On the Collect for the Departed

A whole bunch of things are swirling around in my brain around the dead, saints, and theology thanks to discussions about the SCLM report, the talks I’m going to be doing in Atlanta next weekend (more on this in a little bit!), and the latest edition of the Collect Call which focused on the collect for the Departed.  If you’re not listening to the Collect Call and/or recommending it to your parishioners, you really ought to be. Brendan and Holli do a great job of looking at the collects and discussing the theology in them in a very accessible way. A few points, some in response to the episode, others that I just think need to be said…

1. Baptismal Ecclesiology!!

I don’t like it when certain liturgical, biblical, or theological phrases are co-opted by church politics and their functional meaning is reduced to address a very specific issue. I’ve often said that I fear this is the case with the phrase “baptismal ecclesiology.” A plain and literal meaning of this phrase means that we are talking about Church as it is fundamentally and uniquely formed by Baptism and the necessary and inherent corollaries of that fact. The way that it tends to get used in church talk, though, is to indicate either a construct of the church as a non-hierarchical institution (oddly, this perspective seems to be insisted upon by certain priests and leaders who impose it in a hierarchical kind of way…) or following the catch-phrase for Integrity “all the sacraments for all the baptized” promoting the full inclusion of lgbt folks in the life of the church.

Now, personally, while I totally support the roles of bishops, priests, and deacons and acknowledge an inherent hierarchy there, I am for a less hierarchical practice of being church. As I was saying to a clergy friend on Facebook, as a layman I do get tired of “clergysplaining”—when someone dismisses me on the basis that they wear a collar and I don’t. Also, I do support the full inclusion of lgbt folks in the church. However, the apparent attempt to reduce the term “baptismal ecclesiology” to these two specific referrents drives me crazy.

If we say that we are interested in and care about a true baptismal ecclesiology, then it means thinking through all of the various aspects of what that means—and that was one of my big beefs with Holy Women, Holy Men. This collect gets it exactly right:

Eternal Lord God, you hold all souls in life: Give to your whole Church in paradise and on earth your light and your peace; and grant that we, following the good examples of those who have served you here and are now at rest, may at the last enter with them into your unending joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This is precisely an expression of baptismal ecclesiology! The church consists of all the baptized, not just the-baptized-who-happen-to-be-bodily-living-right-now. This is part of why getting our theology of sanctity and saints right is important! All souls who have been baptized are, in the words of Colossians, “hid with Christ in God” and are plugged into the life of God in a greater and grander way than before. The physically dead still remain part of our community—which is the entire logic of church-yard cemetaries.

We need to be thinking and talking about baptismal ecclesiology in its broader sense and not just allow it to be narrowed for use as political language.

2. When to Use This Collect

The collects for Various Occasions grew out of the old notion of votive masses. Briefly, with a multiplication of priests who were each bound to say a daily mass, early medieval monasteries and cathedrals needed something else to celebrate other than the Mass of the Day from the Temporal cycle as that mass could only be celebrated once. The solution was votives. Masses were said for particular intentions and a standard weekly pattern evolved:

John Beleth in the thirteenth century describes a series of votive Masses once said (fuit quoddam tempus) each day in the week: on Sunday, of the Holy Trinity; Monday, for charity; Tuesday, for wisdom; Wednesday, of the Holy Ghost; Thursday, of the Angels; Friday, of the Cross; Saturday, of the Blessed Virgin (Explic. div. offic., 51).  (Ibid.)

These changed over the centuries as certain causes and personages waxed and waned in the church’s favor. However, take a look at these and then at the first several items appointed for Various Occasions: “Of the Holy Trinity,” “Of the Holy Spirit,” “Of the Holy Angels,” “Of the Holy Cross,” etc. Coincidence? No.

One of the most common votives throughout history in the Christian West was the Requiem—the Mass for the Dead. It was said for a particular person on the day they died, the third day after they died (in token of the resurrection), then on the anniversaries: the week (7 days later), the month (30 days later), and then yearly from then on. In some times and places, the Mass for the Dead for the community (rather than for a specific individual) was said on any ferial day. In some places, the pratice was to do a solemn Requiem for the whole community on the first Friday of every month. Some priests were paid stipends in wills to say daily Masses of the Dead for wealthy benefactors.

Most modern Christians tend to look askance at these sorts of practices, and—partly due to Reformation polemics—tend to see the last practice of bequeathing masses as a bald tactic by the Church for diverting the fortunes of the faithful into their coffers. I’m not saying that there isn’t truth to this critique, but I also have to point out that, due in part to this focus, the medieval church had a far better sense of the expanse of a baptismally-shaped church than we do!

In addition, the Offices for the Dead were supplemental versions of the Office prayed in addition to the regular hours on behalf of the dead. In some places, these offices were done at particular set times, in others it was done every day. Again, thinking of late medieval wills, some of the wealthy set aside money to be paid out to poor men who would pray the Office of the Dead daily for them.

This constant prayer for the dead generally and specific dead individuals helped retain a sense of community through time, seeing the living and the dead in close communion. If we were serious about a baptismal ecclesiology, this might be a practice worth considering. Hence, I include both the Traditional form and a Contemporary form of the Offices of the Dead at the St. Bede’s Breviary. Note that the aforementioned collect is the one used in these offices.

3. No Prayers for the Dead in “I Will Bless You…”

Huh… I hadn’t realized that. I’ll have to poke around and find out what’s up with this.



4 thoughts on “On the Collect for the Departed

  1. Brendan

    Thanks for these comments! but one mea culpa, which will obviously merit a future retraction. I misremembered the reason we brought in the prayer for the dead from the BCP marriage rite. there is an optional mention of the dead in “I will bless you…” but we just liked the BCP version better. like, a lot better. so we replaced the concluding collect. So SCLM did their job in remembering the dead – so my remarks are just a recommended improvement from a user of an otherwise excellent liturgical text.

  2. writers per hour

    I’ve never really thought of Baptismal Ecclesiology in these terms. You are right if “we are interested in and care about a true baptismal ecclesiology, then it means thinking through all of the various aspects of what that means” — I would like to point out that many times I’ve came across some people that were so closed off to see new perspectives and were just scared to think differently. I am not even surprised that some would be opposing new thoughts about it altogether.
    P.S. Kudos for the term “clergysplaining”!

  3. Dennis

    Thanks for this excellent article. One of the great gifts of BCP1928 was its letting bloom the accumulated experience of human beings, including Christians, throughout the ages of connectedness with those who have gone before. BCP1979 brought this tendency to full flower. I served in parish ministry for 33 years and as chaplain and director of pastoral care with a Church-related senior care community for 10 years. Most residents in our care were from other than Episcopal traditions. I soon learned that one of the great gifts I could share with residents and their families and friends, as they found themselves grappling with end of life issues, and the staff and volunteers and community as a whole, as they found themselves trying to deal creatively with the daily reality of death and dying, was this Prayer Book insight about the nature of the Church and human community, our solidarity with those we see no longer. That and the proclamation in the Preface for the Departed and the vocabulary of those prayers that talk about continued growth in God’s love and service, going from strength to strength, being received more and more into God’s service of joy added immeasurably, I believe, the texture and quality of life we were able to offer in that senior care community. It is a gift for the whole Church.

    But do tell me about “priests who were each bound to say a daily mass.” There is no such canonical binding today. What’s the history of that? Thanks again for the excellent article.

  4. Pingback: Talking Saints with The Collect Call | The St. Bede Blog

Comments are closed.