Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on All Souls' Day 2016
Start Date 2nd Nov 2016 5:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Yesterday we celebrated All God’s Saints, that great company of men and women and children whom the Church has recognised as holy and exemplary, those especially who have no annual feast or remembrance, but whom we believe and trust to enjoy the bliss of heaven.

In my sermon yesterday, I mentioned the increasingly prevalent popular marking of Hallowe’en in this country and wondered whether those who keep it have any idea what Hallowe’en means: that it is the eve of All Hallows, of All Saints. I said then that Hallowe’en originated as an opportunity to stare death in the face and dare it to do its worst, to mock death and make fun of it, to tame it with ridicule and put it in its place.

This is of course not that easy. Death is still all around us. The prospect of our own death may seem to many of us very distant. But we shall all die, sooner or later. For many of us it is possible to believe it will come later. The psalmist tells us, ‘The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years, yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow; so soon passeth it away, and we are gone.’ I suppose if we were to reach beyond four score years and ten, it would indeed be ‘but labour and sorrow.’ And there are still people who die far too young.

Two days ago we marked the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther pinning 95 theses to the wall of Wittenberg Church and thus setting in train the Protestant Reformation, which was to have so great an impact in this country and in many of the countries of northern Europe especially and therefore also of the New World. On 31st October next year we shall hold a great ecumenical service of celebration marking the half millennium of that act.

One of the reasons for the Reformation was an ever-increasing anxiety about what would happen to people after their death. We see it here as the medieval period developed. Henry V who died in 1422 had a chantry chapel built over his tomb so that the monks could say masses for the forgiveness of his sins, for the repose of his soul. The stairs are so worn, over only a hundred years, that the monks must have been up and down there every hour, I would think. This had not been how people thought earlier in the Middle Ages. But it was how people thought coming up to the Reformation. And Luther objected.

The particular error that hangs in the mind and to which Luther objected was the sale of indulgences. Now, that might be a vulgar way of putting it. The papacy needed to raise money for the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The people needed to give the money if the building was to be completed. And someone had the bright idea that people also needed to have the assurance that when they died they would not burn in hell eternally, or suffer the torments of purgatory for hundreds or thousands of years before finally making it into heaven. A papal indulgence and especially a plenary indulgence would give them that assurance: prayers offered for the pope’s intention, perhaps an act of self-sacrifice, a decent act of contrition and confession, receiving Holy Communion after absolution. All these together would give people confidence that purgatory might not be too tough. Why not make it possible for the act of self-sacrifice to be cash given? That could then work together for good: St Peter’s built and people happy. Well, Luther was not happy. It looked as though indulgences were being sold. And in any case, he came to think, there was no purgatory anyway. The state in which you died – forgiven or not – would determine where you spent the rest of eternity: in heaven or hell.

So the Church of England after the Reformation much influenced by the Reformers, by Martin Luther and the more radical Swiss churchman John Calvin, made no provision for All Souls’ Day or for prayer for the departed. So it might have gone on, until a hundred or so years ago.

Earlier this year we marked in the Abbey the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. This was the great allied offensive that sought to break out from the terrible stalemate of trench warfare. It failed. After four months or so, the battle was suspended. And although there would come a time when trench warfare had come to an end and the allies would break out into movement and ultimately success in the last months of the First World War, this was not the case in 1916. Then the loss of life was devastating. On the first day of the Battle a hundred years ago, in the first hour, 20,000 men of the allied forces, mostly of the British and imperial forces, lost their lives. In the first hour.

Up and down the country, families mourned the loss of their sons. Those who died in that battle, as throughout the First World War, were not people in the full maturity of adulthood, proud parents and successful men of affairs. They were the emerging generation: young men who had volunteered below the official age, deceiving the recruiting sergeant; the great majority of them were boys of 17 or 18, perhaps up to 21 or 22. From their parents’ point of view they were scarcely out of nappies; they had no chance to live, to work; few of them were married, though they might well have sweethearts longing for them at home.

In an age that still felt the weight of Christian faith, how could they not remember their beloved dead, their young sons and brothers and nephews and cousins and grandchildren, in their prayers? How could they not pray for them to have a better life than the bitter experience they had suffered in the years or months or days before their untimely death? Of course, they must. And so they did. And the Church began to bend from its stiff Protestant ways, and in a prayer book published ten years after the end of the First World War, it was possible to pray for the dead.

The Church of England has had its moments of debate since then, but for most of us prayer for the dead has become normal, part of our duty and our privilege, just as we pray for the living. We are probably not praying in a focused and determined fashion for the dead to be freed from the pains of purgatory. It is less clear than that and, although for many of us the thought of moving from the moment of our earthly life and sudden death into an immediate confrontation with the beauty and love and glory of God is intimidating, even so we do not have a developed understanding of a process of purgation or healing or renewal before we stand before the judgement seat. Even so, we remember the dead, our beloved dead in particular, in our prayers. And we trust in the mercy of God that he will deal kindly and generously with them and, even though we cannot really conceive what it will be to be in the presence of God, we pray that God will give them a place of light and happiness and peace in his presence.

So, today, on All Souls’ Day, as we commemorate the faithful departed, we remember that great company of people who have lived the Christian life, who have been no more perfect than the saints are perfect, and who have gone before us sealed with the Spirit. May we say of them, as we say of the saints, that they rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no one can number whose hope was in the Word made flesh? I believe we can in hope and prayer.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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