I couldn’t help noticing, following the announcement of the death of the Very Reverend Colin Slee, the former Dean of Southwark Cathedral, that a number of people greeted this news with the comment, “May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Even the Southwark Cathedral website had the same line, following the initial notice of the Dean’s death.
Some, at least, of these individuals would be of the same Liberal persuasion held, without any embarrassment to call it such, by Colin Slee himself. But I can’t help finding this somewhat curious.
I don’t think it is wrong to describe the sentiment it expresses as a prayer for the dead. Not wishing to misunderstand or misrepresent what it means, I did a quick trawl around the internet (as one does), where I found the Wikipedia website giving the following explanation:
“Rest in peace” (Latin: Requiescat in pace) is a short epitaph or idiomatic expression wishing eternal rest and peace to someone who has died. ... The phrase or acronym [RIP] is ... derived from the burial service of the Roman Catholic church, in which the following prayer was said at the commencement and conclusion:
“Anima eius et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum per Dei misericordiam requiescant in pace.”
In English, it is rendered as
“May his soul and the souls of all the departed faithful by God’s mercy rest in peace.”
Fair enough. And I also found the phrase in full on a website referring to how the Guild of All Souls was founded on 15 March 1873,
to provide furniture for Burial according to the use of the Catholic Church so as to set forth the two great doctrines of the Communion of Saints and the Resurrection of the Body; and Intercessory prayer for the Dying and for the repose of the souls of the deceased members and all the faithful departed.
The founders of the Guild were members of the Church of England, but clearly the doctrines they sought to reinstate were not those current in that Church at that time.
Now, of course, one cannot raise such issues without touching on the difficulties currently facing the Church of England in general and the Anglo-Catholic movement within it in particular. Nevertheless, it is surely beyond dispute that at the Reformation the Church of England officially repudiated precisely the understanding of death and the hereafter that the phrase “May he rest in peace” presumes.
Here is the Homily on Prayer (with the spelling tidied up):
Now to entreat of that question, whether we ought to pray for them that are departed out of this world, or no. Wherein, if we will cleave only unto the word of GOD, then must we needs grant, that we have no commandment so to do. For the Scripture doth acknowledge but two places after this life. The one proper to the elect and blessed of GOD; the other to the reprobate and damned souls ...
And if this might seem to leave a loophole (on the ground that there is perhaps no commandment of Scripture not to pray for the dead), the Homily continues, after giving some biblical examples to the contrary,
... neither let us dream any more, that the souls of the dead are any thing at all holpen by our prayers: But as the Scripture teacheth us, let us think that the soul of man passing out of the body, goeth straight ways either to heaven, or else to hell, whereof the one needeth no prayer, and the other is without redemption.
The point, however, is not simply that the dead cannot be helped by our prayers, but that, as regards those who have died in Christ, they need no help from from our prayers. Opposition to prayers for the dead stems not from a mean-spirited desire to withhold possible aid from those who need it, but from a sure and certain confidence in the gospel. As the homily puts it, in typically vigorous terms:
He that cannot be saved by faith in Christ’s blood, how shall he look to be delivered by man’s intercessions? Hath GOD more respect to man on earth, then he hath to Christ in heaven? If any man sin (saith Saint John) we have an advocate with the Father, even Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2.1).
Amen, I say, to that! But this is where I find the Liberal predilection for “May he rest in peace” so odd.
Historically, it is (to say the least) in tension with the formal Anglican position, expressed not only in the Homilies but in the Thirty-nine Articles (specifically, Article XXII, ‘Of Purgatory’).
Yet this style of prayer often accompanies a very ‘high’ view of ministry and sacrament which makes the Protestant Evangelical Anglican heritage seem positively ‘rationalist’ in its application of Christian doctrine to present living.
At the same time, moreover, it seems to lean ‘Romeward’ in its understanding of faith and doctrine at a time when Rome is hardly the doctrinal and moral ‘flavour of the month’ amongst liberals with a small ‘l’.
Most curiously though, it seems to presume that the dead in Christ still need our help — which would suggest, therefore, some uncertainty either in their standing with God, or (indeed) with God’s attitude towards them.
Perhaps I am wrong in assuming that Liberals (with a capital ‘L’) reject the notion that God does not welcome one and all after their decease. Do they, after all, believe that there is “no peace unto the wicked”? Or is there some other factor of which I am unaware to take into consideration?
However, as an Evangelical (and indeed, an Evangelical of precisely the stripe Colin Slee himself disliked so much), I would rather pray concerning the dead with the words we find in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Order for Holy Communion:
And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom ...
Of course, regarding the individual there may be room for circumspection. The 1662 Order for the Burial of the Dead certainly leaves some leeway when it prays,
We meekly beseech thee, O Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him, as our hope is this our brother doth ...
On the one hand, ‘hope’ here is undoubtedly meant as the ‘sure and certain hope’ of the resurrection expressed at the committal. On the other hand, there have equally undoubtedly been ‘brothers’ about whom these words were said where the audience would have reason to see this as a generous presumption, to say the least.
Nevertheless, the one thing these words leave no room for is doubt that the dead in Christ actually do rest in him — no ‘ifs, buts or maybes’.
May he rest in peace? He either does not, or he does. Let us be bold enough, whether for Dean Slee or anyone else, to trust the gospel!
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
27 November 2010
27 November 2010