Saturday, 27 November 2010

Death , Liberalism and ‘Resting in Peace’

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 Richardson
27 November 2010
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  1. I can't help wondering, how would you explain this part of the 1662 BCP The Order for The Visitation of the Sick,

    "A commendatory Prayer for a sick person at the point of departure.

    O Almighty God, with whom do live the spirits of just men made perfect, after they are delivered from their earthly prisons: We humbly commend the soul of this thy servant, our dear brother, into thy hands, as into the hands of a faithful Creator, and most merciful Saviour; most humbly beseeching thee that it may be precious in thy sight. Wash it, we pray thee, in the blood of that immaculate Lamb, that was slain to take away the sins of the world; that whatsoever defilements it may have contracted in the midst of this miserable and naughty world, through the lusts of the flesh or the wiles of Satan, being purged and done away, it may be presented pure and without spot before thee. And teach us who survive, in this and other like daily spectacles of mortality, to see how frail and uncertain our own condition is; and so to number our days, that we may seriously apply our hearts to that holy and heavenly wisdom, whilst we live here, which may in the end bring us to life everlasting, through the merits of Jesus Christ, thine only Son our Lord. Amen."

  2. Do you really view death as a final barrier? I think that this is a perfect example of where the Reformation era Anglican view is highly culture-bound, as it assumes a particularly Modern view of time. What hovers behind the (pretty universal first millenium) acceptance of prayers for the dead is the notion that relationships within the Body are not sundered by death - and that therefore relationships can be maintained (love is eternal after all). So praying for the departed is ultimately no more problematic than praying for those present. My two pennies anyhow.

  3. Rubati, they're sick, not dead. It's that simple, I think.

  4. Sam, the question is not whether death is a barrier, but a transformation.

    Is death the point at which we are delivered from this "body of death" (Rom 7:24). Clearly at some point temptation and sin cease. Is that at death? If so, then, as Revelation 14:13 says,

    "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on ... they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.”

    If there are prayers for the repose of the dead at all, they could only be prayer for the repose of those who die outside Christ.

    I am not sure, incidentally, what is the 'modern' view of time!

  5. As a PS to Rubati, when I was recently asked to visit someone who was dying, of whose spiritual condition I was, necessarily, very uncertain, the prayers I used drew on the Visitation of the Sick, with an emphasis on confession and forgiveness.

  6. There is a danger of over-spiritualising this "bodily" aspect of death - think "sarx/flesh".

    Cannot "rest in peace" refer to the body being at rest from thinking, feeling and knowing?

    We are all aware of bodies being exhumed for various reasons. Or have we become so spiritual that the body no longer counts once it is dead?

    Beryl Polden

  7. Beryl, interestingly the Wiki article has this comment:

    "When the phrase [Requiescat in pace] became conventional, the absence of a reference to the soul led people to suppose that it was the physical body which was enjoined to lie peacefully in the grave", for which it references Joshua Scodel (1991), The English poetic epitaph, Cornell University Press, p. 269.

    Clearly, though, the first reference is to the soul, and (after all) most bodies buried in the Christian era have long since rotted away.

  8. I have always thought the Church of England used the phrase "rest in peace and rise in glory" in order to distinguish the reformer's view of death (as resting cf. Jesus speaking of a dead person as being asleep) from the Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory...

  9. @Revd Richardson

    Well, I think the operative phrase is "at the point of departure", not so much on "sick". It is hard to argue that its meant for the little space of time between the person being "sick" and the "point of departure" as there is already a set prayer for that, the "Prayer for a sick person, when there appeareth small hope of recovery."

    But regardless of ambiguity of the specific situation which the prayer is supposed to address, that ought not to distract us from the *content* of the prayer itself. To pray

    "that whatsoever defilements it may have contracted in the midst of this miserable and naughty world, through the lusts of the flesh or the wiles of Satan, being purged and done away, it may be presented pure and without spot before thee"

    cannot by any stretch of interpretation mean a prayer for sanctification and earthly repentence and mortification of the flesh in this life, (since the person HAS departed!) but it has to refer to a post-morterm purging and cleansing.

    Thus, we should not be distracted by whether or not we pray for the dead, but whether it is appropriate and acceptable to commend departed souls to the Lord and prayer for the cleansing of their soul before God, and the BCP does seem to give us a prayer which specific content is precisely that of praying that a departed soul be cleansed and purged of the sins in "this miserable and naughty world".

    Ultimately yn the words of C.S. Lewis,

    "Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden..."

    And the very specific and calvinistic understanding of the Gospel with its very many theoretically cumbersome points of predestination and justification is hardly a "compulsive theological case".

    From how I understand the Anglican doctrinal standards, though it is clear that "purgatory" is rejected, but then again a lot of my Eastern Catholic/Orthodox friends do not subscribe to purgatory anyway but still maintains the practice of praying for the dead, which I might add is not a practice expressedly forbidden in the Articles unlike, say, invocation of saints.

  10. John,
    I am in full agreement with you. The Anglican understanding of death seems to be lost on many who have assumed a Roman Catholic understanding.

  11. Far from the Ugley Vicar's view being based on a (presumably mistaken) Modern view of time, it seems to me he is absolutely right to say that praying for the dead is ruled out by several considerations of which the foremost is the Reformation understanding of justification as event rather than process.

    If you move towards a view of justification as process rather than event, then of course it starts to make sense to imagine the process can go on after death. But if we are now justified in God's sight then our hope can be that at death we enter the full experience of that justified status.

    At funerals where other clergy are present I have often been amazed at the automatic way that colleagues will say 'May the souls of the departed etc'. I don't join in because I'm thinking 'What's happened to Christian assurance?'.

  12. But, of course, presumably none of us would object to the practice of being baptised for the dead...

  13. If Christ is not raised we are being baptized 'for the dead' - buried and 'raised' with Christ, but actually destined simply to die and never rise. QED

  14. Regardless of denomination - and I am, in fact, Pentecostal by name and nature - I find that the tripartite nature of a human being is not well handled from a theological point of view.

    Thus, when it comes to death, we are well aware of what happens to the physical body but far less aware of the individual distinctives between soul and spirit - and how these elements of "us" function without a physical body.

    And I'm not sure that the Bible entirely addresses our intellectual reason on this matter

    Beryl Polden

  15. Of course it's entirely possible that upon hearing of Dean Slee's death a shockingly short time after his diagnosis, some of those who knew and liked him might have been moved to make some public recognition of his passing. They may not have weighed up their theological position with quite as much care as some on this thread which, by the way, stands as a good illustration of just what it is that is so disliked about conservative evangelicals. Dear me, people, where is your charity? Fern Winter, London

  16. Fern, of course people will mourn at the death of a friend - people even mourn the death of people they never knew. In this particular instance, I myself was genuinely shocked to hear of Dean Slee's death, given that it was so sudden.

    However, the Apostle Paul wrote the Thessalonian Church, "Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope."

    "May he rest in peace," is not an the unthinking response but the conventional expression of a particular theology which our Church feels falls short of Paul's urging.

    Perhaps we need another, equally conventional, expression people can use, such as "He/she is with the Lord" or "He/she rests from his/her labours", or even, perhaps, just a plain, "He rests in peace."

    As to this particular instance, Colin Slee's friends are surely those in the best position to say this of him. My only wish was that they should, and should have the comfort of the gospel which gives us boldness to do so.

  17. Thank you for the 'Homilies' link (though I have - lazily? - not yet read all of the homily you quote)!

    What is the range of nuance of "requiescat" or indeed "may he rest"?

    Can it include something like "may it be that he is one who rests"?

    And can it add to that (with an eye to Philippians 3:13 and what at least some make of a Patristic - or Gregorian (or Nyssan?) - understanding of 'epektasis') something like "and one who ever deepens in that rest in the Lord"?

    The Wikipedia article you link points to a Hebrew Jewish background B.C., and gives a Lutheran example in a Slavic tongue: but what (if any) is the - or a - usual Greek version?

    The Epistle from the "Nascient Life" Vespers at St. Peter's on Saturday got me thinking of that Greek-verb question, in the context of wondering about the verbs in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 in all their details: 'hagiasei' and 'teretheie'. They seem of possible relevance to this discussion.

    I am not sure how 'definitive' (as opposed to, say, 'licit', or 'not contradictory of Scripture') the Homilies were considered in the Elizabethan Church, or subsequently. But I do not see that the your second quotation is adequately reasoned, in terms of Sixteenth-century Canterburian-Roman controvery or otherwise. That "the one [i.e, "heaven"] needeth no prayer" need not mean that "the dead are [not] any thing at all holpen by our prayers".

    That is, if I am not mistaken, there is no 'Roman' understanding of things wherein purgation does not (1) occur on the 'heavenward side of the gate' (so to put it) (2) in any case, independently of the prayers of any in the 'Church Militant here on earth'.

    Psolomon Psmith
    Psociety Psupporting Psalutary Pcyber Pseudonymity

    Momentarily Somewhere in the (all-too-aptly-named) Low Countries, in Darkest postmodernly 'Enlightened' Europe

    Our motto: "Non confundar ex telaetubula tua [assuming that an adequate rendering of 'your weblog']"

  18. Oops! Should've previewed!

    "telaetabula", of course!

    Ps. Ps.

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