the week or so preceding the funeral the Press were very keen to know my views on the gangster – what was I going to say about him in the service? Was I going to take the line that he loved his mum and never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve it, or denounce him as a violent thug? My response was that a Christian funeral was not about choosing between competing public images; rather it was to place a human life in the context of the love of God, a love that is prepared to cherish and forgive but also a love that makes clear sin and failure. Part of the scandal – or, as St Paul would have it, the stupidity – of our faith is that we believe that no sin is big enough to remove us from the love of God, and there is no saint who is not also a sinner. The service seeks to acknowledge the need for pardon as well as the achievements of a human life, in whatever proportion they might be.

The difficulty in trying to keep this perspective on a funeral and not allow it to turn into a battleground of competing public judgements was very much in the forefront with Reggie Kray’s service and I am reminded of it as the preparations begin for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.

She, of course, was a politician and not a gangster. But, equally, she was clearly loved by family and friends, clearly elevated to mythic proportions by those who share her ideology and despised and hated by those who, most particularly, suffered the ill-effects of her decisions. Her rule as Prime Minister and the legacy she has left still requires debate and assessment. But her funeral should not be used as a tool of that debate: neither by those who publicly celebrate her death, nor by those who share her politics – both are equally guilty of showing disrespect and bad taste.

Personally, I would have been much more comfortable with a funeral at her local church and a Memorial Service at St Paul’s at a later date for those who wanted to make a more public statement about what they saw as her achievements, because this nearly-State Funeral cannot but give the appearance of affirming her policies. Do not forget that she declared that working-class families, attempting to defend their jobs and their communities were ‘the enemy within’. Such language not only resulted in the level of violence shown by the Police in the Miners’ Strike, but also created the context for the cover-up that took place following the deaths of 96 Liverpool FC supporters at Hillsborough – in which my own parishioners died. Consequently, the Established Church of England will not be representing the whole community, as it should, nor even the vast majority – as it did in the Royal Jubilee Service at St Paul’s.

This is the same Church of England that was branded ‘Marxist’ by the Thatcher Government because of its defence of the poor and excluded of this country in its 1985 report ‘Faith in the City’. In truth the report was not at all left-wing in its theology or its conclusions, but it demonstrated a compassion that did not fit with the hard-line economic and social policies of the time. David Sheppard, Bishop of Liverpool through that period, was clearly seen as one of those Marxists and yet – in my eyes, at least, as one of his more troublesome clergy – he seemed rather to be part of a traditional establishment that was appalled by Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to undermine our social responsibilities to one another. This was not Marxism, but Christianity – the essential values of a national church that tried to minister to the whole of the community: rich and poor, the elite and the marginalised, and get them all to acknowledge our common needs and responsibilities.

What I found most difficult at Reggie Kray’s funeral was nothing to do with expressing the feelings of families and friends about the death of this human being, but dealing with those who wanted to live off the myth by participating. It felt as if every bouncer in the East End needed to be part of the 150-strong security group, vying for attention on the tv cameras with their official ‘RKF’ (Reggie Kray Funeral) badges, to establish their hard credentials for life. I sense something of the same with Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and, once again, I say that using a death in this way is just as disrespectful as those who have celebrated publicly.

As it happens, as a Prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral and part of the formal structure, I have an invitation to attend. I won’t be going – not because I think this will have any effect, but because – with the views I have expressed above – I think it would be hypocritical and I don’t want to be in the company of those trying to turn a funeral into a political argument. I would, however, urge my fellow Prebends, whether they agree with my politics or not, to think very carefully before they accept. In spite of its mistakes last year, the Cathedral tried to show that it was not just on the side of the bankers against the Occupy demonstrators; what will this service say to those communities who were described by Mrs Thatcher as ‘the enemy within’, and who are now – in her legacy – losing benefits, public services and homes?

May she rest in peace.