What concept (or what reality) is this?
What attitudes has the Anglican Church entertained towards it?
Though it is proper to ask the questions separately, it will be convenient to answer
them together. Purgatory is a doctrine which at its noblest expresses the Church's sense
of God's infinite mercy and patience. Those who die repentant with the gifts of faith and
hope, touched by the charity of God but imperfect in their own love towards God and the
Neighbour, may be purged of that sin through a process of some duration. They are not, as
the saying goes, "past praying for". At its worst this doctrine justified the
institutional power of the unreformed church, as the agency through which souls were
prayed out of Purgatory. Believers could pay for Masses for the Dead as a kind of
spiritual insurance policy; and the clergy could all too easily treat the doctrine, in its
practical effects, as "a nice little earner".
The bad reputation which resulted probably contributed to the scorn with which
Protestant reformers rejected the doctrine, e.g. in the 22nd of our own Church's
Thirty-Nine articles, which describes Purgatory as "grounded upon no warranty of
Scripture". This is not quite true, even if we discount II Maccabees 12.39-45 (as the
Anglican reformers did in listing that book among the "apocryphal" writings). It
is also possible to read I Corinthians 3.11-15 as supporting the doctrine. Today however
we may be more inclined to consider whether our sense of God's mercy makes such a doctrine
rationally plausible. Is it the best available hypothesis?
Characteristically (perhaps) the recent statement from the Doctrine Commission of the
General Synod on "The Mystery of Salvation" (1995) leaves the question open. On
the one hand
those Christians who have wanted to speak of Purgatory have.....wanted to stress that
God's love and mercy reaches out to fit for heaven those who still, at their dying, need
to grow in that holiness which is the very condition of communion with God
and of the other hand one may believe that
God uses death itself as the instrument to complete the necessary task of dealing with
that sin which, up to that point, still distorts the life of all Christians.
The report adds that this latter view accords with Romans 6.7: "whoever has died
is freed from sin".
If we turn to the imaginative presentation of Purgatory, the second canticle (or
section) of Dante's Divine Comedy invests the doctrine with an awesome grandeur and a
searching human and spiritual truthfulness. His purgatory is a place of hope, humility, of
joy in the midst of suffering, and of gradual, hard-won ascent up the terraces of the
great purgatorial mountain. The souls arrive on the island-mountain already touched by the
three theological virtues. The fact that Dante's pagan guide, Virgil, is qualified to
accompany him to the very summit of the mountain shows that it is our human and rational
virtues - Justice, Courage, Temperance and Prudence, which must be perfected to fit us for
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