If you watch the whole Barbara Bush funeral, you really get a sense of her personality and how she fit into Houston as a community, but especially life at St. Martin's Episcopal Church (the largest Episcopal congregation in North America).
The service was loaded with interesting choices, in terms of the readings and hymns -- all negotiated in fine detail, months before her death, by the clergy and the extremely literate Barbara Bush.
There's a lot of humor in the service, since we are talking about the life of one of the wittiest figures to grace the American political stage in the 20th Century. There are quite a few tears, too, since she led a large family and clearly had a big impact on all of them.
However, let me note that the service also contained one big surprise and/or mystery and, sure enough, it concerned Barbara Bush's faith. I am sure that religion-beat reporters -- had any been given this choice assignment -- would have caught it.
So what was it? In my GetReligion post following the Bush matriarch's death, I noted that George H.W. Bush and his wife were dyed-in-the-wool, old-school Episcopalians and that this fact helped shape their lives, culture and style. You can see this right at the top of the fine New York Times story about the funeral:
HOUSTON -- At the Episcopal church that has been her spiritual home for more than 50 years, the former first lady Barbara Pierce Bush was celebrated at her funeral as one of the most beloved political matriarchs in American history.
Mrs. Bush, the wife of the 41st president and the mother of the 43rd, died on Tuesday in the bedroom of her home in Houston. She was 92, and took her last breaths holding the hand of her husband of 73 years, former President George Bush.
Note especially the reference to St. Martin's being her "spiritual home for more than 50 years." With that in mind, note this material drawn from the eulogies by son Jeb Bush and the church's rector, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. This passage was way down in the USA Today report:
When [Jeb Bush] asked his mom recently how she felt about the idea of dying, he said, she didn't miss a beat. "She said, 'Jeb, I believe in Jesus and he is my savior. I don’t want to leave your dad, but I know I will be in a beautiful place.’”
Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., the Bush's pastor for the last 13 years, revealed that Bush came to him in 2015 -- at the age of 90 -- and asked to be confirmed in the church.
Wait a minute! Barbara Bush wasn't confirmed as an Episcopalian -- meaning she didn't formally take her vows of faith -- until she was 90 years old?
In his eulogy, Levenson makes it very clear that Mrs. Bush was an active part of the congregation and that he was her pastor and confidant for years. When she said that she wanted to be confirmed, Mrs. Bush asked if she needed to "take a class" or something, as part of the conversion process. Leveson said that he told her she could teach the class, as far as he was concerned.
This raises several questions, if you are into the facts and rites of Christian faith. There just has to be an interesting story here somewhere.
If Barbara Bush became an Episcopalian at age 90, what faith had she clung to all of the decades in which she had been active in an Episcopal parish? I've been looking for clues (like most news consumers, I have not read a full biography of this remarkable woman) and the only thing I have found was this -- her wedding to George H.W. Bush took place in the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, New York. Was Bush so committed to her Presbyterian faith that she hesitated that long to become an Episcopal communicant?
Did Barbara Bush consider this confirmation rite a reaffirmation of her Christian faith? It is clear, from Levenson's remarks, that she was not a "member" -- in a liturgical sense -- of the Episcopal Church until she was 90. What was her church affiliation during the years when her children were being born, baptized and raised?
As an adult, Jeb Bush converted to Roman Catholicism. It's interesting that that when he asked his mother, near the end, if she was ready to die, she apparently answered with a strong affirmation of Christian faith. Had her faith status been a bit of a mystery inside the family? That's hard to believe, in light of the Bush family heritage of faith and family.
'Tis a puzzlement. If there are GetReligion readers who know the details -- details that I have missed in several hours of Internet searches -- please met me know.
So two other comments about the elite media coverage of this powerful funeral rite.
Want to guess which newspaper turned this lovely drama into an acidic political tour de force, taking shot after shot at the current occupant of the White House?
That would be the Washington Post, of course. Name the evil spirit that haunts the opening of this story about the Bush funeral:
HOUSTON -- Dignity. Grace. Respect, always respect.
In the church, on the streets, lining up to view the casket, they said the same words over and over: Barbara Pierce Bush, the “first lady of the greatest generation,” as one of her eulogists called her, had the good manners of handwritten notes, decency in disagreement, the ability to apologize. Nobody’s angel, nobody’s fool. Tough and fierce, but kind and fair. And don’t forget funny as hell.
Saturday’s funeral for the wife of one president and mother of another offered the nation a deep breath, a moment of quiet reflection, a chance to savor and celebrate a family, a generation, a way of life that feels like it is increasingly slipping away.
Too subtle for you? Later, there was this:
President Trump stayed away to “avoid disruptions” caused by presidential security, according to a White House statement. Trump, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, tweeted that his “thoughts and prayers” were with the Bush family. That came right after a multi-tweet rant about a “third-rate” reporter, a “drunk/drugged up loser,” and a “Crooked [Hillary] flunkie.”
Trump finished a round of golf just before the service began and tweeted that he would be watching it on TV.
Now, to get back to the content, tone and style of the rites at St. Martin's Episcopal, let me end with the long, lovely conclusion of the New York Times piece.
Journalists will be reminded of one of the great truths in our field of work -- color is not written, it is reported.
When you reach the last lines, tissues are optional.
Mrs. Bush’s wit did not wane as she approached the end of her life.
Days before her death, Mr. Levenson, Mrs. Bush’s pastor, arrived at the Bush home in the Tanglewood section of Houston late Saturday afternoon. Mrs. Bush had gone upstairs to bed. Mr. Levenson walked up the stairs to pray with her.
“I knocked on the door and came in,” Mr. Levenson said in an interview. “I said, ‘Bar, it’s Russ.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m not checking out today.’”
In her last days and even hours, Mrs. Bush appeared to be surrounded by her two favorite things as she lay on her bed -- her family and her books. Friends, relatives and medical assistants read to Mrs. Bush, a longtime advocate of adult and child literacy. They read to her from the Bible and from her book about her late English springer spaniel, Millie. Mr. Levenson read from the Book of Psalms, and then a couple of chapters from “Little Women.”
“‘Pride and Prejudice’ is actually her favorite book,” Mr. Levenson said. “I was looking for that as I was going through her library downstairs, and I thought that was a good runner-up.”
On Saturday, after he prayed with Mrs. Bush, Mr. Levenson stepped outside the bedroom, shut the door and was talking to her medical aides when he heard Mrs. Bush call out. Mr. Levenson went back to the door.
“I said, ‘Bar, are you O.K.?’ And she said, ‘Yes. But tell him I adore him.’”
He relayed the message to Mr. Bush, the first and only boy, she often said with pride, she had ever kissed.
As the Orthodox would say: May her memory be eternal.