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I promised that I’d say something about what is misleadingly termed “prayers for the dead”. This was an uncontroversial issue until the Reformation, although it is true to say that the emphasis strayed in late medieval times from a consciousness of our continued relationship with, communion with, the departed, and often assumed rather crude attempts to saddle notable figures from the past with specific tasks such as finding lost thimbles or guarding oyster fishers. I suppose there was not much harm in thinking that trade associations had patron saints. The problem which developed was of a different order. It became believed that a departed saint might have some influence in determining whether one’s stay in an intermediate state would be brief or long, or indeed whether one was going to hell or not. The Reformers believed that such prayers detracted from our Lord’s unique salvic role. In reaction the churches of the Reformation, to one degree or another, erected a ceiling between those on earth and those in heaven. The departed were indeed dead and gone, and our relationship with them would be interrupted until we joined them after we too died. 


In creating in the imagination of the faithful this stark separation, the Reformers did away with a concept as old as the church itself, and expressed in its earliest liturgical prayers. Oddly, at least in Lutheran and Anglican worship, what is called the sursum corda, the narrative beginning with ‘Lift up your hearts’, the concept of our union with the departed at the altar was retained without alteration or amendment. We continued to worship with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven even while our earthly life continued. Anglicans retained saints’ days, drastically pruned to mention only New Testament characters and of course King Charles the Martyr, but retained nevertheless, usually with discreet collects and lessons for their days. Parish churches retained their saintly patrons, and while the English liturgy, unlike that of Scotland, was purged of prayers mentioning the departed (except rather gingerly in the Burial Office) the concept of ‘the communion of saints’, and article of the Creed, popped up fairly regularly in theological writing. The Tractarians restored the idea of our companionship with the departed, and nowadays it’s not uncommon to hear even protestant pastors asking God to receive and bless departed people.


Our concept of communion with the departed is anchored in our theology of Baptism. Baptism begins eternal life. Whether we can abandon this heritage isn’t my issue today. In enjoying eternal life, by adoption and grace, we join with all those who have similarly been adopted in Christ, by virtue of his coming, dying, rising and ascending. No living or ‘dead’ person, however exalted can ‘save’ us. However our union with each other, through baptism, carries with it an obligation to love one another, to be concerned about one another, and to offer ourselves for each other. Love never fails. Not even death can destroy its power. To suggest that our departed loved ones do not continue to love us, and thus be concerned for us, and to offer themselves for us, all components of genuine love, would be to limit the word love to make it eventually meaningless. Yes, that love is in Christ, for our identity is always in Christ. 


I believe with all my heart that I enjoy “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won”. Communion is just that, a union between us, with our departed loved ones here and there. 


Prayer is much wider and larger than merely asking for something for ourselves or others. Prayer is the means of communion, the means of contact, the way we express our love and care for others and they with us. Living in awareness that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (life-givers) enriches our lives and reminds us that we are never alone as we run the race that is set before us. The departed always look and point to Jesus, and in their fellowship we follow their gaze and join them in worshipping the ‘Lamb that was slain.”


I have some sympathy with the writer of a recent blog who bemoaned the fact that while the 1979 BCP seemed to move TEC in a more Catholic direction, in practice it did no such thing.http://haligweorc.wordpress.com/2013/08/06/liturgical-chickens-coming-home-to-roost/


My main problem with his thesis, and the accompanying theme that in our recent choices of Holy Men and Holy Women we seem not to understand the concept of heroic sanctity, the definition of a saint, is that I don’t think it can be demonstrated that Anglicanism has managed a common teaching on either subject since the Reformation. 


It is alleged that emblazoned behind the Holy Table in an evangelical Anglican parish in England was the text “He is not here”. Whether true or not, the doctrine of the Real Presence, at least in a form which associates that Presence in the elements of Bread and Wine, has never been an agreed position among us, and until the days of the Tractarians was rarely defined in absolute terms. 


To my mind, the matter of just how Christ is present, if over-stressed as THE essential eucharistic doctrine, often panders to modern therapeutic religion. It easily boils down to questions about what do I, as an individual, get out of receiving holy communion, and  thus to the extraordinary idea that I should always receive communion when I attend the Eucharist.


To my mind the essential Eucharistic teaching is what used to be termed “The Sacrifice of the Mass’. I’d hasten to point out that this doctrine also can be misunderstood if it is believed that the eucharist is primarily offered to the Father to save me, or if it is suggested that the Eucharistic offering is the job of the priest in a personal capacity. The Sacrifice is that of Christ on the Cross, and is offered by the whole Church in heaven and on earth in union with Jesus the High Priest, who for ever offers himself “for the sins of the whole world.” 


In short the primary action of the Eucharist is Godward. It is a corporate activity embarked upon by the whole Church, in which we participate by virtue of our baptism. It is thus also a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”. It is from this communal offering and oblation that the Church at every level receives the grace to witness the Gospel. As individuals, in worship, we lose ourselves in a common offering. In short it isn’t about you or me, it’s about God and the Church, the Church in which we live and move and have our being as organs and members of the Body of Christ. 


It is thus odd that the Eucharistic Sacrifice has been a more divisive teaching than that of the Real Presence. What matters about the latter teaching is that the Church affirms that in the Eucharist we are corporately joined into Christ and thus into his eternal offering, once accomplished on Calvary. 


If we come to agree here, then the ideal of heroic sanctity becomes easier to grasp. The saints, holy men and women, are those whose self-emptying, self-offering, self-oblation is  notable, whose sacrificial lives are an inspiration, and whose prayers for us are intense. 


Yes I know: praying with the saints is another area of disagreement among us. More of that later.