“REST eternal grant unto them, O Lord; And let light perpetual shine upon them.” This prayer will be prayed in many Church of England churches today, All Souls’ Day, but not as widely as a generation ago. An Evangelical breeze will have snuffed it out in places where until recently it was familiar. Among some churchgoers, it incurs the suspicion of being un-Anglican. It is true that, in various times and places, Anglicans have had an animosity towards prayer for the dead, particularly after a historically decontexualised reading of Articles XXII and XXXI at the back of the English Prayer Book; plenty have not. But the more remarkable thing is that the Protestant suspicion or shibboleth is not far out of step with popular attitudes to the state of the dead, which incline to see such prayer as irrelevant.
This was not so in the aftermath of the First World War. To emphasise the unity of the living and the departed in Christ, in a mutual fellowship of prayer, was widely found by Anglicans to be not only a reflection of the Creed, but a highly effective response to needs that would otherwise be addressed by resort to mediums, Spiritualist meetings, or, dare we say it, Roman Catholicism. Today, however, it is the dead rather than death that tend to be regarded as “nothing at all”, as much by believers focused on a final resurrection, and opposed to what they regard as dualistic talk about the soul, as the more rigorous kind of unbeliever. The notion that the departed, regardless of their earthly lives, now enjoy “peace” — and even a beverage or two with others who have gone before — is, however, often heard expressed in eulogies. But here the focus of folk religion is on relationship and, perhaps, hope, not metaphysical speculation.
A certain confusion is felt in church. The custom, originally introduced (no doubt) to popularise the service, of reading out names of the near and dear on All Souls’ has obscured the teaching that it is all the faithful who are united in Christ. Merging All Souls’ and All Saints’, as some now do for practical or theological reasons, can result in confusing expectation and consummation, and circumvent the fact that spiritual development and cleansing are part of the scriptural picture. Both days are hopeful observances; for both celebrate the power of God’s grace and mercy, seen in this life and the next, and recognise it not as a matter of abstract and partisan debate, but as an expression of love. Whatever becomes of the faithful departed in the good providence of God is not so far removed from love, as humans glimpse its potentiality on earth, that it was not the ancient instinct of Christians to concern themselves with it in prayer; for “We believe verily to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”