Saturday, March 02, 2002

Do we pray to the dead, for the dead, or with the dead in Christ?

The only way to come closer to those who have died as baptized, believing Christians is to draw near to God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Ghost. For to draw near unto the Holy Trinity is, "eo ipso", to come closer to them. Our fellowship with the departed is only and always within the Body of Christ and is in and through Jesus Christ himself. There is no individualistic spiritual telephone line between a person on earth and a person departed from earth, but there is a communion in the Spirit that crosses the barrier of death and this is known in genuine worship of the Lord.

Now whether this communion in the Spirit which belongs to the whole Body of Christ - including both the living and the departed - can be used as the basis (1) for assuming that the departed in Christ pray to the Father in Christ's name for their brothers and sisters on earth, and (2) of Christians on earth praying for the departed in Christ is a question that Anglicans have faced over the centuries and generally have answered, with some grave caution and with some minority protests, positively.

When the two English Archbishops in their "Responsio" of 1897 replied to the Pope's encyclical, "Apostolicae Curae", they pointed out that one sentence in the First Thanksgiving after Communion in the BCP (1662) assumed such prayer. The sentence is: "We and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins." Obviously they took the Church here to mean the whole Church and not only the smaller part existing on earth and thus these words are a prayer for the departed as well as the living.

Further, in not a few of the editions of "The Book of Common Prayer" after 1662 there is present explicitly or implicitly an assumption of both the prayers of the departed and prayers for the departed.

In the Scottish Prayer Book (1929) there is this Collect;

"O God the King of Saints, we praise and magnify thy holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles and Martyrs, and for other thy righteous servants; and we beseech thee that, encouraged by their example, strengthened by their fellowship, and aided by their prayers, we may attain unto everlasting life; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

In the American Prayer Book (1928) in the Prayer for the whole state of Christ's Church, God is asked to grant to the departed "continual growth in thy love and service" which obviously includes the service of prayer.

Those who know the Eastern Liturgies will be aware that the Communion of Saints is perceived as a fellowship of mutual intercession. Approach to the heavenly throne of grace in and through Christ is made in fellowship with those have died in Christ, a company that is both august and friendly.

But such a doctrine and practice is open to misunderstanding and perversion and this happened in the medieval period in the West. So the English Reformers removed all explicit reference to prayers of the departed and prayers for the departed from the public liturgy. Thus all Collects for all Saints' Days were changed so as to take out any request that the Saint pray for us and explicit prayers for the departed and requests for the prayers of the saints were removed from the prayers in Holy Communion.

The Reformers believed that there was no basis in either the Old or New Testaments for such doctrine and practice and they were not moved by appeals to the Apocrypha for justification. (Modern scholars point to 2 Timothy 1:18 as a possible prayer for a departed brother.)

The fact is that we do not know for certain - other than by the tradition of the Church -- that the departed actually do or do not hear our prayers. Thus what we allow and put into public liturgy as Anglicans (committed to Reformed Catholicism) has to take account of this and has to be minimal and general rather than particular and maximal, as has been the case in the careful revisions of the 1662 B C P. At the same time in private services and devotion each of us may go as far as his conscience instructs and allows.

We must always remember that worship is of the Father through the Son and by the Holy Ghost and that in such activity we are joined in prayer, fellowship and communion in the Body of Christ with the departed. Thus we know them best when we are all bowing before the LORD.

The Revd Dr. Peter Toon March 2nd 2002.

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large of The Prayer Book Society of America

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