The Northern Churchman
A Faithful Departure?
“May he rest in peace and rise in glory.” These words, solemnly intoned at a funeral service or in public acknowledgement of a death, have assumed a certain dignity and antiquity; they simply seem to be the right thing for a Christian to say at the time.
In early Church history, Christians in the Roman Empire inscribed on their tombs the Latin sentence requiescit in pace (‘He/She rests in peace.’) as a simple statement of the Christian hope: the departed in Christ now rests in peace. Over time the tense of the verb changed and the phrase became requiescat in pace (‘May he/she rest in peace.’), no longer a statement of present reality, but the expression of a prayerful wish. “May he rest in peace and rise in glory” is a sentiment arising from that later tradition.
It has been suggested that the phrase was popularised in Anglican circles by future Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie when principal of Cuddesdon Theological College in the 1960s. Others have attributed it to Bishop Fison of Salisbury (1963-73).
But is it appropriate for Christians who rejoice in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the rediscovery of that gospel at the Reformation to express such a prayerful wish? In what way can our prayers affect anything in the departed’s current circumstances or final destination?
In the sixteenth century, the Books of Homilies were compiled to provide Reformed teaching to a Church of England that had a dearth of clergy able to teach from the Scriptures. One such Homily, on Prayer, would certainly regard praying for the dead as a waste of breath. The third part of the sermon addresses this very question: “whether we ought to pray for them that are departed out of this world, or no. Wherein if we will cleave only unto the word of God, then must we needs grant, that we have no commandment so to do. For the Scripture doth acknowledge but two places after this life, the one proper to the elect and blessed of God, the other to the reprobate and damned souls…”
Indeed we are instructed in the Homily not to “dream any more that the souls of the dead are anything at all holpen by our prayers: but, as the Scripture teacheth us, let us think that the soul of man, passing out of the body, goeth straightways either to heaven or else to hell, whereof the one needeth no prayer, and the other is without redemption.”
The story about the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 provides little encouragement to pray to or for the departed. Father Abraham had no power to fulfil the rich man’s earnest request, nor could there be any change, development or journey in the afterlife; a great chasm had been fixed curtailing the very possibility.
It must be understood that prayer for the departed does not ‘harm’ the deceased; it would appear to have no effect. But surely it does great harm to the gospel. To pray for a departed believer implies doubt about the Christ they trusted as Saviour – is he not able to save to the uttermost those who come to God by him? To pray for someone departed outside of Christ (as far as we can know) can give the impression that there is hope of salvation after death. Why should anyone seek Christ in this life if the Church is at hand to help a soul find salvation beyond the grave? In both cases, hope-filled witness to Jesus and the resurrection is dulled and diminished.
The Book of Common Prayer Funeral Service was designed to express clearly the Christian hope, rather than function as a prayer service to speed the departed soul on its journey. This has been powerfully described by RC scholar Professor Eamon Duffy as ‘the disappearance of the corpse’, especially evident from the 1552 BCP onwards:
“There was nothing which could even be mistaken for a prayer for the dead in the 1552 funeral rite. The service was no longer a rite of intercession on behalf of the dead, but an exhortation to faith on the part of the living. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the oddest feature of the 1552 rite is the disappearance of the corpse from it. So, at the moment of committal in 1552, the minister turns not towards the corpse, but away from it, to the living congregation around the grave.” (Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, Yale: 1992, p.475.)
From the Prayer Book funeral service, indeed from the Bible itself, we already have a phrase that encapsulates our great hope in Christ. It would be good if this saying were used rather than ‘rest in peace and rise in glory.’ It is a phrase of excellent provenance that expresses life and hope even in the face of death and mourning:
Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.
They are blessed indeed, for they rest from their labours.
NORTHERN CHURCHMAN has served in parochial ministry for over twenty-five years.