26 December 2022

Pelagianism and Prayer for the Departed

Some time ago we took buses to Shipton-under-Wychwood (don't we have entrancing place-names in England?) and did a walk in the valley of the Evenlode (and beautiful river names?). In Shipton church is a palimpsest brass.

The 'front' bears an inscription about a woman who died in 1548. Interestingly, it bears no hint of expectation that it might be appropriate to pray for the repose of her soul. This calls for explanation: out in the Oxfordshire backwoods in 1549 the people rose in rebellion against the Prayer Book. So you don't expect to find there evidence of a Protestantism which by then had made little progress beyond some very small areas in the East of England. But the inscription cheerfully assured us that her virtues and her virtuous deeds had undoubtedly brought her straight to heaven.

You don't need to remind me that this assumption is not quite what poor dear Fraterculus Luther thought he meant when he was plugging Justification By Faith Alone. But it is in line with the tens of thousands of funerary inscriptions dating from the ensuing Protestant centuries, postulating certain and immediate sainthood for every deceased person on account of their unbelievably virtuous lives (there is that old story about a little girl who read the gravestones in a churchyard and asked "Mummy, where are all the bad people buried?"). 

I wonder if anyone has ever written an interpretative account of how the academic doctrinaire Protestantism of Luther and Calvin (Faith, not Works) led with such immediate and apparently automatic ease to its precise and polar opposite (Works), a practical popular Pelagianism.

I do have a theory about this. It is that it was precisely the much-derided 'chantry' system, with its financial link between clergy remuneration and masses for the welfare of the souls of the Faithful Departed, which de facto reminded common unacademic medievals that we are all sinners who depend upon God's gracious mercy for our salvation. De facto, take that away and common unacademic folk, needing to fill a conceptual vacuum, will replace it in their own minds with the assumption that since the recently departed Mary Smith doesn't need Masses said for her soul - the government has just declared this and has sequestrated all the assets of all the chantries - ergo if we love Ms Smith we need to be convinced that her good deeds outweigh any sins. 

It becomes psychologically important to shy away in our minds from the disturbing consequence that, if this is not so, then she is, er, in Hell. 

Moreover, if there is no Purgatory, then she is already in Heaven ... or Hell. So ... this is my tentative hypothetical proposal ... the paradoxical emphasis in popular Protestantism upon salvation by works (which is ultimately to feed into a facile Universalism which assumes that everybody except probably Adolf Hitler and Myra Hindley will end up Saved), emerged in 1548 from a mass crisis of popular rethinking about soteriology and the Departed.

On the back of the brass, in the reused original dating from 1492, we have a potent reminder of the complex and deep-rooted system which was destroyed by the suppression of the chantries. It is an account of bequests to the Guild of our Lady in Aylesbury for Masses and Dirges. Presumably it came on to the market in the despoliations which followed the suppression of the chantries (statute of December 1547). 

It reminded me of the manuscript* description of endowments made by Sir John Percival, Lord Mayor of London in the reign of the first Tudor, which hung by his tomb in the London City church of S Mary Woolnoth; presumably such public declarations were at least partly intended to ensure the compliance of future generations in fulfilling the dispositions.

*Rediscovered at the back of a cupboard in S Mary Woolnoth; the interested can find an account in a piece I published in 2007 in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association (they might also reread Duffy Stripping pp 515ff.). Sir John's document survived because, amid all the provisions for masses for his soul, which will have become obsolete in 1548, there were a few other provisions for benefactions which did not thus become obsolete. A later hand has marked these surviving provisions with an arrow in the margin.


GOR said...

It would appear, Father, that we have come full circle today. Gone are prayers "for the repose of the soul of..." replaced with "a celebration of the life of..." Rarely does one hear a "Lord have mercy on him/her" upon being informed of a death. Obituaries in the newspaper make for depressing reading these days.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Father. There has nerve been any reason for concern about those who died outside of the Catholic Church because our new Catechism, promulgated by Pope Saint John Paul II, teaches in entry # 819, that Christ's spirit uses those churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation.

armyarty said...

At least some people must have left off requests for prayers in order to hide their true feelings in the Tudor police state.

Even on the eve of the American Revolution there were many Catholics attending Anglican church services in New York strictly for appearance's sake.

Your point on faith/works is very interesting. Look at the Methodists- they were all about works, and have now, apparently, totally abandoned Christ.

All those wonderful hymns, with nobody to sing them (at least with actual conviction)