What do we owe the dead?

Medieval Historian, Charlotte Gauthier delves into the past, through a Rowan Williams shaped lens to ask our ancestors to assist in making sense of modernity and the purpose of the prayer of the Church.

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage. (Psalm 16:6)

As a medievalist, I must admit often feeling more comfortable amongst the dead than the living. Certainly I spend more time with the former, attempting to understand from their preserved words and the records of their deeds what sort of people they were and why they did what they did.

Medieval and early modern writers believed the chief purpose of history to be moral instruction. By considering the past, students of history were expected to learn how to act virtuously in the present. Historical perspective was also seen as a necessary check and corrective to spiritual pride. The poet Thomas Hoccleve recommended the study of history as a useful antidote to heretical beliefs arising from over-indulgence in contemporary debates.

Hoccleve was right.

Rowan Williams’ book Why Study the Past? (Eerdmans: 2005) ought to be required reading for any would-be liturgical or theological innovator. Williams argues convincingly that history provides us with a deeply nourishing sense of where we have come from and how we have developed morally, and that ‘we shall emerge from the study of the past with some greater fullness of Christian maturity’. Nevertheless, Williams’ careful, cogent argument cedes a basic and fatal premise to the would-be iconoclast: he implies that we are self-evidently more moral than our ancestors by virtue of living later than them, and therefore having learnt lessons that were unavailable to them at their stage of history. This prepares the way for those who, in the name of humanitarianism or public safety, would cut us off from certain historical ways of thinking about human flourishing.

And cut us off they have. Much that was helpful and life-sustaining in our tradition has been, or is being, sacrificed on the altar of modernity for a variety of plausible-seeming reasons. The coronavirus pandemic has brought this long-standing problem into sharper focus, as we have (in some cases willingly) sacrificed our basic freedom to worship and accepted the classification of private and communal prayer as a ‘leisure activity’ ancillary to our charitable endeavours.

It is difficult to tell whether the decline in the understanding of prayer as the distinctive vocation of the Church is the cause or effect of a lack of belief in its efficacy, for the situation is self-reinforcing. Prayer can often lack the personal satisfaction of ‘doing something’ concrete and the immediate, visible effect of the work in the eyes of the world. This is a desperate irony: in response to declining belief and declining numbers, churches have turned to demonstrating ‘results’ and proving worth in purely humanitarian terms, which detracts from the distinctive nature of the Church and may perpetuate decline, or at least allow it to go unchecked.

A historical understanding of the Church’s purpose and of the means of human flourishing is a life centred on prayer. This was not just for priests and vowed religious: fifteenth-century writers like Walter Hilton wrote treatises for England’s thriving literate merchant class on how to integrate contemplative practice into the active, secular life. The Book of Common Prayer sought to support a regular pattern of devotion in the English layman. In the twentieth century, writers like Fr Martin Thornton sought to revive the ‘threefold regula’ of daily Office, regular reception of the Eucharist, and private devotion.

Our forebears understood that good works emerge from our faith and from our discharge of the duty and joy of prayer, both individually and – crucially – in community with our friends and neighbours in Christ. Surely our witness would be more efficacious if it was obvious that the food banks or homeless shelters or support groups we run were the fruits of a regular practice of prayer on behalf of ourselves and our communities, and if we trusted the Spirit to give the increase in our numbers, as He did for our forefathers. This is precisely what has not been in evidence during the first UK coronavirus lockdown, as church-run food banks were allowed to remain open as a vital service to the community, while churches themselves were closed for prayer even by a priest alone. If God is who He says He is, prayer is the more vital community service.

This lesson seems to have been partially learnt – but only partially. During the second UK lockdown, churches will be allowed to remain open for private prayer. While this will provide a lifeline to those who suffered alone and in silence during the first lockdown (including those of no faith who nevertheless sought out churches as a place of solace and found them shuttered and dark), the prohibition of communal worship cuts us off from the core of our faith – from gathering with our friends and neighbours to share in the Eucharist.

This is a crucial point about God’s action in the world. The Bible constantly refers to history, and is itself in large part a history – the history of a community. In the Office each day we reinforce our participation in the community that stretches back for millennia, remembering the promises God made to our forefathers and giving thanks for His faithfulness in keeping them. For our part, we have not been so faithful in maintaining and increasing the goodly heritage entrusted to us by the dead.

Though we too rarely consider them, the dead have most certainly considered us. Henry of Huntingdon, archdeacon of that place and one of the finest historians of the Anglo-Norman era, wrote in 1135:

‘I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if – as my soul strongly desires – it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.’

What, then, do we owe the dead? The careful, conscientious attempt to understand them and to preserve the best of what they have left us. Not, of course, to imitate exactly or to cower servilely before them – theirs is a vote, not a dictatorship – but likewise not to be too ready to throw away the freedoms and the understanding of human flourishing that they have left us. Most of all, we owe them (and ourselves) the recognition that our duty and our joy is to give lavishly of the treasures stored up for us by those who have gone before, and to store up new treasure for those who will come after.

The dead have not only much to teach us, but as the Church Triumphant in sanctorum communio with the living, they surely also have a stake in how we treat their words and their heritage – the Faith as they have passed it on to us. Before declaring the past to be dead – superseded by the bright, shiny newness of modern thought and word and deed – let us seek truly to understand and to value the gifts left to us by those who went before. Let us remember that we too will die, and may hope that our words and deeds will live after us to cheer and comfort and educate and instruct those who follow – not to be wantonly thrown away by those who refuse to consider that we may have had something good or true or beautiful to say and to leave behind us for their sakes.

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Charlotte Gauthier is a historian whose research focuses on late-medieval conceptions of ‘Christendom’ and the effect of the crusades on church, state and society in fifteenth-century England.

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