Of Saints and Souls

Sunday 30th October 2016
Year C, All Saints' Day
St John The Baptist, Clayton

I'm sorry if I have told you this before; but if you had asked most people, certainly the common people, what changed in their lives at the Reformation, they would probably not have mentioned Church order, access to the Bible and the new Prayer Book in English, nor even Eucharistic doctrine; the chances are, they would have mentioned the prohibition from praying for the dead. From the time, somewhere in 6th Century Ireland, when tariff books of penances for sins were put together, Medieval Christianity became a veritable salvation mill based on Masses and prayers for the dead and, later on, the purchase of indulgences, all intended to elevate the suffering soul from Purgatory into heaven, a journey depicted in hundreds of paintings and described in every detail in the finest poem of the age, Dante's Comedia Divina.

It was the sale of indulgences that finally got to Martin Luther; and rightly so. To promise salvation in exchange for money to rebuild the Vatican was theological humbug and explains Luther's abhorrence of "Good works" as a means to salvation which could only be attained through the merits of Jesus Christ; but there was something pastorally inept in the absolute prohibition. All major religions seek to establish a bond between the living and their dearly departed, and even their ancestors. And however unsound the theology might be, the comfort in praying for the dead is so universal as to be integral. It is, if you like, part of our theological DNA so ingrained that people like me, who believe that we have all been saved by Jesus, and that there are not millions of people cast into outer darkness as some kind of collateral damage in creation, still regularly pray for the dead.

Since the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church has mended its ways in this matter at least and Protestant and reformed Christianity have become less absolute in their prohibition; thus we have kept, along with the Major Feast of all Saints, the Minor Feast of All Souls and the balance seems right to me because of the difference in the nature of the two Feasts.

I said earlier that we have a problem with praying for the dead because of what happened in the Middle Ages; but we also have something of a problem with saints. There are many people in the Church of England who are, frankly, somewhat embarrassed by the few saints we've had to keep since the Reformation, notably the Apostles and Mary, the Mother of Jesus. We're not really sure why they are there and what to do with them. In the Middle Ages people were accustomed to interceding through the saints, and particularly Mary, for some favour or release from some harm or misfortune; and even today there are Roman Catholics who pray to Saint Anthony when they lose something, or to Saint Christopher when they need a parking space; but, by and large, that sort of intercessory prayer is much less commonplace than it used to be. But, still, every time we say the Creed we mention the Communion of Saints which was, until the Reformation, the Church Militant - us - the Church expectant - those in Purgatory - and the Church Triumphant - those in Heaven. But if we delete the Church Expectant we still need to understand the significance of the Church Triumphant which is a vibrant celebration of what humanity can achieve through the Grace of God. Saints should be an inspiration to us, setting the bench marks for our lives, showing what we should have the ambition to be, showing us, too, that to be what we want to be for Christ will mean taking risks; but that we can survive wrong choices and live to fight another day.

The importance of the Feast of All Souls, on the other hand, partly relates directly to ourselves: praying for the dead is not for their salvation but for our comfort. We are reminding ourselves of lives well lived and love given freely, of courage and comfort, of humour and humility; and perhaps, too, there is just a touch of hope that as we have prayed for those who went before, those who come after us will pray for us. And there is much good in this as long as we always bear in mind that what we are doing is for our own good; and there is no harm at all in retaining a Feast whose primary purpose is to do us a bit of good. But the aspect of this kind of prayer, often overlooked, is that to pray for the dead is a form of absolute love given to the beloved with no thought of reciprocity; in this respect it is one of the best and holiest things we can ever do.

But there is a major point I want to make to conclude my argument: what I have described as an historical process whereby the emphasis we put on different aspects of our understanding of God shifts from age to age. In the unscientific Middle Ages there was much more to be frightened of and right up until the middle of the 19th Century the majority of the population of the United Kingdom were haunted by the prospect of early and unexpected death. We have lived in a golden age where child mortality has plummeted and where life expectancy has rocketed. One of the great successes of our lives has been the way in which medical science has progressed; but it is also true that other scientific developments have massively increased our knowledge of ourselves and of our world. But before we get too pleased with ourselves, we have to remember that being more clever hasn't made us more good. Our age has been the age of two world wars and incalculable genocide of the sort that is going on in Syria as I speak. It is too easy to be just a little bit patronising about those medieval folk who invested in Chantry Masses for the Dead. And so we need to think of our time in history with some caution.

The Reformation put right many aspects of Christianity that had gone wrong but, as is always the case with reactive reform, it went far too far in believing that its own views were incontrovertible, that late Medieval Catholicism was a load of superstitious mumbo jumbo; but what the Reformers put in place was a view of such hard certainty that the notion of mystery was lost; and with mystery went humility. What makes me most uncomfortable when I discuss our faith with people is the unnerving degree of certainty they have, the kind of certainty which is not even allowed nowadays in scientific circles.

And so, on this day where we celebrate the Saints and comfort ourselves, let us bathe ourselves in the warmth of the mystery of Christ, away from the sharp winds of sound doctrine.