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The Departed

Death & Eternal Life

What happens to us after we die?
The Bible is clear that, after the death of our bodies, we all will face God's judgement, and also that there is the hope of life with God, fuller and more wonderful than this one. Beyond that we have no certain knowledge of the details of life after death. The Bible uses pictorial language, as in Christ's parables and in the Book of Revelation, to convey the reality of judgement and eternal life, but these are not literal descriptions. Indeed, it is impossible that human beings with their limited understanding and experience could either envisage or communicate an exact or literal account of what happens after death.

The Church of Ireland, in common with the rest of the Anglican Communion, is faithful to the Bible's reticence on this subject and does not require from its members any belief not clearly taught in the Bible. Many questions are left open and we can exercise our judgement on them. For example, is there progress after death or is the final state of each individual reached at the moment of death? The Bible does not give a definite answer to these questions either way. A complicating factor is the question of time in eternity. We cannot assume that time continues in the same way after death as it does before. The day of judgement is not a date in human reckoning that can be known. Judgement may be going on all the time, as some verses in St John's Gospel suggest (e.g. "Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out" John 12:31).

On these and similar questions, many Anglicans hold one view, others hold another, and still others suspend judgement.

What is eternal life?
‘And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.' (John 17:3). That is, eternal life is a relationship with the eternal God. According to the Bible, eternal life is a gift of God to us through our faith in Jesus Christ, not a natural endowment. St Paul wrote, ‘this mortal nature must put on immortality' (1 Cor. 15:53, italics added). Eternal life refers primarily to the quality, rather than the duration, of life. The converse of this state of blessedness is hell, or separation from God. Eternal life can begin on this earth but it does not end with our death. We have been created with a desire for communion with God, and God satisfies this desire by holding us in being, in this life and beyond this life, with a love that is stronger than death.

What is meant by ‘the resurrection of the body' (Apostles' Creed)?
The human person is a physical body with a spiritual dimension, described by such words as ‘mind', ‘soul', ‘spirit'. The Bible treats a human being as a unity, rather than as a soul imprisoned in a body. God's gift of eternal life is richer, fuller, certainly not less, than physical life. Hence, in the fuller life beyond this one, there will be something corresponding to our bodies, but we cannot possibly envisage the precise nature of such life. Belief in ‘the resurrection of the body' means that God brings the whole of us to life again after death, not just a part of us.

Should we pray for the dead?
Should we pray for anyone? If God knows what is best, need we ask for it? Christ clearly encouraged us to pray for each other and for ourselves (Matt.7:7-11), and it is a deeply engrained instinct to do so. We naturally pray for those we love, and we are commanded to pray for those who do not love us (Matt.5:44). But since God knows better than we do what is best for everyone, our prayer cannot be to change God's will but to align our wills with that of God. In moving us to pray, God gives us a share in fulfilling the Father's perfect will for all creation.

Should we, then, pray for the dead? On the understanding of prayer given above, if we pray for the dead we are not telling God what to do for them but aligning our love for them with God's perfect love. Prayer for those on this earth is not always a specific request for a specific need. We often don't know what is best for someone, but we bring their situation to God in prayer asking for the fulfilment of God's perfect love for them and offering our love for them to God.

Do the dead need our prayers? It has been argued that the dead are either in a state of perfect holiness and happiness, or have finally and irrevocably rejected God's love. For those in one state, prayer is unnecessary, and for those in the other, it is futile. But the Bible does not enable us to be so certain about the state of the dead or to say dogmatically that prayer for them is either unnecessary or futile.

Anglicans disagree about the rightness of specific petitions for the departed and the official documents of the Church of Ireland leave the question open. It is significant that prayers for the dead were not rejected in the 39 Articles. Prayers in the Book of Common Prayer remember the faithful departed, thank God for their good examples and pray, ‘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 Burial of the Dead). This and similar petitions can be understood to be for the living only, or for both the living and departed. Anglican comprehensiveness allows for difference of interpretation on such matters. Anglicans believe that the Church, the body of Christ, encompasses the living and the faithful departed. Many believe it right to ask that God's perfect will be fulfilled in them and in us, and all can remember them before God and thank God for them.

The Communion of Saints

Who are the saints?
According to the New Testament the saints (Latin, sancti; Greek, hagioi; literally ‘holy people’) are all the members of the Christian church (Acts 9:13, Rom.1:7, 1 Cor.1:2, Eph.1:15, etc.). Christians are ‘holy people’, ‘saints’, not because they are morally perfect but because God has made them ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ (1 Peter 2:9). To be a ‘Saint’ is to be part of a community; the word is nearly always used in the plural in the New Testament, and refers to the important truth that Christians are not meant to live in lonely isolation but as members together in the body of Christ. The ‘saints’ to whom St Paul wrote in Corinth, for example, were far from being morally perfect; in fact, there were serious faults among them. Yet God had made them a holy people, and the apostle urged them to grow up into what God had made them.While all Christians are members of the holy people of God, it is obvious that they vary greatly in holiness, from the luke-warm to those of heroic sanctity. This was true even in the time of the New Testament itself. After that period the term ‘saint’ gradually came to be applied to those of outstanding holiness, especially the martyrs. The days of their deaths, if known, were observed as their ‘birthdays’ into eternal life. Christians thanked God for their holy lives and for the inspiration of their examples. They were conscious of their fellowship with the saints in their worship and in their everyday life. The celebration of saints’ days is a reminder of the calling of all of us.The Church of Ireland calendar appoints saints’ days for the Blessed Virgin Mary, Christ’s apostles and other notable disciples mentioned in the New Testament. It also includes great figures of the early Irish church, like Patrick, Columba and Brigid. Lesser-known saints, too, are remembered in the dedication of many of our churches.

Does the Church of Ireland pray to the saints?
In its authorised worship the Church of Ireland does not pray to the saints but with the saints. Our worship is addressed to God alone, but we are conscious of the saints, both living and departed, both the exceptional and the ordinary, as our fellow worshippers. Christ’s church includes the blessed dead along with those still on earth. We worship God ‘with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven’ (Eucharistic Prayer, BCP 2004), with ‘The glorious company of apostles… the noble fellowship of prophets… the white-robed army of martyrs’ (Te Deum). In addition we observe saints’ days when we thank God for their holy lives and pray that we may follow their examples. As well as those exceptional Christians to whom the church has given the title ‘saint’ we praise God for all those whose holiness is known to God alone on All Saints’ Day (1 November), remembering that we are ‘knit together’ with them ‘in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of [Christ]’ (Collect of All Saints’ Day). Hence ‘the communion of saints’ (Apostles’ Creed) is an important reality for our worship and our lives as Christians on earth.

Mary: Virgin and Mother

What special recognition is given to Mary in the Church of Ireland?
Mary's special position within God's purpose of salvation as 'God bearer' (theotokos) is recognised in a number of ways. The Church of Ireland affirms in the historic creeds that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and retains in the Church's calendar the following days on which Mary is especially honoured:

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also called The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin - 2nd February. Jewish law required a mother to offer a purification and thanksgiving sacrifice forty days after the birth of a child. Mary fulfilled this law when she and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple.

The Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary - 25th March. On this day the Church commemorates the choice of Mary to be the Saviour's mother. This message was conveyed to Mary by the Angel Gabriel, and she humbly accepted her role: 'Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word'.

The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary - 31st May. This day commemorates the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. The gospel reading includes Mary's song, the Magnificat, with the words 'henceforth all generations shall call me blessed'. The Magnificat is appointed for daily use in the Church of Ireland.

The Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary - 8th September. Because of the importance of Mary's role as the mother of Jesus, the Church celebrates her birth.

Does the Church of Ireland pray to Mary?
The liturgical tradition within the Church of Ireland has been to honour the saints, including Mary, without invocation. In other words, while we honour Mary, our prayers are offered only to God.

How does the teaching of the Church of Ireland about Mary compare with the teaching of other churches?
The Church of Ireland shares with all Christian churches a common faith in the Incarnation. Mary is honoured as the person through whom the one who is both divine and human was conceived and born. As the Church of Ireland does not consider belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and her Assumption to have an adequate basis in Holy Scripture, these feasts are not observed in the Church of Ireland.

Father, almighty and everliving God...
You chose the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son
and so exalted the humble and meek;
your angel hailed her as most highly favoured,
and with all generations we call her blessed:

Preface of the Annunciation,
Alternative Prayer Book,
p.68.

The above information copyright © 2002 & 2005 APCK