Thursday, March 14, 2002


(1552-2002 - the 450th anniversary of the BCP)

To find some of the clearest changes in the BCP (1552) from that of 1549 one turns to "The Order for the Burial of the Dead."

The English Reformers were quite clear in their minds by 1552 that there is no passage in the Old or the New Testaments which enjoins, sanctions or recommends prayers for the dead, baptized or unbaptized. Further, they held the view that if the unrighteous dead can be helped by the prayers of the living then it is incredible that in the many directions for prayer in the whole Bible there is no reference whatsoever to this important matter. (They did not regard the Apocrypha as Holy Scripture and therefore discounted 2 Maccabees 12:43-45.) The Church militant on earth prays with the righteous departed in the Spirit and in the Name of Jesus to the Father, but she is not commanded either to pray for the departed or to ask the departed [saints] for their prayers. [See the official Homily on Prayer, part 3, which is a part of the Formularies of the Church of England]

It has been well stated that, "It would be difficult to exaggerate the degree to which the whole of late medieval worship was dominated by the thought of the departed, and particularly by the need to shorten the pains of Purgatory. This excessive domination to some extent explains the violent reaction of the Reformation against prayer for the departed altogether" (Liturgy & Worship, W. Lowther Clarke, p.622).

The Burial Office of 1549, though different from the medieval Latin service, still contained features of the medieval service which were in origin related to the belief that the Church through her prayer for the dead and her offering of the sacrifice of the Mass could affect the quality of life of departed souls in Purgatory.

In this service, the body of the departed is committed to the ground in hope of the resurrection of the dead and his soul is committed to God the Father; and he, as a departed soul, is prayed for that he may receive the blessing of eternal life as a child of God.

Later, after the Lesson from 1 Corinthians 15 there is further prayer for the departed soul that he will be preserved from judgment and from the gates of hel1.

The service ends with "the Celebration of the Holy Communion" for which a Collect, Epistle and Gospel is appointed. Against the background of medieval Catholicism, with its near obsession with Purgatory, the natural (if not explicitly intended) meaning of such a Celebration is that it is done [in some vague or explicit way] for the benefit of the departed soul --- to pray for and offer the sacrifice of the mass for his speedy passage through Purgatory.

In comparison with the 1549 Service that of 1552 could be said to have the purpose of comforting the mourners with the Christian Hope, of affirming that the baptized, departed soul is already with the Lord Jesus, and of committing his body to the ground in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead. There is no prayer for the soul of the departed for he is assumed to be with Christ; and there is no rubric requiring that there be an attached service of Holy Communion, for there is no need to offer any sacrifice. In this reformed Service there is no hint or suggestion that the Church as the Household of God has powers of prayer or sacrifice that extend beyond death.

And this 1552 Order for the Burial of the Dead remained substantially the same in the classic BCP of 1662. Further, while the reformed Church of England made special provision for All Saints' Day, no such provision was made for All Souls' Day in this Prayer Book.

It is fair to say that the Protestant nature of the 1552/1662 Burial Office has not satisfied all Anglicans. In revisions of the BCP (1662) for other countries as well as in England itself (1928) provisions have been made for prayers for the soul of the departed and for a Celebration of Holy Communion as part of the Service. And in various Anglo-Catholic manuals for priests there are orders of service and prayers for the departed which accept the full reality and existence of the Church Expectant as well as the Church Militant here on earth and the Church Triumphant in heaven.

And in England, from time to time - especially in connection with war -- there have been prayers issued by Archbishops/Monarchs that contain a petition for the departed. Further, attendances at services on All Souls' Day in cathedrals and parishes have often been larger than at services on All Saints' Day.

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon March 14, 2002-03-14

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