A Teachable Moment
I have received a request to explain about the Last Rites in response to my writing about administering the
Sacrament of Extreme Unction,
more commonly referred to as the Last Rites, as Lois Atwood lay dying this past weekend. This got me thinking about all the other questions to which people would like answers, but have become anxious about asking. Therefore, I would like to invite anyone with questions – spiritual, theological, biblical or church related, that he or she has become afraid to ask, to let me know. In a series of E-epistles after Easter, I will give space to answer some of these to the best of my ability.
Returning to - What is the Last Rites? In its fullest form, i.e. when the person dying is still fully conscious, the administration of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction involves inviting confession, pronouncing absolution, laying on of hands, anointing with holy oil, and the administration of Holy Communion. All occurs within a service of readings and prayers that anticipate and acknowledge for the benefit of all present the imminence of death. When the person dying is unconscious, as was the case with Lois, the laying on of hands and anointing with oil are the significant actions. Because no confession can be heard, or Holy Communion received, forgiveness of sins is presumed through the grace of anointing. The Last Rites resolves all the outstanding spiritual issues that otherwise may seem to be left unresolved and assures the dying and their loved ones that all is well as they navigate the transition from biological life to the next phase of the spiritual life.
The Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church, while it shares a common sacramental practice with the Catholic Church, is a pastoral, not a juridical or law-based tradition. I will address this difference in a future E-epistle. Anglican understanding of sacramental action is driven by a responsibility to respond to actual human needs. Thus, the Episcopal Priest, except in very exceptional circumstances, will refrain from making any moral judgment about the required spiritual state of a person before administering Holy Communion, Baptism or the Last Rites. Jesus reminded his disciples that it is the sick not the healthy who are in need of the doctor’s remedy. Therefore, no one is refused either at the communion rail, the font, or on the death bed. Such judgment is a matter for God and not the Church, which is simply a channel through which God’s grace flows and becomes available at the point of need.
Therefore, in the Episcopal Church, Last Rites is not a gatekeeping action, i.e. those
who get it pass easily into heaven and those who don’t, don’t. Like all sacramental actions, it is a pastoral response that addresses a person at their point of spiritual need, offering comfort to the dying, but it also comforts the grieving - those who keep watch with their loved one as biological death approaches. Although there is a divergence of opinion among the clergy as to whether Last Rites can be administered immediately after death, it continues to be my practice to administer Last Rites in circumstances where the person has just died as a pastoral response to the needs of the family.
This Sunday is Lent 5, the beginning of Passiontide, the week preceding Holy Week.
I invite you all to make your experience this Easter as complete as possible by being present as the liturgy carries us as a community through the dramatic events of Christ’s passion, his death and resurrection. See you in Church then.