There’s the rub
SOME years ago, a Methodist minister recounted to me a conversation that he had had with one of his congregation, a lifelong faithful churchgoer. The minister asked him: “What do you think happens to us after we die?” The other man squirmed, and said nothing.
The minister persisted. “Go on, tell me. What do you think happens to us after we die?”
Eventually, there came a reluctant reply: “I suppose we go to be with God for ever. But why bring up such an unpleasant subject?”
EAMON DUFFY, in his magnificent book The Stripping of the Altars, explains how significant to ordinary people at the beginning of the 16th century was their relationship with the departed. The saints in heaven were their friends and advocates, interceding with God on their behalf, and the people showed their gratitude by beautifying churches and shrines; the less saintly dead relied on the living for prayers and masses to help them reach their heavenly goal.
The strict Reformers would have none of this. They forbade the invocation of saints, fearing that this would detract from the worship of God, and they taught that intercession for the dead was useless: their eternal fate was already not only decided, but accomplished, and prayer for them could have no effect. The official Prayer Books of the Church of England were purged of almost every trace of such prayer.
Then came the First World War, when the need of bereaved people to do something for their beloved dead compelled the authorities, despite their reluctance, to offer some suitable liturgy.
Saints and souls
PRAYER for the dead is still a touchy subject in the Church of England. I remember, in the General Synod, we were debating the funeral services in Common Worship, and one member strongly objected to the inclusion of prayers for the dead. Bishop Michael Perham gently pointed out that the prayers were explicitly optional, and that the speaker would never be obliged to use them.
This did not satisfy him: he wanted to make sure that no one would have permission to use such heretical material. He did not carry his point.
Although it is not fashionable to dwell on the significance of death, at this time of the Church’s year it is difficult not to. November is the time when seasonal observances urge us to a consideration of death and the departed.
The feast of All Saints reminds us that saints are not simply exemplary historical figures, but living members of the Body of Christ, although “on another shore and in a greater light”; All Souls’ Day reminds us of our continued fellowship with other struggling believers who have gone before us; and Remembrance Day still reminds us of the horror and waste of war, while honouring the courage and selflessness of so many.
ALL SOULS’ tide is newly popular: many churches are marking it, although often by “memorial services” that celebrate the lives of the deceased, or “bereavement services” to comfort the mourners rather than a requiem to pray for the dead.
Our older Sisters remember — with differing degrees of enthusiasm — the way in which the community kept All Souls’ Day before my time. In the eucharist, a black-draped catafalque dominated the scene, and the Sisters sang Dies Irae. Since then, the observance has been considerably toned down: it is less dramatic, but still heartfelt.
WE READ the names of some of the dead also in a monthly eucharist, and each departed Sister, from the foundation of the Community in 1865, is mentioned by name in the intercessions on the anniversary of her death.
I have often wondered what, precisely, we intend by this commemoration. Another Sister who compiled the instructions for the priest in this context showed her own understanding: “We give thanks for the life of . . .”. Was this all we were doing, I asked myself.
The Anglo-Catholic priests who minister to us would have none of it: they said, robustly, “We pray for the repose of the soul of . . .”.
But is this really necessary for someone who died in 1880? How long should we go on doing it? I suppose that very rich people who endowed chantries in the Middle Ages intended them to continue in perpetuity, but Henry VIII put an end to that.
Searching for a more satisfactory form of words, I came up with: “On the anniversary of death, we remember before God . . .”. “Remember before God” means more than “think about”; but how much more, and in what way? I decided that this would leave each member of the congregation free to do for the dead what, in her heart, she felt was appropriate.
I need not have worried about getting it right, because few priests use my formula anyway. Instead, they continue resolutely to say “We give thanks for the life of . . .”, or “We pray for the repose of the soul of . . .”, according to their personal convictions. Oh well, I tried.
The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.