“Why would you pray for the dead? They’re already with Jesus!”
Such is the common well-meaning retort from most Protestants today when they hear us pray for the faithful departed. This is an ancient practice of the Church, but it seems that the Romans have cornered the market when it comes to explanation. They, famously, believe in Purgatory, wherein the souls of ordinary Christians are purged of their lifetime of sin before beholding the fullness of the Beatific Vision, or (more crassly), going to heaven. While this doctrine could be interpreted in a benign fashion – simply the clearing of our spiritual eyes after a life of sin and darkness – it has typically been presented in very penitential terms: the soul is tortured, exposed to the pains of hell for a period of time depending upon how much sin went unconfessed, lightened by indulgences and prayers and masses on their behalf.
Anglican prayers for the departed has no place for that.
Actually, some say that Anglicans have no place for any prayers for the departed. We had some in the first Prayer Book, and got rid of them a few years later, only to see the extreme Anglo-Catholic wing bring them back in the 20th century and the liberals tolerating it under the guise of “tradition.” But this explanation is not strictly true. The Prayer Books have always included prayer for the departed.
If we look at what our reformed liturgy, 1549 to the present, actually says, we will find that our practice is quite far from Roman superstition.
The Prayers of the People in the 1549 Prayer Book’s Communion liturgy prayed for
all other thy servants, which are departed hence from us, with the sign of faith, and now do rest in the sleep of peace: Grant unto them, we beseech thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace, and that, at the day of the general resurrection, we and all they which be of the mystical body of thy Son, may altogether be set on his right hand, and hear that his most joyful voice: ‘Come unto me, O ye that be blessed of my Father, and possess the Kingdom, which is prepared for you, from the beginning of the world’.
This was dropped from subsequent Prayer Books until the American book of 1928, which prayed
for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.
In between, the 1662 Prayer Book contained a similar, if more subtle, prayer for the departed in the penultimate prayer of the Burial rite:
Almighty God… we give thee hearty thanks, for that it hath pleased thee to deliver this our brother out of the miseries of this sinful world; beseeching thee that it may please thee, of thy gracious goodness, shortly to accomplish the number of thine elect, and to hasten thy kingdom; that we, with all those that are departed in the true faith of thy holy Name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in thy eternal and everlasting glory…
The final Collect in the 1662 Burial service reuses some of the material from the 1549 Prayer Book quoted above, acknowledging the future consummation of the Christian hope of resurrection unto eternal life. This is the common acknowledgement throughout the Prayer Book tradition – that God’s will, or plan, for his people has not yet reached its conclusion. We pray for the departed no longer with the fear or urgency of late medieval piety, which errantly believed in the departed souls’ need to move through Purgatory, but instead with personal affection and biblical hope that all is not as it yet should be.
The Prayers of the People in the 2019 Prayer Book summarize it this way:
We remember before you all your servants who have departed this life in your faith and fear, that your will for them may be fulfilled…
The 2019 Litany offers a more specific explanation of this will:
To grant to all the faithful departed eternal life and peace, We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
Thus the prayers for the departed in the Prayer Book tradition is drawn from biblical doctrine rather than from later superstitions.