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Praying for the Church (Part 9):

Much of the funds raised in the early 1500s for the new St. Peter’s came from the sale of indulgences (reductions in time spent in purgatory), and in Germany, the Dominican friar in charge of the campaign, Johann Tetzel, marketed it aggressively with a catchy jingle: “As soon as the gold in the casket rings, / The rescued soul to heaven springs. Tetzel raised a lot of money for the pope: he also sparked the Protestant reformation and the overthrow of papal authority in much of Europe. Whatever could be said in favor of the doctrine of purgatory (the purification of the faithful from their sins after death) and indulgences (the reduction of these post-mortem penances by good works), the Protestant reformers were having none of it. The logic of their position was powerful: not only is the doctrine of Purgatory of dubious Biblical authority, but if we are to put our whole trust in Christ and in his work of atonement for our sins, then we cannot put our trust for salvation in the works we do, much less the commutation of these works into payments. Salvation is not for sale. As Article XXII thunders: “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, [and] Pardons [i.e. indulgences], … is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God”.

The reformers were not in principle opposed to prayer for the departed, provided it did not entail dubious doctrines and practices. Such prayers were included in the first Prayer Book; but in the pastoral context, of a church where prayers for the dead had become an overwhelming and unhealthy preoccupation, they considered them unwise, and so from 1552 they were omitted altogether. Only in 1662 was a more modest commemoration inserted: “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”. Comber comments, that this is designed not to pray for the departed, but rather “to praise God for them, and to perpetuate their memory, to express their faith and confidence of their felicity, and to show their love to the very remembrance of them, and finally to excite many to aim at the same rewards by imitating so brave examples”. “What prospect in the world can ravish us with greater pleasures, or raise in us higher admirations of the divine goodness, than to behold those that were once as frail and sinful as we are, now advanced above Satan’s malice, or death’s power, and placed in the regions of joy, and the bosom of Jesus, that we might not tremble, or think it impossible to come thither also? Doth not their felicity give life to our hopes, and become a pledge of our own future glory?”

Moreover, any suggestion that this was prayer for the departed was excluded by the preliminary bidding, which explicitly restricted the prayer that followed to the church “militant here in earth”. Yet as Wheatley comments, “though the direct petition for the faithful departed is still discontinued, yet, were it not for the restriction of the words, ‘militant here in earth’, they might be supposed to be implied in our present form, when we beg of God that “we WITH THEM may be partakers of his heavenly kingdom”.

When explicit prayer for the departed finally returned, in 1928, it was not a prayer for remission of purgatorial pains, but rather for further sanctification. In the 1928 Prayer Book the words “militant here in earth” were removed, and an explicit petition for the departed was added to the 1662 wording: “to grant them continual growth in thy love and service”. The punitive emphasis on making satisfaction for sin (prominent in the old idea of purgatory) gives way here to the idea of further sanctification (which as it happens is prominent in more recent thinking about purgatory). Just how long it takes for us to complete this sanctification is not stated: classical protestants took the view that it was instantaneous. In the end, the question is not perhaps of great importance: what matters is the grace we receive now, and the sure and certain hope of glory.