Praying for the Dead

by Philip Jones

‘I whiles wish I was a Catholic and could pit up prayers for the sodgers that are dead.  It maun be a great consolation.’ (fictional Protestant lady in Mr Standfast (1919), by John Buchan)

It is easy to forget now that praying for the dead was once a controversial practice.

In 1904, shortly after his elevation to St. Augustine’s Chair, Archbishop Randall Davidson was embarrassed by an allegation that he had ‘said prayers for the dead with the late Queen’, i.e Queen Victoria (presumably prayers for her beloved Albert).  He had formerly been Dean of Windsor, in effect the Queen’s local vicar.  His official biography records that ‘The [allegation] was widely reproduced, and the Archbishop received letters from newspaper editors and protest from Protestant organisations’ (G.K.A Bell Randall Davidson (1935), pp.440-1).

He did not deny the prayers, but complained of ‘how little appreciation that there is of the distinction … in the Church of England between

[1] the use of such prayers [for the dead] in the private devotion of a worshipper … and

[2] the insertion of such prayers in the public services of the Church’.

[2] was forbidden, but [1] was permitted.  (The implication is that the Archbishop – and the Queen – had only engaged in [1], not [2], and were therefore innocent of any ecclesiastical irregularity.)

This may suggest that private prayer for the dead is rather like private confession, a permitted concession to human weakness, for those who cannot otherwise find the assurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Prayer may be private, but the churches and burial grounds in which the dead are buried and commemorated are public places.  In the case of Breeks v Woolfrey (1838) 163 English Reports 304, the Rev Mr Breeks prosecuted Mrs Woolfrey, one of his parishioners, in the Court of the Arches, ‘touching and concerning her soul’s health, and for the lawful correction of her manners and excesses’ (p.307).  Mrs Woolfrey was a Roman Catholic.  She had inscribed her husband’s tombstone with the words ‘Pray for the soul of …’.  Mr Breeks argued that this was unlawful.

Article 22 condemns ‘The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory … grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God’.  The Dean of the Arches, Jenner, acknowledged that ‘by this law I am bound to govern myself’ (p.308).

(He might have added that Article 31 also condemns ‘the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said that the priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, [are] blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits’.  The Mass, or Eucharist, is a prayer as well as a sacrifice.)

Moreover, one of the homilies commended by Article 35 for their ‘godly and wholesome doctrine’ deprecates the practice of prayer for the dead: ‘neither let us dream … that the souls of the dead are holpen by our prayers’.

That was not the end of the matter, however.  The Dean reviewed ‘Authorities [i.e commentaries] … numerous in the point … that prayers for the dead are not necessarily connected with the doctrine of Purgatory, since they were offered up by the Primitive Church long antecedent to the [mediaeval] doctrine of Purgatory’ (p.309).

Thus prayer for the dead does not necessarily imply the existence of Purgatory, but may be offered ‘that souls might have rest and quiet in the interval between death and resurrection’.

Mrs Woolfrey was a Catholic, and so presumably adhered to Catholic teaching.  Surely this meant, Mr Breeks suggested, that her inscription did necessarily imply the existence of Purgatory? (The word ‘necessarily’ occurs frequently in the judgment.)

This suggestion was rejected on a legal technicality: ‘if anything arose from the circumstance of [Mrs Woolfrey] being Roman Catholic, or from the sense in which the words of the inscription are understood by the Romish Church, it should have been specifically pleaded‘, which it had not been (p.312).

The Dean concluded that the historic formularies ‘shew that the Church discouraged prayers for the dead, but did not prohibit them: and that the 22nd Article is not violated by the[ir] use’ (p.311).  Nor did the withering reference in the approved homily amount to a prohibition.  The homily does not say that praying for the dead is unlawful, merely that it is useless.  ‘If it had been the opinion of the [reformers] that prayers for the dead were opposed to the Scriptures, they would have expressly declared their illegality’ (p.312).  The vindictive vicar was sent away with his case dismissed, and an order to pay Mrs Woolfrey’s costs.

The Dean accepted that all public prayers for the dead had been removed from the liturgy (from 1552 onwards), but suggested that ‘The probable reason for the omission … [was] that they might be abused … to the support of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory’ (p.311).

Breeks v Woolfrey was decided during the Tractarian era, a time when the Church of England was encouraged to remember its ‘catholic’ identity and descent from the Early Church.  The judgment is undeniably attractive.  Ecumenical generosity and patristic scholarship prevail over fundamentalism and prejudice.

The judgment places a Tractarian gloss on the historic formularies.  It may be doubted whether the formularies draw a clear distinction between prayer for the dead and relief from Purgatory, or that they exclude the former because of a perceived danger that they will be mistaken for the latter.  It is far more likely that such prayer was excluded for the reasons given by the formularies themselves, i.e that it is unscriptural and unhelpful to the dead.

Private prayer is not forbidden, but an inscription in a church or churchyard is arguably public, not private.  Mrs Woolfrey was not prosecuted for praying for her husband’s soul.  Of course she was free to do this.  She was prosecuted for inviting, or inciting, other people to do so, by means of an inscription placed in the parish churchyard.  It could be argued that the Court of the Arches failed to appreciate the distinction between permitted private prayer and public advertisement.

The suggested dichotomy between mediaeval doctrine and primitive practice is problematic.  This issue would be addressed not long after Breeks v Woolfrey by St John Henry Newman (a leading Tractarian of course) in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845).  The modern Roman Catholic Catechism (1994-2000) explains that ‘after death [souls] undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of Heaven … The Church gives the name Purgatory to this …’ (paras 1030-1).  Breeks v Woolfrey suggests that we may pray for the rest of departed souls, but not for their purification.  But ‘rest’ from what, exactly? If souls are not in need of purification, why do they need praying for?  The fundamentalism of the formularies seems more logical on this point.

Phillimore relates that the Latin Prayer Book of Queen Elizabeth I (not the English one) included prayers for the dead, and that ‘prayers for the dead are used on special occasions in the chapels of some [Oxford] colleges’ (Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd ed 1895, p.696).  (The rationale for this may be that those involved are sufficiently select for the prayers to be considered private, and / or are sufficiently intelligent not to be deceived by the error of Purgatory!)

In the decades that followed Breeks v Woolfrey, municipal cemeteries were opened as traditional churchyards became overcrowded and insanitary.  The Acts of Parliament which authorised these new burial grounds were careful to assert the ecclesiastical authority’s ‘right and power to object to the placing, and to procure the removal of any monumental inscription’ in consecrated ground: Cemeteries Clauses Act 1847, s.51.  Also, ‘the fitness of any monumental inscription … shall be determined by the bishop’: Burial Act 1852, s.38.  The ecclesiastical jurisdiction to veto unfit inscriptions in consecrated municipal cemeteries is preserved today in the Cemeteries Order 1977, Article 13.

The tolerance displayed in Breeks was ahead of its time.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ecclesiastical courts refused to grant faculties for inscriptions inviting prayer for the soul of a deceased person.

This does not mean that the courts ignored Breeks (they did not), or even that their decisions were inconsistent with it.  It should be remembered that Breeks was a criminal prosecution.  Criminal prosecutions must be exactly pleaded and strictly proved, which Mr Breeks had failed to do.  Faculties, by contrast, are a discretionary civil matter.  A faculty petition will not be accepted just because its subject-matter is not unlawful.  What is not unlawful is not necessarily encouraged.  The same reason for dismissing the prosecution of Mrs Woolfrey (that prayer for the dead is discouraged but not unlawful) may also justify the refusal of a faculty for an inscription inviting such prayer.

Egerton -v All of Odd Rode (1894) Probate 15 concerned an inscription ‘Pray for the soul of …’ on a church window.  A faculty was refused because

‘it does not … belong to a [Church] court … to do what the formularies of the Church have abstained from doing … to authorise directly the setting up in a place of worship of an inscription demanding … prayers … for [departed] souls’ (p.21).

A powerful point.  The faculty jurisdiction should be exercised consistently with the liturgy, and with the principle of uniformity on which the liturgy was then based.

The judgment in Pearson v Stead (1903) Probate 66 is rather less persuasive.  The Chancellor, Dr Tristram (the last survivor of Doctors Commons), addressed the unpleaded issue raised in Breeks v Woolfrey.  The petitioner for the inscription, like Mrs Woolfrey, was a Roman Catholic.  Was this relevant?  The Worshipful Doctor suggested that it was:

‘The court … should be satisfied … beyond all doubt … that the inscription was so expressed and intended to be expressed as not to include or appear to include an invitation for prayers for the relief of [departed] souls … from the pains of Purgatory …’ (p.73).

On this view, it is not just the wording of an inscription that matters, but the intention of the petitioner.  A Roman Catholic petitioner would naturally intend an inscription to invite prayers for relief from Purgatory.  This intention would in turn give the inscription an appearance of inviting such prayers, even if the inscription did not explicitly refer to Purgatory.  A faculty should therefore be refused.

This ratio decidendi suggests that exactly the same inscription may be permitted if its author is an Anglican (who, as such, is merely inviting prayers for the ‘rest’ of departed souls) but must be refused if he is a Catholic.

In Dupuis v Parishioners of Ogbourne St George (1941) Probate 119, the Chancellor refused a faculty because he thought that many Anglicans would associate such an inscription with Purgatory, even if this was not intended, and would consequently be distressed and offended by it.  The Court of the Arches held that this was a matter for the Chancellor’s discretion and declined to overrule him.

Then, in South Creake (1959) 1 All England Reports 197, Chancellor Ellison granted a faculty for an inscription on a window in the parish church.  The faculty was sought by the vicar himself (for his late mother), and the parish had ‘a strong Anglo-Catholic tradition’ (p.198).

The Chancellor strongly emphasised the findings in Breeks v Woolfrey that

(1) the Early Church offered prayers for the dead and

(2) such prayers were not unlawful in the Church of England.

He pointed out, correctly, that he was not bound by the earlier faculty decisions, which were taken by chancellors from other dioceses.  He suggested unconvincingly that the Egerton decision ‘goes further than Breeks v Woolfrey requires’, but this ignores the different character of the 2 cases, as discussed earlier (criminal prosecution cf judicial discretion).

The decisive factor in favour of the inscription was the change of attitude over the years: ‘the average churchman today approaches the subject-matter under consideration with much less intensity than did his forebears’ (p.206).  Nor was it merely the average churchman whose attitude had changed.  The Revised Prayer Book of 1928, approved by large majorities in the Convocations, includes a prayer for the dead.  The Lambeth Conference of 1958 (which met while the Chancellor was considering the case) had reported favourably on the practice (pp.207-8).  Thus prayer for the dead was now officially encouraged, rather than discouraged.

It may be objected that, though attitudes had undoubtedly changed, the law had not.  The 1662 regime of public worship still lingered on in the 1950s.  The 1928 Book, though indeed approved by the Convocations, had been rejected by Parliament, so had no statutory authority.  The deliberations of the Lambeth Conference (or Conferences) are nothing more than expressions of opinion.

However, it had long been recognised that the 1662 regime was unenforceable and not fit for purpose.  Eventually the law was changed by the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974.  The modern liturgy now includes prayers for the dead, with the full statutory authority of the 1974 Measure.

This addresses the point raised in Egerton.  If the official liturgy includes prayers for the dead, then inscriptions inviting such prayers are prima facie permissible, though there may still be discretionary reasons for refusing an inscription in a particular case.

The modern prayers may have been inspired by Tractarian researches into the Early Church, but, as the above quotation suggests, the grim experience of modern warfare was probably instrumental in changing attitudes towards them.  (Mr Standfast is set during the first World War.)

Praying for departed loved ones is indeed ‘a great consolation’.  It satisfies an obvious human need.  It may discourage dabbling in spiritualism (seances, mediums etc).  Contrary to the alleged fears of the Reformers, it has not led to a revival of support for the doctrine of Purgatory.  However, the metaphysical effect of such prayers, i.e how the dead are ‘holpen’ by them, is unclear.