Sunday 1st November 2015
Year B, All Saints' Day
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint

Although, in the short term, public response to the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 revolved around liturgy, notably that of the Eucharist, the biggest long term effect of the Reformation in England concerned the abolition of prayers for the dead and the tidal wave of literally physical and intellectual iconoclasm which all but wiped out the community of saints - a Creedal precept - of the unity between the Church Militant, the Church Expectant and the Church Triumphant. Of the third of these, the Apostles, Saint Paul and a few others lingered on in embarrassed twilight but by the 18th Century the Church of England by Law, not by God, established, was a hollowed out shell, lacking any connection with simple people, and therefore totally ill equipped to face the change of the Industrial Revolution: too pinched, too dry, too spare, too formalistic, too middle class, only to be jilted by Wesley and revived by the Oxford Movement.

As for praying for the dead, it was a major part of Medieval Christianity with its pictures of ladders from earth to heaven crowded with aspiring souls climbing, via purgatory, to heaven, so graphically described by Dante. For most people, the central purpose of religion in the Middle Ages was, precisely, to escape hell, in the first instance and, ultimately, progress through Purgatory to heaven. This was, essentially, a grossly heretical position sanctioned by a Church which was more interested in its power over institutions, wealth and the lives of individual people than it was in the humility of recognising that without the Cross we are nothing and there is nothing we can do of ourselves to change our ultimate destiny. But, as the Indulgences campaign in Germany which sparked Martin Luther into action clearly showed, there was a stack of money in indulgences, chantry masses and the whole paraphernalia of getting your nearest and dearest into Heaven.

And so, at a purely theological level, the reformers were right but at a psychological level they did immense damage, in the first instance removing almost all culture from the church. After almost half a millennium English Christian music and painting have made something of a comeback, but the Church is still, in the second instance, divorced from populist superstition. Some would say that that is an entirely good thing; but I would say that the Church of God is, above all else, a pastoral, and not a doctrinal entity, which is fundamentally responsible for bringing the love of Jesus to all people, not writing Creeds, Encyclical letters or theological declarations or concordats.

The error of removing prayers for the dead was compounded by the Reformers then doing what they theologically said they could not do. Their position that we are only saved by the death of Christ as pure gift, which makes praying for the dead redundant, was fatally denied when the reformers went on to say who would be saved and who would not be saved, a position then adopted by the Counter Reformation at the Council of Trent. You might be amused to know that I recently read a book by a Roman Catholic theologian tackling the question of who will be saved which concluded that Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists will be all right but he isn't at all sure about the Protestants.

So why do we pray for those who have died during the Prayers of the Faithful following the Creed? Do we believe that our prayers are somehow shifting them, rung by rung, up the ladder from Purgatory to Heaven? Do we think that it makes any difference to those who have died?

I hope not but, then, I still insist on calling these prayers, as they should be called, Prayers of The Faithful and not Intercessions. We are no more asking God to pluck Auntie Mary out of Purgatory to drop her at the pearly gates than we are asking God to fix global starvation when He has given us the means to sort it. This kind of prayer, which is the most popular sort, is actually for ourselves and it can easily morph from the consoling to the lazy; you can be sure that Auntie Mary has already passed through the pearly gates even though she did have a sharp tongue but, still, remembering Auntie Mary with love, for all her faults, is a proper response to death and when we make this response public we are asking the Church to recognise that that is what we are trying to do. Nobody saying prayers for dead people, by definition, thinks that they were perfect but they are all God's children and we need to make a coherent connection between their deaths and our lives, affirming the Community of Saints.

Prayer for the dead, then, is psychologically beneficial and spiritually comforting but it does not alter the odds, which leads me to the question of what are the odds of going to Heaven.

Well, as this is a free gift of God in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, it's difficult to say; but if I were a betting man I would put my money on all being saved because I cannot work out how a God of love who made us in love will punish us in any way for our necessary imperfection but would say, rather, that god in Christ is an expression of solidarity with that imperfection. If there are some get-out clauses, some class of people who will be denied the fruits of salvation, then nobody on this planet will ever be in a position to define the exceptions.

Which, finally, leads to two questions: first, why behave well? To which my simple answer is that it is in our nature to behave well and to behave badly goes against our nature, it is our flaw, not our defining characteristic; a diamond with a flaw is still, fundamentally, a diamond, not a flaw. And, finally, what are saints for? The answer, surely, is the same as it has always been: they are for inspiration, encouragement, illustration and perspective; and they are a better guide to life, on the whole, than the Christian establishment. People in the Middle Ages found that being asked to imitate Christ was too big an ask, so they scaled down to Mary who was then believed to have been assumed into heaven, free of all sin during her life, so they scaled down again to other saints who all shared our human imperfection.

We shall never return to Medieval superstition, we tell ourselves, but if we end up losing our saints, we may find ourselves with much worse attributes than superstition. Without them, we might come to believe in money or, worse still, we might come to believe in ourselves. Or, to put it into modern parlance, you can never have enough good role models!