background

Joanna Collicutt tells the personal story behind the Death and Life project.

pondering these things

In 2003 my mother suffered a serious heart attack and at one point was given 48 hours to live. In the event she lived another seven years. She spent those years well, regularly visiting churches to pray privately and prepare herself spiritually for the end of her earthly life.

Whether by choice or not, she did this alone and unsupported. When I shared this with a senior church leader he reflected ‘It’s a great shame that the churches don’t do more to help people with this important task!’ The germ of an idea had been planted.

The gap in the church

Meanwhile, I had taken up the post of adviser for Spiritual Care for Older People for the Diocese of Oxford. I was reflecting on what ’spiritual care’ actually means, and how churches might go beyond tending to the physical and emotional wellbeing of older people (important though this is) and offer something distinctively Christian. 

I had another significant conversation, this time with a young Jewish woman, who pointed out that, unlike many religious traditions, Christianity does not offer a model for how to grow old gracefully; Jesus of Nazareth ‘lived fast and died young.’ This conversation brought my attention back to something I had lost sight of: the Christian faith does not see later life as a dignified decline into oblivion, but the urgent run-up to its ultimate goal, stepping through the gateway of death to resurrection life.

Yet, outside of Easter services, there didn’t seem to be much talk of this sort of thing going on in church circles. Unlike baptism and marriage, there were hardly any courses laid on by churches to prepare folk for this ultimate life event.

 

A pilot

So, I did some informal research to find out if people in my local area would like to do a death preparation course. I was astonished by the eagerness and enthusiasm of the response. In 2012 I delivered and evaluated a six week course called Living in the End Times. It was very successful and was written up for publication in an academic journal: Living in the end times.

But this was just one event – a kind of pilot. The next step was to spread the word and encourage others to try similar events. In 2014 a series of training days for ministers and other pastoral leaders was organised across the Oxford Diocese (which covers Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Berkshire).

As a result of these, several more initiatives got off the ground; new things were learnt, different approaches emerged. It became clear that there was a need for more research into good practice, and the development of resources to support it.

In 2016 funding for a three year project was secured from the Henry Smith Charity  This enabled the appointment of a dedicated research practitioner, Victoria Slater. It’s out of this more substantial project – gathering stories, recording good practice, identifying needs, doing theological reflection, that this web resource has been developed.