When clerics conduct memorial services, do they declare that the deceased person has been welcomed safely into the arms of Jesus, or do they merely pray that this would be the case? The theological and pastoral difficulties involved in this question are enormous, and we ought to reflect on what message we are proclaiming and, indeed, what we are doing in burial or memorial services: Declaring salvation, or praying for it?
The Book of Common Prayer
Depending on the liturgy clergy use, they are likely doing both. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer the “priest and clerks” begin by declaring God’s promise to save his children from the cords of death. As the liturgy progresses, though, declaration gives way to supplication. At one point the minister cries out to God, asking him to “deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death” (p. 455). As the service concludes, there is a final shift, this time from supplication back to declaration: “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to receive unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground” (p. 455).
In the BCP the service moves back and forth between declaration and supplication, culminating in declarative confidence regarding answered prayer. This liturgical fluidity has a context.
First, it is administered on behalf of deceased Christians. The first appointed Sentence makes this perfectly clear: “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (p. 451). The liturgy follows from this starting point, taking for granted the faith of the deceased person in Jesus Christ. This presumed faith is behind the BCP’s blurred distinction between supplication and declaration.
Second — and this is where things get interesting — the BCP reflects a society in which the church and the nation are presumed to be coterminous. The BCP makes no provisions for the burial of the unbaptized or excommunicated. Indeed, such a provision would have been an affront to the quintessentially Anglican vision of the commonwealth of the Church of England.
The question for contemporary Anglicans then is: “What happens when the burial liturgy of a commonwealth church is imported into a very different cultural context, one in which only a small percentage of people profess faith in Christ?”
One answer is simple: Thousands of deceased non-Christians receive priestly prayers, some of which declare that they have already been welcomed into heaven.
But what about other liturgies used in Canada and the broader Anglican Communion? Do they move between declaration and supplication? My sense is that contemporary liturgical standards — such as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in the Episcopal Church, the 1987 Book of Alternative Services in the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Church of England’s Common Worship — have inherited the tension I have been describing. But they tend to emphasize supplication over declaration. That being said, I suspect that there is still a lot of wiggle room. A lot depends on whether the cleric in charge follows authorized rites.
I had the unfortunate privilege of conducting a memorial service for my cousin’s deceased 11-month-old son three months ago at a large nondenominational church, although I was not the one preaching. Since this infant died outside of the peace of the Church, I had presumed that the message delivered from the front would be that because God is good, we would be so bold as to pray that God would remember this little boy. I was surprised to find, however, that the others involved in the service embraced a different position. They boisterously declared the message that “We don’t have to worry because we know he is in heaven now.”
This first message was accompanied by a second one directed towards the little boy’s parents: “We need to believe in Jesus in order to be saved.” I couldn’t help but think that if I were a non-Christian listening in, I would have been sincerely puzzled. In the end, I probably would have concluded that there is no reason to believe in Jesus because all you have to do to be with him is die.
The most obvious way out of this contradiction is to follow early evangelical leader Augustus Toplady (1740-78). According to Toplady, God has two sets of rules: one for infants, and one for everybody else. Thus, the only way to be sure you’ll end up in heaven is to die very, very young. Sounds to me like a Modest Proposal.
One alternative is to extend Toplady’s vision to all unbaptized persons and embrace Universalism. For many of us, such an embrace makes perfect sense, for it is already implied by the manner in which we conduct memorial services.
The Universalist simply lets go of the tension between supplication and declaration that I have described. For the Universalist, memorial services can only be times of declaration. But to be fair, Universalism isn’t the only thing that might compel us to emphasize the declarative. Praying in faith, our Pentecostal brothers and sisters remind us, means offering declarative prayers, claiming God’s infinite resources that are already ours in Christ. The Catholic idea of priestly authority based on Jesus’ words to Peter pushes in this direction as well: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).
Along these lines we might even want to follow the practice of Roman Catholic missionary priests in east Africa, baptizing whole villages without worrying much about their appropriation of the Christian faith, and therefore, their consent. Generally speaking, though, baptism is a tricky matter, since people rarely let you baptize them against their will. And this means, alas, evangelism! It is much easier simply to wait for people to die before we declare them to be Christ’s own. The deceased tend to be fairly compliant. I say this in jest, but there is a very real sense in which our burial practices seem to have made evangelism unnecessary.
I will share something of my experience. When I’ve been a part of services in which deceased non-Christians have been ushered into the courts of heaven I’ve felt bad on their behalf. Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that I don’t want them in heaven. The problem, rather, is that we didn’t let their life speak.
The life of the deceased Christian fits within the liturgy hand in glove. But when a deceased non-Christian is placed within it the liturgy easily becomes a straightjacket. The liturgy contorts the life of the deceased and the deceased, in turn, contorts the liturgy. More often than not, in the end the service ends up looking something like this.
The priest stands up and tells us something about how nice it is that God is nice. Then some friends or family members stand up and tell us that John really was a nice guy (even if he wasn’t). Then the priest shares how nice it is that since God is nice, he loves nice guys. The service concludes when John, the nice guy, is declared to have been welcomed into God’s nice embrace.
This kind of memorial service fails to acknowledge John’s unique characteristics and the decisions he made during his life. It fails to attach any importance to the specific things that made John’s life what it was, to the decisions he made along the way. Honoring John means taking seriously the fact that John didn’t much care for Jesus, and was never to be caught dead in a church.
Memorial services are important events, pastorally and theologically. What counts, from the perspective of our parishioners, even more than the content of our creeds, is the theology we endorse through our common worship: lex orandi, lex credendi. I can stand in my pulpit week after week and tell people they need to believe in Jesus and give their whole lives to him and so on and so forth. But if at every memorial service I perform, I declare that someone that did nothing of the sort has been ushered into heaven, they will take note. And because they will take note, you shouldn’t expect to see them in church next Sunday.
A theology of death should be accompanied by a healthy dose of agnosticism, since what happens after death is up to God and not to us. Supplication should therefore be our constant companion as we wrestle with the deaths of Christians and non-Christians alike. This being said, in Scripture we are given the manifold promise that God will remember the righteous (Ps. 112:6). This promise is the basis of what the BCP rightly affirms, that memorial services held for Christians have a second ingredient: declaration.
How, then, are we to respond to the friends and relatives of deceased non-Christians? What are we to say to the person who looks into our eyes with tears streaming down their face? The pastoral pressure, in such instances, is enormous. So too is the need for truth.
I wonder whether Ephraim Radner isn’t onto something. And so I commend the answer I have heard him commend: “I don’t know where John is right now. But I do know that God is good.”
 Brian Cummings, ed., The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 451.
 Augustus Toplady, The Works of Augustus Toplady, B.A. (London, 1841), p. 58.
 This brings to mind what Dallas Willard calls “Bar-code” Christianity in his 1998 book The Divine Conspiracy. Bar-code Christianity takes for granted that people are what they are declared to be, regardless of what they are in actual fact.
 Charles Taylor’s discussion of the separation of the immanent from the transcendent in A Secular Age helps us out here.
Great topic – thank you for starting the conversation. I wonder if there are not a few other questions to add in here beginning with the difference between the funeral and the memorial service (the former commending the dead to God as a fundamental action of the liturgy), second, our ongoing pilgrimage to God after death (otherwise the prayers of most Anglican prayer books would make no sense – there is not an assumption that physical death is the end of growth, and third, because we cannot ‘know’ but only pray for, I completely agree with your sense of overstating… Read more »
Hi Lizette, You raise a lot of questions surrounding burial rites and I agree with you–they are many. 1 and 3. The difference between the funeral and the memorial service. I’m no expert here but I hope that traditional liturgies help us out; they do focus on commendation and prayer. The question, I guess, is whether stuffing the contemporary desire for memorializing and celebrating into these liturgies contorts them, or obscures this focus. I think a funeral service can probably do both. But this is worth talking about. 2. I wonder if there isn’t a tension here, rather than a… Read more »
I’ve been reflecting on this post this week. I attended a memorial service at the end of August where this particular question was on my mind. At General Synod this summer, there were many accusations of “judgement” being tossed around. Yet perhaps the way we approach death is one of the most judgemental processes within the Church? Here we are rendering judgement when we say that someone is in heaven. Yet we do not know that, and what we ultimately do through that is offer false hope and security. This reminded me in turn of Bp FitzSimons Allison’s classic The… Read more »