The introductory text on BCP 236 explains “This liturgy is intended to be prayed with one who has received Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The Officiant may appropriately inquire of the dying person as to his or her acceptance of the Christian faith.” The concern here is that this liturgy assumes a baptized faithful member of the Church and applies the hope of the Gospel to him or her. If the dying person is a lapsed Christian, or not baptized at all, there is no Gospel hope that the Church can offer other than repentance, baptism, and absolution, in that order. Thus the introductory text calls for Emergency Baptism before proceeding with the Ministry to the Dying. Furthermore, as the Additional Directions starting on BCP 241 note, the dying person may also be offered a final confession (according to the rite of the Reconciliation of a Penitent) or last Communion (according to the liturgy for the Communion of the Sick).
The fullness of this liturgy assumes all that has already been taken care of; these are meant to be, literally, the “last rites” for the dying person. The Additional Directions note that the flexibility of this rite is intentional; the presence or absence of other people by the bedside impact what the minister might include, as does the consciousness of the dying person and the amount of time expected he or she has left. Even if the person is unconscious or comatose, however, the minister should always speak clearly and directly as if he or she can hear – people often can!
Three outlines of this rite can be identified, applied to three general situations:
- Plenty of people and time available: the full rite from start to finish without omission.
- Private administration, priest & patient only: The Opening, The Kyrie & Lord’s Prayer and following prayer, Commendation, Commendatory Prayer, and Closing Prayer.
- Absolute dire emergency: Commendation, perhaps the Commendatory Prayer, Closing Prayer.
The Officiant begins with a sort of greeting and a prayer. “Peace be to this house [or place]” is spoken to the room in general – everyone gathered or just the dying person if alone – and eye contact is appropriate. During the prayer, however, eye contact should be avoided, as God is the one being addressed.
Litany at the Time of Death
As the rubric notes, this is optional. If the dying person is unconscious, death is imminent, and nobody is available to supply the responses, this is best omitted. When there is ample time and there are others gathered, this litany should be used, as it will minister to their hearts as much as to the dying person.
The ending of the litany (“Son of God, we beseech you to hear us” and thereafter) should be used when the litany is said, even though it is additionally optional in the rubrics.
The Conclusion of the Litany
Although properly part of the conclusion of the litany (as in the Great Litany), the Kyrie and Lord’s Prayer should not be omitted in the Ministry to the Dying. The Lord’s Prayer, especially, is a comforting and unifying prayer that many people know, across denominational lines.
The final prayer “O Sovereign Lord Christ…” should be spoken slowly and clearly, the Officiant’s voice demonstrating its gravity and solemnity and hope. Its contents are not unlike many other collects in the Prayer Book tradition, but its specific application to the dying person – by name – makes it a climactic point in this liturgy.
Thanksgiving, Reconciliation, or Farewell
When others are present, and are not overcome with grief, it is good to minister to their hearts by encouraging them, at this point, to “offer words of thanksgiving, reconciliation, or farewell.” These are all Gospel mandates, and people should not shy away from them at the time of death if at all possible. If everyone present has already made their peace, or are unable to speak, or nobody else is present, this rubric need not be used.
The words of comfort to be offered by the Officiant may include the Comfortable Words from the Communion liturgy, some other verses of Scripture, or even (situation permitting) a brief homily on the Christian Hope. This is the minister’s point to go “off-script” and say whatever needs to be said.
Commendation at the Time of Death
The anointing of oil here is reminiscent of the Medieval form of the Anointing of the Sick – it gradually became known as “Extreme Unction” in preparation for death, rather than for healing. The Oil of Unction (healing) is still the one to be used, but its significance points to a state of spiritual health and peace, rather than bodily, as the dying person prepares for his or her departure from this life. Anointing oil was not part of classical Prayer Book practice, of course, and therefore is optional here.
With the appropriate thanksgivings, reconciliations, and farewells said, and the anointing for death administered, the Priest (not a lay minister) takes up pastoral authority to give one final exhortation to the dying person: “Depart.” When death has been prepared for, going from this life to the next is nothing to fear, and the priest gives encouragement (even emotional permission) for the person to go.
If there is a dire emergency, this Commendation is highlighted in the Additional Directions as the single most important part of the Ministry to the Dying. If the dying person has seconds to live, this is the thing for the Priest to say to him or her.
A Commendatory Prayer
If the Officiant of this liturgy is a Deacon or a lay person, the Commendation is omitted, but this prayer has a similar function, although the priest or bishop administering this rite should say this prayer in addition to the Commendation.
The Nunc Dimittis
This is another optional anthem, best for use when others are gathered at the dying person’s bedside.
This is the conclusion of the rite and can be said as a closing prayer with a group, privately by the minister if alone, and even after the person’s death if the situation has progressed rapidly.