Prayer and the Dead

In Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (Church House Publishing, 2000) the suggested structure for the Sunday prayers of intercession is as follows:

  1. The Church of Christ
  2. Creation, human society, the Sovereign and those in authority
  3. The local community
  4. Those who suffer
  5. The communion of saints.

My concern in this blog relates to the final section: the communion of saints. In a large Anglican parish churches where there are funerals every week, it is understandable that every Sunday the congregation remembers with thanksgiving those who died in the past week. In this respect Common Worship gives suggestions for this act of remembering. For instance:

  • “Hear us as we remember those who have died in the faith of Christ…: according to your promises, grant us with them a share in your eternal kingdom”
  • “We remember those who have gone before us in the peace of Christ, and we give you praise for all your faithful ones, with whom we rejoice in the communion of saints….”
  • “Hear us as we remember those who have died in the peace of Christ, both those who have confessed the faith and those whose faith is known to you alone, and grant us with them a share in your eternal kingdom”
  • “Remembering […and] all who have gone before us in faith, and in communion with […and] all the saints, we commit ourselves, one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.

Unfortunately instead of thanking God for those who have died in Christ and for “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life though our Lord Jesus Christ”, time and again congregations are led in a prayer for the dead. This I maintain is neither necessary nor helpful, for it undermines the doctrine of assurance based on the solid gospel promises in the New Testament. In the words of Jesus which I use at every funeral, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11.25). Prayers for the dead can also suggest that we can through our praying prise people from the clutches of hell.

There is, however, a place at the time of death for prayers in which we entrust our loved ones into the care of Almighty God. This indeed has been my practice for many years. In the words of Christopher Cocksworth: “These are prayers of ‘handing over’. They articulate a transfer or exchange. We are not saying to God ‘we doubt your willingness to do this and feel that you need some encouragement from us to cooperate’. In fact we are saying the opposite: ‘We know that you are ready to do this and we entrust that for which we have had some responsibility into your hands so that you can take your full responsibility.’ We are saying no more than ‘do as you have promised’” (Prayer and the Departed, Grove 1997). Such a prayer of commendation could, I suppose, be appropriate in the Sunday worship following the death. However, prayers in general for the dead are surely not appropriate.

But is there a place for simply holding before God in prayer loved ones who have died in Christ? Tom Wright believes there is:

True prayer is an outflowing of love; if I love someone, I will want to pray for them, not necessarily because they are in difficulties, not necessarily because there is a particular need of which I am aware, but simply because holding them up in God’s presence is the most natural and appropriate thing to do, and because I believe that God chooses to work through our prayers for other people’s benefit, whatever sort of benefit that may be. Now love doesn’t stop at death – or if it does, it’s a pretty poor sort of love! In fact grief could almost be defined as the form love takes when the object of love has been removed; it is love embracing an empty space, love kissing thin air and feeling the pain of that nothingness. But there is no reason at all why love should discontinue the practice of holding the beloved in prayer before God. (For all the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed, SPCK 2003).

But is that really true? I loved my father dearly, and still miss him greatly even though he died in 2000, but I do not feel the need to hold him before God in prayer. I thank God for him and for all he meant to me, and indeed to many others, but he no longer needs my prayers. I believe that he is safe in the Father’s house, and in that I simply rejoice.

2 comments

  1. A Christian kaddish, eh?
    Seriously, I agree with you. In fact even at funerals I wonder about “committing the person to God” as, by that time, some days or even weeks have passed. But, of course, funerals are more for the living than the dead; and also, of course, God lives within an eternal present rather than in our linear time.

  2. I would imagine, if Christianity be true, that it is the departed Unbeliever who needs your prayers more!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.