Can we pray for the dead?

To encourage and enable commemoration of the First World War, the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England recently produced a number of resources.  They raise an interesting issue for evangelical Anglicans – what do we think about praying for the dead?  It is in some ways appropriate that this centenary should bring this question to the fore as, in the words, of Alan Wilkinson, in his classic study The Church of England and the First World War, “In 1914 public prayer for the dead was uncommon in the Church of England; by the end of the war it had become widespread” (176).

The precedents

The practice is, of course, never directly addressed within Scripture either as something encouraged or prohibited, the only possible reference to it being the apocryphal 2 Macc 12.43ff (the claim that 2 Tim 1.16ff is an example requires postulating – with no evidence – that Onesiphorus was dead).  In that sense it has similarities with the practice of infant baptism – arguments depend on appeals to tradition and wider theology.

Even Calvin, strongly objecting to the practice, did not dispute that it appeared early in the church’s history (Institutes III:5:10).  Indeed, in the early third century it could even be used to defend the view it was wrong to remarry after the death of one’s spouse (Tertullian, Exhortation to Chastity, Chapter 11) and Augustine also supported prayers for the departed (On Care to be had for the dead, 17).  Subsequently the practice was bound up with particular medieval Catholic doctrines and practices which the Reformers strongly rejected and Cranmer, having kept such prayers in the 1549 Prayer Book, removed them totally from the 1552 revision.  This explains the situation described by Wilkinson in 1914 (although prayers for the dead were included in 1900 during the Boer War and in a service for the commemoration of Queen Victoria in 1902).

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke positively of the practice on All Souls Day 1914 but an explicit prayer for the departed issued by authority for the first time in 1917 brought forth protests from evangelicals Bishops Chavasse (Liverpool) and Knox (Manchester) although they were clearly in a minority.  The inclusion of such prayers in the 1928 Prayer Book was part of the reason for evangelical rejection of it (although not prominent in the campaign) and when Series 2 included them in the 1960s Colin Buchanan objected.   Recognising the divisive nature of the subject, an Archbishops’ Commission was set up with evangelicals represented by J.I. Packer and Michael Green.  It was able in its important 1971 report Prayer and the Departed to reach agreement on a prayer which it suggested “could be used ex animo by Anglicans of all theological persuasions” as the wording “asks for such things as we are scripturally persuaded are in accordance with God’s will and have not already been granted” (para 56).  A flavour of evangelical views at that time can be gained from two articles in Churchman by Arthur Bennett (1967) and leading layman Hugh Craig (1972) (who, as a member of the Liturgical Commission, later proposed adding “according to your promises” to the Alternative Service Book Rite A to make its prayer more acceptable to evangelicals).  Conservative evangelicals have remained strongly opposed to any such prayers appearing with the apparent approval of the Church of England (see for example David Philipps in 2007) but it has generally not been a matter of reflection and debate in recent years among the wider evangelical constituency.

The prayers

What of these new prayers which have not been discussed or approved by General Synod or the bishops and were objected to by at least one member of the Liturgical Commission?

The General Resources include a responsorial prayer of commemoration which asks Jesus to remember those of the war generation.  It concludes by asking the Father to “remember your holy promise, and look with love on all your people, living and departed”, and to remember and “hold for ever” various groups of those who experienced the war.  There are also Propers for a Eucharist of Remembrance (itself an intriguing title given the eucharist is in remembrance of Christ). These include a collect, suggested areas of intercession, and a Post-Communion prayer ending with wording from the Russian Kontakion of the Dead:

Lord of the nations,
Saviour and judge of all:
remove from human hearts all bitterness and hate,
grant to those who have died in war your mercy and forgiveness
and bring us all to the peace of your eternal Kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who suffered and died,
and now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. Amen.

Pray for all those who mourn, for the establishing of a just peace and stability in the world, for victims of terror, those maimed and injured in war, the lost and forgotten, those whose names are not remembered, those haunted by dark memories and the depressed, the homeless and the broken–hearted; those who died violently and those who died as a result of injury, for those who went to the grave unable to tell their stories.

Lord God, in this Eucharist which we have shared, you have spoken your word of life and nourished us with the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood; bring us with all who have died in combat or through the injuries of war, to know the joys of heaven. We ask this through Jesus Christ, who lived and died and was raised to newness of life, to whom be glory in every age and for eternity. Amen. Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. All And weeping o’er the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

The problems

What should evangelical Anglicans make of these prayers?  Given that the subject is rarely if ever a matter of discussion among evangelicals I am interested whether many have simply lost interest in the subject or even come to accept the practice to some degree. Five things strike me in particular as of concern about these prayers.

First, they are, I think, significantly different from those prayers that have been proposed in the past in that those for whom we are encouraged to pray are, in many cases, people with whom those praying have no personal relationship.  The pastoral justification that can be offered in some circumstances (Michael Vasey wrote that in response to the practice the Reformers’ “drastic remedy rooted out a great error but at the price of leaving no voice for the love of the bereaved” (“The Saints and the Departed” in Introducing Promise of His Glory, Grove Worship 116)) is therefore not available in this case.

Second, nor is there an explicit ecclesial relationship in Christ as there is not a sense of praying for “the whole Church, living and departed in the Lord Jesus” (the wording proposed by Prayer and the Departed) but rather prayers for “those who have died in war”, “all who have died in combat or through the injuries of war”.  This is, in other words, detached from any doctrine of the communion of the saints and offers prayers for categories of the departed as we might pray for categories of the living – without any reference to whether or not they are in Christ.

Third, not only are the prayers detached from a Christological and ecclesiological context, they risk feeding dangerous false ideas that salvation can be found apart from Christ and the myth that death in war may in some sense set people apart and even earn them redemption: “grant to those who have died in war your mercy and forgiveness”, “bring us with all who have died in combat or through the injuries of war, to know the joys of heaven”.

Fourth, this shows that although the prayers are optional and not fully authorised, there appears to have been little or no attempt to take on board the concerns of evangelicals or to respect the hard work done in Prayer and the Departed (and subsequently) to try to find forms of words for commended public liturgies that do not cause offence or depart from Anglican doctrine.

Fifth, and most fundamentally, the prayers raise major theological questions about whether they are in any way consistent with Anglican teaching.  That is evident both in the specific wording cited above and in the general invitation that we offer unspecified intercessions for “those who died violently and those who died as a result of injury, for those who went to the grave unable to tell their stories”.  The question this raises is “For what can we pray for such a broad category given biblical and Anglican teaching?  How can such prayers be faithful to justification by grace through faith in Christ alone and the reality that “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,  so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9.27-28)?

The wording of these prayers seems only to fit with – and to implicitly commend - an eschatology of what might be termed “dynamic universalism” (as in John Hick and others).  A theology, in other words, in which we can, perhaps should, continue to pray for those who have died, including people unknown to us, even a century after their death, because, rather than there being different and clearly differentiated post-mortem states, every individual soul continues, after death, developing its relationship with God begun on earth, until ultimately, we pray, all humanity will be perfected.

One would expect conservative evangelicals to object to these prayers (although I am not aware of a public critique) but what of others?  Have charismatic evangelicals perhaps followed the lead of Michael Mitton and Russ Parker in Requiem Healing and begun to tolerate or even embrace prayers for the dead?  What of open evangelicals – is praying for the departed in this way a practice which some have concluded we need to learn from other traditions and introduce within evangelicalism?  In response to Chavasse’s objections in 1917, Bishops Bell’s biography (pp 828-31) records that Archbishop Davidson claimed that his prayer had not gone “beyond what has, I think, become very usual in the churches of all schools of thought, including very markedly some of the most Evangelical of our brethren” and that “a great many men of marked Evangelical opinion” would “thankfully” use the prayer (p 830). Can the same be said of evangelicals now in response to these prayers offered to commemorate the war in and for which Davidson’s earlier prayer was written?

Andrew Goddard

Andrew Goddard has been on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum since its launch in 2003. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based in Cambridge (where he was previously Associate Director). He has taught Christian Ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Trinity College, Bristol and is also an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a canon at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Minister at St James the Less, Pimlico where his wife, Lis, is Vicar. He is author of a number of books, most recently Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013) and co-editor with Andrew Atherstone of Good Disagreeement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church (Lion, 2015).

3 thoughts on “Can we pray for the dead?

  1. In or personal prayers we should be bold to pour out our hearts without undue concern about theology. The Church should teach us how to pray aright and find an appropriate channel for our emotions and in doing so refine them. Andrew lists the protestant objections. These seem to amount to the fate of the soul is sealed at death and even prayer cannot affect the past.For me it is too much to ask God to change what I know has already happened. I wonder if we can trust God to anticipate our prayers and comfort the dying in a way we cannot know.

  2. It always seemed odd to me that some Christians wanted to tell other Christians what they were or were not allowed to pray for.

    There are some scriptures that say you can ask whatever you will. They don’t specify praying for the dead any more than they specify praying for a million other things people pray for.

    It’s okay to pray for the dead. Anyway, I don’t think God is limited by time in the same way our consciousness is.

    If someone has what seems to be a horrible death, I think most of us are moved to pray that God was with them and that their suffering may not have been too great, which is praying for the dead for sure, and even believing God can act in the past, which he can.

    • In all but the most formal eucharists here, the prayers of the people are partly a litany from the BCP 1979 and partly petitions, intercessions, and thanksgivings offered extempore by any individuals present. So imagine Oliver, Phil, and another Andrew at the same service, Oliver asking for the salvation of all (maybe), Phil asking for mindfulness of the Four Last Things (quite traditionally), and the other Andrew asking for the Rapture (as seen weekly on television here), the good people themselves being quite confused by these their prayers (certainly) as the celebrant smiles tolerantly. Yet awkward as these clashing clarities might be, certain evasions of clarity are worse.

      I know a rather low parish in which, apart from any prayer in the order of service, a list of names of dead persons is solemnly read, a chime rung after each name by a stone-faced reader in a cassock. The names are submitted by parishioners along with a financial contribution to a fund for the repair of the roof. It does keep their hair dry, a good thing, but nobody is quite sure what the names and chimes do for the dead.

      “Why did you pay for the name to be read?,” I asked a parishioner I know.

      “My first husband, God rest his soul. He was a mess. Needs all the help he can get.”

      The treasurer coolly insists that they do not sell indulgences. I’ve given them until 31st October 2017 to explain what they are selling.

      Sly Andrew Goddard has opened a needed and interesting discussion of personal eschatology in Anglican evangelical prayer and teaching.

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