THE Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

On the morning of Easter Saturday I sat in our church, stripped of any decoration, and in the silence I thought about what Jesus did on that day between his death and his resurrection.  It is known as The Harrowing of Hell, when Jesus descended to the dead (who all went to the same place, also known as Sheol), and brought salvation to all the righteous from the beginning of time.  After the Resurrection, when death had been destroyed, people had to work out anew what happened after death.  Dismas the Good Thief was offered a place directly in Paradise, so where do believers go?  There seemed to be a clear choice – heaven or paradise for the righteous, the shady nothingness of Hades for the unrighteous.  Over time that clarity faded, and our human fear crept in so that Purgatory began to be mentioned, a place where salvation could be worked on for those ‘not quite’ good enough for heaven.  And with it came the ways (prayers and penances) in which salvation could be earned…and there is issue that the Reformers had with it – earning salvation.

There is more to Article XXII than just Purgatory.  If we look at all the elements, it is about idolatry, plain and simple.  I believe that for the Reformers this almost random collection of doctrines to be dismissed were things which they believed had got in the way of the people drawing closer to God.  And if this is the case, then I agree with them.  All and any of these things only have a purpose if it is to point to Jesus.  If they don’t do that, then they become an idol and a stumbling block.

It’s a broad collection, though, and I would separate purgatory and pardons from images, relics and the invocation of the saints.  Purgatory and pardons were hoops inserted by men in authority for others to jump through, thereby subsuming the power of God and diminishing the wonderful grace of salvation through faith.

The other things I believe have always had the potential to inspire us to greater holiness.  The stories of Christian heroes as they lived out Christ-like lives and acted as witnesses to Jesus should point, like John the Baptist did, to Jesus.  They are icons, not idols; and we are meant to see through and beyond them to our Lord.

Equally, I have no issue with asking for prayers from the saints, dead or alive.  When someone is sick and they ask me to pray for them, I do so; and I ask for prayers in return.  I believe in the communion of saints, and when I am alone and afraid, confused or disheartened, I feel comfort and strength by asking for those who have gone through much worst times to pray for me.  The prayers of saints triumphant still go through our one Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ.

But anything can become an idol.  In the cultural landscape where I live, idolatry is often spoken of as something which is attached to secular concepts – fame and celebrity, money, possessions, even the sense of being in control and having choice.  For Christians that poses the risk of making idolatry being something which happens ‘out there’.  But Christians are just as at risk of making idols within our faith.

Neither is idolatry something which is limited to a particular tradition.  Because the Reformation brought about iconoclasm, which impacted so much on our cultural memory, it would be easy to fall back into lazy stereotypes that it is Catholics with their rituals and statues that are susceptible to idolatry. Every person is capable of getting lost in a particular item, so much so that once was a way to Christ becomes the stumbling block.  Even the Holy Scriptures, the inspired Word of God, can become an idol if it is treated in a way that either puts it above all other revelations of God or is interpreted and used in such a way that it actually prevents others from coming to know God.  So too the use of the Cross, if we find ourselves worshipping the physical cross rather than being taken by it into the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the lines do become blurred, and people move back and forth over them.  But if we attempted to get rid of everything material in Christianity and tried to live solely in the realm of hearts and minds, we would not only be losing much which helps people with their faith, we would be naively denying the reality of the Incarnation, which is that the Word was made Flesh in order to redeem the world.  Material things matter.

It is our motive which must be examined here.  Why are using an item in our faith?  How is it drawing me closer to God?  God knows if our worship has become hollow, simply actions done by rote or played out for the view of others.  In the readings of Morning Prayer on Easter Saturday God spoke through the prophet Hosea, and it was on the heart that God was focused:

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.” (Hosea 6.6)

There are times when we are struggling in our faith, and being carried by other people and the patterns of worship enables us to take time to gather ourselves and be renewed.  It isn’t where we should stay all the time, but there is no denying that we all need different ways of being nurtured at different times.  The important thing is that whatever they are, they must point to Jesus.

O ALMIGHTY God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship,
in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord:
Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living,
that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

The Collect for All Saints’ Day, Book of Common Prayer




(Picture: Duccio di Buoninsegna’s ‘Descent to Hell’, C14th)