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Among the many things that can be said about Queen Elizabeth II, one of the most important is that she was a Christian. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, she was an Anglican through and through. Since her death, millions around the world have eulogized her and prayed for her. But do Anglicans pray for the dead? What do Anglicans believe about purgatory?
The answer to that question is not as straightforward as we might expect as Catholics. The 16th-century Anglican formulary known as the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion says, “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory … is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” This would seem to rule purgatory out entirely, and a significant number of Anglicans today still agree with that assessment. Yet the Thirty-Nine Articles have no binding doctrinal authority in Anglicanism, and many Anglicans today reject them.
Starting in the 1830s, a movement developed amongst Anglicans which called itself Anglo-Catholicism. Anglo-Catholics argued that Anglican churches are essentially Catholic churches that just happen to be out of communion with the pope. One of the great early leaders of this movement was St. John Henry Newman, who wrote in his infamous Tract 90, “Not every doctrine [of purgatory] is a fond thing, but the Romish doctrine. Accordingly, the Primitive doctrine is not condemned in it, unless, indeed, the Primitive Doctrine be the Romish, which must not be supposed.”
Newman is making reference back to the Thirty-Nine Articles and saying that they do not prohibit belief in an intermediate state after death in which we are purified, but only prohibit believing in a kind of purgatory in which God’s judgment on the eventual fate of our souls could be reversed, a position which he suggests that some “Romanists” believe. Newman’s views in Tract 90 were severely criticized at the time by his fellow Anglicans, and later he found that he could no longer maintain them. He became Catholic in 1845.
Nevertheless, the idea that one could believe in an intermediate state after death for purification has persisted among Anglicans since Newman.
C.S. Lewis, for instance, wrote in his book Letters to Malcolm that “Our souls demand Purgatory.” He says that praying for the dead, for their well being and purification, is the most natural thing in the world for a human being to do. “I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden.”
Yet like Newman, Lewis believed there to be a serious difference between his understanding of purgatory and the “Romish doctrine.” Citing Dante and St. Thomas More, Lewis suggests that for Catholics purgatory “is a place not of purification but purely of retributive punishment.”
The contemporary scholar N.T. Wright is one of the most prominent Anglican critics of the doctrine of purgatory. In his book Surprised by Hope, he argues that purgatory has no biblical grounding. Like Lewis and Newman, Wright sees a distinction between the medieval form of the Catholic teaching, which he describes as mostly punitive, and a modern, gentler form espoused by theologians like Karl Rahner and even Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger envisions purgatory as an encounter with Jesus Christ Himself, who burns away our imperfections. Wright says that “Ratzinger detached the doctrine of purgatory from the concept of an intermediate state and broke the link that in the Middle Ages gave rise to the idea of indulgences and so provided a soft target for Protestant polemic.” While Wright rejects Ratzinger’s view as much as he rejects the other, he insists that it is “a quite radical climb-down from Aquinas, Dante, Newman, and all that went in between.”
Wright is correct that a distinction exists, but the distinction is not between two different doctrines of purgatory. Many of the early fathers speak of a fire of God that purifies sinners after death. “As for certain lesser faults,” said St. Gregory the Great, “we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire.” This concept is not just patristic but also biblical. “If any man’s work is burned up,” says Paul, “he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). In 2 Maccabees 12:38-46, we see Judas Maccabeus praying and making “atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” Granted, introducing 2 Maccabees opens a whole different debate amongst Anglicans about whether or not the deuterocanonical books should be received as part of the biblical canon, but at a minimum it shows that the idea of purgatory is not simply a medieval concept.
Still, the doctrine does not take on its dogmatic form for Catholics until the Councils of Florence and Trent. The Catechism of Trent says that “the souls of just men are cleansed by a temporary punishment, in order to be admitted into their eternal country, into which nothing defiled entereth.” The emphasis in this period is often on the punishment of purgatory, especially in popular preaching. This could lead easily to misconceptions and fear.
Over the centuries, though, that emphasis has shifted. Purgatory is a form of punishment, but only in the same way that all penance is. It is not vengeful but rehabilitating. Just as exercise punishes the body, penance punishes the soul, not in a fruitless way but in a way that ultimately makes us stronger. In purgatory, whatever was lacking in our penance during our lifetimes, God supplies. Purgatory is not merely a sign of God’s justice but is primarily a sign of His love. As the Catechism today describes it, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). The doctrine of purgatory shows us that the cross of Christ overcomes not only our sin but even the wounds that our sin leaves behind.
The queen’s own thoughts on purgatory went with her to the grave. The role of the British crown with respect to the Church of England is analogous to its role in governing the kingdom. Just as the queen was punctilious in not making statements on public policy, she was equally careful not to wade into matters of theological controversy. Anglicanism has no binding teaching on the matter, and if you ask five Anglicans you are likely to get six different opinions.
Still, many Anglicans do offer prayers for the repose of the queen’s soul, and as Catholics we join our prayers with theirs. One of the most beautiful things about Catholic teaching on purgatory is that God allows us to participate in the healing of others. In a mysterious way, God uses our prayers as a means of administering the balm of Christ’s love to the wounded souls of sinners like ourselves. Our prayers for Her Majesty will endure as a gift to her long after the fanfare of her funeral is a distant memory.