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 God's presence.

Robert Cockroft

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997