Some thoughts about praying for the dead

Hello everyone.  We’ve had a ton of great response from having Ian Morgan Cron with us a couple weeks ago, leading us through a liturgical experience of the Kyrie Eleison.  Thanks for welcoming a brother from another tradition, and being willing to be guided into some new (very old, actually!) places.

A few of you raised the concern about the one line of prayer that mentioned praying “for those who have departed.”  After a number of conversations, I wanted to share a couple thoughts and reflections…

First, thanks so much for speaking up honestly and kindly!  The spirit by which you’ve raised this concern has been full of grace.

Second, specifically, we weren’t praying for the salvation or conversion of the dead, they were just included in our prayer for God to have mercy on us all.  Many believers have differing bible-based beliefs about how God interacts with people after death (The Apostle Peter seems to teach that Jesus descended into Hell and preached to the spirits there in 1 Peter 3:18-19, which really confuses me!  This whole conversation is a profound mystery.), but I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable praying for the salvation of the deceased.  Although I am open to learning from those who sincerely hold another view.

That being said, I think we should have cut the prayer for those who have died from last weekend’s liturgy.

After a kind but very concerned email from a member of Willow, we followed up with an expert on liturgy, and here’s what he said:

“She has made a good observation.

Anglicans have always believed it good to offer thanks for those whose lives have touched ours and to even be afforded the opportunity to release them to the hands of a caring and merciful God.  Only in the past few years (probably 1979 with the introduction of a new BCP) did the language of the POP begin to change to reflect a more ancient Catholic theology of praying for the salvation of souls already departed.

Indeed this is questionable so at our church we often ‘re write’ these intercessions to reflect our historic understanding.

I might also add that it is not ‘wrong’ to pray for mercy for anyone living or dead… it is just that scripture is silent on this issue and since the reformation it has been argued that unless there is biblical precedent then it is of no or little value.”

I found that to be some helpful context.

So again, if we ever do these prayers again, we will either cut the prayer to those who have died, or do a more responsible handling of it.  Thank so much for all of you who raised the question and did it in such a gracious way. It’s an honor to get to be a part of this community. Blessings!


Posted by Aaron Niequist on 10.25.11 under Lead Worship, Weekend Experience.

2 Responses to “Some thoughts about praying for the dead”

  1. Thanks for your response. I appreciate the clairification.

    Posted by Karol Nusbaum on 12/13/09 October 25th, 2011 at 6:22 pm

  2. Hi Aaron,
    I saw the title of this and it caught my eye. I am glad that you are willing to discuss this with an open mind. I actually do not attend Willow Creek, but love all that you guys do for Social Justice. Anyway, while I wasn’t there so I can’t be sure about how this was handled I have in the past sang the chant Kyrie Eleison. I am encouraged that Willow Creek is not afraid to allow other traditions into their liturgy. As to the subject of praying for the dead, I think that one can be hopeful that their judgement may not be determined yet and still hold to an orthodox faith.

    First, I believe you’ll find that scripture teaches that the gospel is actually even preached to them.

    1 Pet. 4:6 says
    “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”

    However, I’ve heard this explained away by people saying that Peter meant those that were alive before but are now dead, I do disagree with this interpretation, but that aside many church fathers have found the grace of God so overwhelming and the victory of Christ so absolute that they feel there may be hope in the afterlife.

    For example, in a letter to Hanseu Von Rechenberg (1522), Martin Luther wrote:
    “God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future.”

    There are certainly other examples and many more dating even before Luther, but that being said, I think that the concept of praying for mercy on the dead is to me no different than praying for the salvation of those currently living. Salvation is always a divine mystery for anyone. Thanks again for your blog. I enjoyed reading and will probably keep tuning in now.

    Blessings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!

    Posted by Kristen on 12/13/09 November 3rd, 2011 at 12:04 am

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