One of the occasional events that I take part in, as part of my work as the Baptist Chaplain in the University of Bristol, is an annual service of thanksgiving held by the Department of Clinical Anatomy, in respect of those who’ve donated their bodies to medical research.
The Bristol Medical School is one of the few that still teaches anatomy using actual bodies, as opposed to (actually alongside) computer models, online tutorials and all the paraphernalia of the digital world. Ask a medic about the advantages of this; those we’ve spoken to in the department are convinced that, for all the extra work involved in storing, preparing and using real tissue, there are advantages.
Thus each year numbers of donations are made, such that there is a steady supply of bodies for teaching medical students and – a growing area – training surgeons. But of course, these are not just pieces of flesh; they are, in each case, the bodies of someone’s loved one – and the department puts on a ’service of thanksgiving’ as a way of providing families with an opportunity to… what exactly?
That’s where the Chaplaincy comes in. The event has grown in recent years. Last year over a hundred people turned up; it was clear that for some of them the event was tantamount to a funeral – there had been no other opportunity to mark the passing of their loved one. For others there was a note of pride in what their family member had done; though for some of them it seemed that they hadn’t been part of the decision to make a donation. Members of staff wanted to express their thanks for the donation; many students were willing to say a ‘thank you’ to the families whose loved ones were helping them in their important studies, but overall there was a certain ambivalence.
A service of thanksgiving for those who had donated…? to those who had donated…? No one seemed ready to say it was a service of thanksgiving to… God? In the secular setting of a university, in which many faiths – and none – are represented, finding ways of being thankful is quite hard.
Who is God for us today? The question comes into focus when people are faced with such profound matters as discussed above. There’s a real desire to be thankful, for what’s been received, for what’s been given; it goes very deep into people’s hearts; it’s more than just thankfulness to someone; it’s certainly thankfulness for – as if the world isn’t just a random, glorious accident; isn’t just the sum of all its parts – people feel it in their bones; their thankfulness has to go somewhere; it has to be directed towards someone or something that, they feel, has brought all this about in the first place.
It’s a reminder to us all; an attitude of thankfulness is deep-grained in we humans, but in an increasingly secular multifaith world ‘naming’ the divine is not so easy.
Traditional Christian language about God must take its place alongside language used by other faiths – or indeed, they all must give way to new ways of speaking; but if it’s not to descend into something vaguely described as ‘spirituality’ but that bears little connection with peoples’ lived experience, it will, perhaps, have to remain connected to what human beings have learnt to say – and not to say – about God down all the long centuries.
This isn’t just an issue for a few folk in a university setting; it’s an issue for us all in the way we think and talk about our faith, to each other, and to our neighbours.