Sunday 3rd November 2013
Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint

The Reformation had a profound effect on the way that Christians in Western Europe worshipped their Trinitarian God. What theologians and historians dwell on most are the controversies concerning the nature of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the nature of salvation brought about by the Crucifixion, generally summed up, respectively, as The Real Presence and Atonement. But profound though these theological changes were, they were not what the average churchgoer in the 1540s would have remarked upon. If we look at the 1549 Version and, even more so, the 1552 Version of the Book of Common Prayer we immediately see the violent reaction of the compilers to prayers for the dead. This is why there is no set of official prayers for such occasions as today as we celebrate the Feast Day of All Souls. This is understandable because the sparking point for the German Reformation was Martin Luther's objection to the sale of Papal Indulgences whereby people could buy eternal life in exchange for a substantial donation, not only for themselves but also for the dead. This was a cynical and ruthless exploitation of the medieval fixation with securing eternal life in the context of a very lively belief in the fires of hell. To that end, people left bequests not only for Masses to be said for their souls but also for special chantry chapels where such Masses might be said continuously. Purists would no doubt object to the notion that money, or even prayers, could promote impaired souls up the ladder to perfection but the chain link between the Churches Militant, Expectant, and Triumphant, was very strong indeed. And so, to an extent, as Members of the Church of England, we are restoring a lost Catholic tradition.

What are we doing when we pray for the dead? Well, I suppose that none of us thinks for a moment that our prayers are moving the souls of the departed up a ladder from Purgatory into Heaven: most of us don't believe in purgatory; some of us believe that everybody 'goes to heaven'; and perhaps more of us believe that how we fare after death is between them and God and that we can't in any way affect the result. Much more difficult, and not for today, is the discussion of whether the soul exists at all in the context of our Creedal belief in the Resurrection of the body.

For a start, we need to acknowledge that the purists at the Reformation were pulling Christianity out of the world religion mainstream where praying to or for the dead is a central concern and an impulse for ritual. The motive - and this is not in the least dishonourable in any way - is primarily to keep us in touch with the dead, not to affect what happens to them. We commend them to God's tender mercy knowing that they will receive mercy beyond our imagining; but we feel, rightly, that our commendation is a reverent duty. Knowing that God will deal with the matter does not in any way spare us the obligation and comfort of commendation.

Secondly, in a world of merciless stimulation, a time to pause and remember in a focused way is vital for our sense of ourselves. Nobody is perfect and we may recall some actions with some discomfort, but most of us will take great comfort from the virtues and kindnesses of those we loved; and that comfort is of a unique sort because it is deeply personal, particularly when we are remembering a parent or very close friend.

Thirdly, we are thinking of our loved one, recipient of incalculable divine mercy, praising God in the Church Triumphant not, I should think, playing a harp to accompany the angels and drinking champagne but bathed in the eternal light of God's presence which our first reading bravely struggles to portray; but however difficult the imagery is, the overall weight of the Revelation is clear: we will be with God in the company of Jesus, the Lamb.

We are, then, definitely re-establishing a strong link between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant while we at the very least down-grade the importance of the Church Expectant.

And although it is hard to resist the temptation to be just a little sentimental, our best comfort will be in remembering people as accurately as we can which is another reason for a day like this, otherwise reality becomes a blur which furnishes neither comfort nor instruction. In a way, we are praying to keep the image and the sound fresh so that they will continue to enliven and inform us in the hectic world of the living, and that is why our reading from Luke is so helpful, as it directs us towards what people do for each other. We have all surely noticed how much we learn about people for the first time during funeral orations about them; it would, I think, be nice if we took more trouble to find out while they were alive what they might contribute to the community; but, in any case, it will surely be the acts of kindness or courage that we remember long after we have lost the abstracted, general impression. 

And finally, in restoring our tradition of praying for the dead, we are acknowledging a public duty for although the loss of a loved one is profoundly personal, it is also communal; we are, genetically and to some extent temperamentally the heirs of our parents but we are also products of community, of all the people who have gone before, as parents, teachers, reformers, soldiers, nurses, artists, writers and musicians. To remember that we didn't do it all ourselves is salutary and brings us closer to the reality that God has done it all, whatever we like to think. Commendation not only brings us closer to those we have lost but it also brings us closer to God.