First United Methodist Church of Grove has been a target of ridicule recently, frankly for choosing to honor Christ more than the U.S. flag in funeral services for veterans.
One unhappy family made accusations intending to harm an entire ministry--for not getting their specific desires—when we were trying our best to help them, within church policy. Others have asked us for a response.
Our ministry has served this community for over a century, with food, medical care, scouting, meeting space for civic groups, July 3rd Freedom Fest, daycare, county-wide foster support, and much more.
I’m in my 18th year as pastor. We have 10 to 20 funerals / memorial services each year—an important but small part of our total ministry.
We grieve the loss Lucille Vernon, and we pray for her family. She served her country, community, and this church, and will be missed.
We revere the American flag. Three flags fly on site at all times and a flag is included in funeral/memorial services for veterans. The ‘rub’ came in precisely when and how that flag is displayed!
We offer Christian Services, not Military Services.
In worship, the primary focus is on God! We welcome a military rite to be included, but it is not a Military Service—that’s an important distinction!
The Pastoral Greeting at services states: "We are here to worship God, to bear witness to our faith, and to honor the life of (the deceased)." The officiating pastor is responsible to keep the focus on God in the service—above all other.
In Christianity, there is a historic tradition of using a pall (as in pall bearer) to cover caskets during worship--a fitted cloth with a cross sewn into the top. In our denomination, the local church and appointed clergy determine if palls will be used and how.
The theological purpose of a pall fits into these categories:
A symbol of "putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14), bearing witness to our Baptism ("buried with Christ"), and to the Resurrection ("we too may be raised with him" (Rom. 6:4).
A witness that before God, all persons are viewed, valued, and treated equally – whether in an opulent casket or a pine box! In a local church, the same pall should be used for all, and no flowers should be placed thereon, out of reverence for Christ (UM Book of Worship, 139).
For 20 years, our church-owned pall has been placed over caskets. I’ve honored this policy (which pre-dates me) for every funeral where I officiated or assisted--inside our building.
Our procedure for a veteran's funeral service:
The casket arrives to the church with a flag on it. Directors bring the casket into our Narthex, remove the flag and replace it with the pall before taking it to the Sanctuary.
If the military rite is included in the service (common for memorial services), a folded, American flag is carried into the service by the Grove Veteran's Ritual Team and unfolded, as rifles outdoors fire three volleys. Taps is played. Then the flag is formally folded and presented to family.
After the service, the casket goes to the Narthex where (if the military rite is yet to be done at cemetery) the pall is removed, American flag re-installed. The flag remains intact for the Committal Service and military rite at cemetery.
For two decades, all veteran families have honored this protocol without objection—until now. We respect the decision of any to move a service to another location, and respect the policies of other churches.
We only ask that others lend the same respect for this church in making policy for services for which we are responsible before God.
The bottom line of this issue:
In worship, we honor the American flag, but aim to honor God even more! The pall helps us bear witness to a deep conviction that in death, we belong to Christ through Baptism and are marked by him for Resurrection!
We pray peace may come to broken hearts and to emotions that are astir, that God will be honored.
Rev. Randall R. Hamill, Senior Pastor
First United Methodist Church, Grove