Concerning the Saints

On Private Speculation and Public Instruction in the Anglican Church, Especially as it Relates to the Bible, our Formularies, and Catholic Tradition.

My proposal for a Reformed Litany of the Saints unintentionally caused quite a stir. What I intended to be a constructive creation was received in large part as being destructive. Moreover, the wave of displeasure caused a number of related theological issues to wash ashore, which I believe are in need of a careful response.

INTRODUCTORY ADMISSIONS

To begin with, let me assert outright:

It is of the Faith that the Saints are alive with God in Christ Jesus. God is the God of the Living, not of the dead. The visions of the worshiping martyrs in the Revelation of John are unequivocal.

It is also a near certainty that the souls of the departed saints are fully conscious, and that they are actively beholding the vision of God himself, unmediated by sense.

It is also probable to the point of certainty that they are engaging in the same work they began on earth: Not only of worship, but also of Christ-like comportment in longing for the redemption of mankind, and they are very probably interceding for the church on earth as part of this longing.

All of this I believe to be true. None of this is spoken against by our Anglican Formularies in any measure.

Moreover, by putting forward the plain and historically-received meaning of Article 22, I was not saying a Christian is totally prohibited from praying ‘Ora pro nobis.’ I was not saying that addressing the Saints is inherently false or wicked in itself. Indeed, for the record, from time to time, I have myself prayed a single “Ora pro nobis” to the Saint whose feast day it was. But I relegate this prayer to a very small corner of my devotional piety because it is NOT certain that the saint can hear my prayer. Additionally, while perhaps addressing the saints (in some measure) may objectively be permissible, my contention is that it was not Anglican to inculcate the practice by leading a public Saint-addressing litany.

Herein is the beating-heart of my thesis, in my previous piece and now:

The public witness of the Anglican Church must only present as true what the Word of God reveals with certainty. No more, no less.

Note, the public witness of the Church. A celebration of Holy Communion on All Saints’ Day falls under this category.

I do not believe the Litany of the Saints teaches the certain truth of God’s revelation, but rather, it suggest a prayer that is built on a theological speculation: That the saints can hear our prayers. However some may protest, this point is unarguable (as I hope to demonstrate): The notion that the Saints can hear our prayers is speculative and not certain. Even Cardinal Bellarmine admits this uncertainty, and surely he is not insufficiently catholic!

Now, I am well aware of the subtle distinctions made by some Anglican writers of the difference between invocation and comprecation, and, a term which has no living usage in English prior to the Anglican blogosphere of late, advocation, but the matter remains the same as long as we are talking about a Christian on earth addressing a departed Christian, however such address be supposedly mediated. Thus I will use the phrase ‘Addressing the Saints,’ since that is the substance of the controverted issue, and so that my arguments cannot be side-stepped by a mere change of terms.

Furthermore, I am well apprised of the somewhat reasonable theological speculations of the schoolmen that seek to explain how the saints might be able to hear us. And indeed, I find their best explanations — e.g. of the speculum trinitatis — eminently reasonable and pious. But they remain, in the last word, mere probabilities stemming from deductions. Because they are probable, therefore do I occasionally offer my own Ora pro nobis in the privacy of my prayer-closet, by myself. But because they remain speculations, not revealed by God himself as certain, I do not invest too much devotional stock in the exercise. I allow the Biblical witness to chasten the impulses of piety. I do not pray the Hail Mary, except perhaps on August 15th. Perhaps.

Having admitted all this, let me now turn to what Anglicanism can never admit of — a public liturgy in which the saints are addressed.

THE BIBLE

Only that which has been revealed by God in Holy Scripture can be considered to be the certain, authoritative Word of God.

Some have sought to adduce biblical proofs as the basis for addressing the saints, but before attending to these Scriptures in turn, it is necessary to pause and remember that as Anglicans we are not at liberty to interpret the Scriptures however we wish, and conclude with our own private interpretation. On the contrary, as Anglicans we cede our individual perspicacities to the mind of the Church. As Article 20 well states this most catholic of principles — the subjugation of individual judgment to the mind of the Church:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

Addressing the Saints falls clearly in the category of ‘controversies of faith’, and our Anglican Church has clearly utilized its authority, in a twofold manner:

  1. (1) By asserting Article 22, and
  2. (2) By omitting the Litany of the Saints from the Prayerbook.

Moreover, the Litany of the Saints being attached necessarily to a ‘controversy of faith’ and being itself a Rite or Ceremony, the warning of Article 34 also comes to bear:

Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly.

To pray the Litany of the Saints, as an Anglican with a good conscience, means that either Article 34 is being ignored entirely, or the Litanist believes the absence of the Litany of the Saints is itself repugnant to the Word of God, which would be a very tall claim indeed, and would be a judgment against the two formularies (BCP & Articles) that they are in deep error, which would be to cut down the tree while standing on its branches.

Remembering these things, and so as not to be wrongly accused of dodging an argument in its particulars, let us look at the scriptures that supposedly commend addressing the saints.

When it comes to the issue of addressibility, at most, Hebrews 11:4-12:2 teaches that the heroes of the Old Covenant are present to us in the way that, metaphorically, a cloud envelopes something. They are around us, in some mysterious way. This is certain — In Christ we are united to all the saints, living and dead, through a real and mystical bond. This is catholic theology. But it does not teach that we can communicate with them. Indeed, the “great cloud of witnesses” per Hebrews 11 properly only consists of Old Covenant heroes, and so it may not even be a proof text for the Communion of Saints at all.

Revelation 5 and 8 have been brought forward, but somewhat confusingly, since the image of prayer as incense is manifestly apocalyptic, and again, there is no warrant for addressing a saint, since those prayers symbolized by the incense are directed to God.

Revelation 6:9-10 would have been a yet stronger starting point, as it reveals that the Saints in heaven are aware that God has not yet avenged their blood on earth, which means at some level they have an awareness of what is happening on earth, but still, this doesn’t grant warrant for addressing them directly, it merely tells us that in heaven the saints continue to have the faculty of knowledge, given to them by God, which I have already professed is nothing more than traditional catholic theology.

The last verses of Psalm 103 have been pointed to, and at first glance may appear to at most warrant addresses to the Angels. That the Angels might be addressed is a somewhat different case than the Saints, because the Angels are distributed throughout creation. We know from Matthew 18:10 that we are assigned a guardian angel who is naturally-speaking “nearby”, and that the forces of creation have angelic governors, who also are in a way “nearby”, and so even if Psalm 103 permitted Christians to address the Angels, this does not automatically mean that the Saints can also be addressed. But even so, it is not manifest that even this is allowed. In part because the Piel tense of the Hebrew verb is not quite as simple as the English Imperative presents itself, but also because in verse 22 “all his works” is the object of address, which is an inanimate object. This reveals the final stanza (v.20-22) to have more of a jussive sense (“Let us…”) than a warrant for direct address, since we do not directly address inanimate creation.

The root of the issue of utilizing Psalm 103 to defend addressing the saints is not in such technicalities though, but in a larger issue: the danger of deduction. Deduction from the Bible is never safe. It was deduction that led Calvin to put God’s sovereignty and the existence of hell together, to deduce double pre-destination. Double pre-destination is perfectly logical, and eminently deducible from the Scriptural data, but it nevertheless asserts more than the Scriptures patently assert, and therefore it has always been rejected by catholic theologians. In like manner, deducing addresses to the saints may be possible from Psalm 103, but deduction is not certainty.

THE FATHERS

There are admittedly a few things in the Bible that present the reader with a little bit of doctrinal ambiguity. Some of these are, I believe, in the Wisdom of God, intentionally uncertain, as God does not want us to know more than he has apportioned us on this side of heaven. However, there are some uncertainties that the witness of the Early Church Fathers allows us to peer into with greater clarity. For instance, it is not certain from the New Testament alone that God appointed precisely a three-fold order of ministry. But the witness of those who were discipled by the Apostles themselves, the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers’ — who wrote while the Apostle John was still breathing — help to clear up the ambiguity. Both Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch reveal that they had received the truth that there ARE three orders of ministry in the Church: Bishop, Priest, and Deacon. With this historical insight, we can then interpret the New Testament data with much greater clarity, and indeed, even see clearly what beforehand had a mist veiling it.

But here’s the rub: The Fathers are witnesses to the true content of the Apostolic deposit: The Faith that the Lord delivered to the Apostles themselves. Our Lord himself told the Apostles themselves that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 16:13). The Apostles themselves held the fullness of the catholic Faith. Indeed, only doctrine that is truly Apostolic can be called catholic. Sure, St. Andrew might not have utilized the very phrases of the Athanasian Creed, but he taught one and the same doctrine. If he could have read the Athanasian Creed, he would have certainly uttered a loud ‘Amen’. It is impiety to think that the Apostles knew less than the catholic Faith. The later theological clarifications of Nicea and beyond are expansions of description, not of content. This is the ‘growth’ that Vincent of Lerins speaks of, and none other. The 318 Fathers of Nicea, in their standing for the truth of the homoousion, affirmed simply that this was the Faith as they had received it, and indeed, as it had been handed down since the time of the Apostles. This testimony is further ratified by the simple identifications of Jesus with God in the writings of the Fathers between the Apostles and Nicea, such as we find in Ignatius of Antioch, who writes to the Ephesians:

For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan……and the ancient kingdom was abolished when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life (Ad. Eph. 18 & 19)

And so, when we are asking the question: Is X a part of the catholic Faith? We look first to the teaching of the Apostles. It is at this juncture that those of a more Romish mind-set will reply, “ah yes, but the Apostles passed on the faith not just by their writings, but also by their oral instruction.” Fair enough, as a matter of history, but when it comes to discerning what Truth is Revealed by God, the Early Church is uninterested in such parsings.

Witness St. Cyprian, in his 74th Epistle:

Whence is that tradition? Whether does it descend from the authority of the Lord Jesus and the Gospel, or does it come from the injunctions and epistles of the Apostles? For that we are to do what is written, God testifies and admonishes, saying to Joshua, ‘This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth.’ (Josh 1:8) Likewise the Lord, sending His Apostles, directs that the nations should be baptized and taught to observe all things whatsoever He had commanded. If, then, it is commanded in the Gospels, or contained in the Epistles or Acts of the Apostles, then should it be preserved as being Holy and Divine tradition.

A synonym for the question ‘Is it Apostolic?’ is therefore ‘Is it in the New Testament?’ Is Addressing the Saints in the New Testament?

No.

But, in the same way that the Apostolic Fathers and the earliest witness of the Faith outside the New Testament help us sort out the evidence of ministry into a threefold Order, do we see any early and continuous tradition of Addressing the Saints in the first age of the Post-Apostolic Church?

No.

It should weigh heavily that the somewhat obscure Bishop William Forbes who wrote ultimately in favor of addressing the Saints, concedes thus:

Moreover, among the Fathers who preceded the first Nicene Council, that is, who lived in the first three centuries, we read nothing from which the invocation or direct addressing in prayers of either Angels or saints can be certainly and perspicuously proved. (Considerationes, Book II, p. 231)

And, coupled with a plain reading of the New Testament, this absence proves definitively that Addressing the Saints is no part of the catholic Faith, because it was no part of the Apostolic Teaching.

As Good Bishop Andrewes affirms (again, quoted in Forbes):

Even though [if] it were most certainly evident that the saints whom we address, hear us; yet they are not to be invoked or addressed by us, since we have received no precept concerning this thing : but we have received a precept in the law in express words, ‘What I command thee, that only shalt thou do.’

Here it is worth addressing the point more generally: We do not receive as of the catholic Faith something simply because it is old. The 5th century is no more infallible than our own. We receive old things as catholics in as much as they testify to a continuous witness to the Apostolic Age. The widespread confusion on this point leads many toward Rome, and away from the actual catholic Faith.

And here there is one particular datum that I wish had been put to rest a long time ago: The supposed antiquity of Rylands Papyrus III 470, that contains the text of a prayer addressed to Mary: the Sub Tuum Praesidium. It has been floated as being written “At some point in the 200s”, which, were that true, would suggest that perhaps there is some evidence nearer to the Apostolic Age of the Addressing of Saints (Note the many qualifications there, even if it were a true dating). But the fact is, it is not from the 200s. In 1939 in the early years of the cataloging of the Rylands Papyrii, one scholar (Lobel) suggested based on the hand-writing a possible 3rd century origin. However, an enormous amount of paleographical and papyrological work has been done since 1939, and, though you would never guess it from the tradition-minded blogosphere, P.III.470 has been settled by scholars as “belonging to the sixth or seventh century, or even later.” The Scholarship was established by Förster in 2005 in the Journal of Coptic Studies, and is summarized together with a comprehensive literature review by De Bruyn, in an article that is conveniently free to read here.

Thus this small fragment of papyrus confirms no more than what we already knew from all other accounts of Church history, that “About the year A. D. 370 those to whom the care of instructing the people was committed, began to lead the way to the public invocation of the saints.” (William Forbes, quoting the Roman Catholic historian Vossius). This is indeed the terminus a quo for the practice, as some of the statements from the late 4th century still appear to be more mindful of the Saints’ presence, or jussive, or comprecatory—such as the instance in Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical lectures— rather than baldly vocative. But still, it is granted. I have reasonable confidence that when St. Basil addresses a Saint, it was for him no impiety toward the one true God. But the fact remains, to make such an address was to add an element to the prayer life of Christians that was certainly not a part of the catholic, Apostolic deposit. Addition is a most perilous thing (Rev 22:18), a truth which was made manifest in the successive centuries. What may with good intentions have begun as a lively way of presenting the Communion of Saints, very swiftly decayed into the near-animism of direct petition and adoration. Indeed, as a parish priest, I still am frequently having to deter souls from praying to St. Anthony when they lose something. A manner of address and a lack of reverence for Almighty God that I have no doubt would make good St. Basil shudder.

IMPLICATIONS FOR CATHOLIC-MINDED ANGLICANS

Having established that Addressing the Saints is no part of the catholic, Apostolic deposit of the Faith, we see that there is nothing that need tug a catholic’s heart away from the firm prohibition of Article 22. Therefore, simply obeying Article 22 is by far the most catholic thing an Anglican can do, when it comes to the prospect of Addressing the Saints. Unlike the reformation on the continent, the Anglican church never abandoned the catholic faith, in practice or formularies, and this is an immeasurable gift. Article 22 is proof of this, not proof against it.

Any Anglican priest today who resuscitates the Litany of Saints asserts that he is more “catholic” — or has a more studied bead on what indeed is ‘catholic’ — than Andrewes and Pusey, which is a fairly tall claim, because both of whom were fully convinced of Article 22, and not just as a condemnation of some late medieval petitions. While as an act of love for his friend, Pusey defended Newman’s Tract 90, he admits that there is much in it that he himself would have said differently. Indeed, in the same place he asserts:

“It is to be considered, whether habitual addresses to the Saints do not, in the mildest form, imply that they are themselves, in some degree, objects of devotion…In the case of friends on earth…we do not habitually ask them to ‘pray for us;’ we take for granted that they do; the continual use then of these supplications to the Saints…seems in itself to imply that some other feeling has crept in…beyond the wish to secure their intercessions; that people apply to them, as a vent to their feelings; that they have unconsciously made them ends and objects of devotion.”

Whereas when it comes to a matter like the doctrine of the Eucharist, we Anglicans have two formularies that inform each other dialectically: The Prayerbook and the Articles, and thus, to give an instance, Article 28 needs to be read in dialectic with the Prayer of Humble Access, and the Words of Delivery of Communion. Out of this dialectic we find generated a span of doctrine, from the warm Receptionism of Richard Hooker, to the Real Presence theology of Andrewes who admits to Bellarmine that he believes no differently than Trent save in the manner of the presence. Thus is their room within the formularies to hold to the Faith of the Ancient Church which bears immediate witness in the post-Apostolic age to a High view of the Eucharist (e.g. Ignatius’ “Medicine of Immortality”).

But when it comes to Addressing the Saints in a public liturgy, we have a different story: The Articles are definitive, the Prayerbook is definitive (when contrasted to predecessor liturgies, the total absence of the Litany of Saints is glaring), The entire witness of catholic-minded teachers in England prior to 1850 are in perfect harmony and are definitive: it is not to be promulgated.

This was my central contention in proposing a Reformed Litany of the Saints. And the reason I took pains to emphasize that it is public worship that I was seeking chiefly to address, is twofold:

One, because I do not wish to make “windows into men’s souls”; as Anglicans we have no interest in a protestant inquisition! If St. Basil can pray ‘ora pro nobis’ in good faith, I believe that some Christians can do so as well.

And two, because public worship forms the hearts and minds of the people of God. If the people sing or say it in the Liturgy, they will (generally) come to believe it to be true. Lex orandi, Lex credendi. Therefore, the careful selection of hymnody and other permitted “extras” to the Prayerbook liturgy are to be chosen with the utmost care for the hearts of the people whom they will shape. Indeed, the judicious selection of liturgical elements and music is part of the teaching office of a priest in his parish, and all priests affirmed the examination of the Bishop when he asked in their ordination:

Are you persuaded that the Holy Scriptures contain all Doctrine required as necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined, out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge; and to teach nothing, as necessary to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture?

Now, some might here demur and say that the inclusion of the Litany of the Saints doesn’t mean that it is being presented as ‘necessary for salvation’, but the people of God are not so subtle. Since almost every word of the Communion Liturgy as contained in the Prayerbook does touch on what is necessary for salvation, by its presence and proximity, a Litany of the Saints would self-communicate on the same level.

I am not of a dry ritual school that admits of no singing or hymns, etc, but only allows for the words already printed in the prayerbook and nothing more. I delight in the rubrical permission given me in the BCP 2019 to begin with a processional hymn. In suggesting a Reformed Litany, I was not “altering the Liturgy” as I have been accused of doing (The Litany of Saints is not one of our Liturgies!). I suggested the Reformed Litany under the provision we already have for hymnody — as a particular hymn of praise to God for his saints, akin to those stanzas that are found in Hymn # 231 and # 232 in the 1982 Hymnal. I thought that a reformed litany might be a way for catholic-minded Anglicans to re-appropriate the good aspect of the Litany of Saints (the way it exhibits the reality of a deep history within the communion of saints) while leaving off the bad aspects — namely, that it is totally prohibited by Anglican authority, and, as the witness of the Roman church has borne out: that a simple ora pro nobis so quickly trips into something more, and something so often odious to our Redeemer.

I was of course disappointed that my fellow catholic-minded Anglicans didn’t see this to be the case, but I would ask anyone who wishes to pray the Litany of Saints: How can one who has neither the sanction of the Bible, nor the first three centuries of the Church; neither the Prayerbook nor the Articles, neither any Anglican testament to the practice between 1549 and 1880, be so confident that what they are doing is truly Anglican, let alone catholic?


The Rev. Ben Jefferies

The Rev. Ben Jefferies is a sinner, grateful to the Lord for his mercy. He grew up in England, and emigrated to the United States in 1999. He went to Wheaton College, and several years later discerned a call to ministry and went to seminary at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Duncan in 2014. He currently serves The Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Liturgy Task Force of the ACNA from 2015-2019, and was the lead designer for the production of the printed prayer book. He continues as the Assistant to the Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer (2019), and serves on the board of directors of Anglican House Media Ministries. He is married with three daughters.


'Concerning the Saints' have 2 comments

  1. November 12, 2019 @ 9:03 am Rev. Dennis Washburn

    While I might not express everything exactly the same, this article is well reasoned and thoughtful. I would also point out that those devout and well-intentioned Anglo-Catholics (especially in the so-called G-4 jurisdictions) who want public use the Litany of the Saints and various \”Hail Mary\” devotions cite later authorities such as the Seventh Ecumenical Council and Anglican adaptations of the Tridentine Missal.

    Reply

  2. November 12, 2019 @ 11:05 pm David

    I’d be hard-pressed to buy the claim that there is no public, liturgical invocation of the Saints in the writings of the Church Fathers or the prayers of the undivided Church. In point of fact, there are so many examples as to make the suggestion to the contrary absurd. Sts. Methodius of Olympos, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregories Nazianzen and Nyssen, John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, and so on and so forth all provide implicit and explicit literary witness to the concept that a.) the Church Triumphant prays for the Church Militant, that b.) the latter stands to gain from these prayers, and c.) that you should ask for them. We have plenty of late antique inscriptional evidence for Christian belief in the efficacy of the prayers of saints, martyrs, and other glorified persons for the Christian faithful on Earth.

    I write from a Catholic/Orthodox perspective, so this doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But if one is going to defend Article 22, it can’t be on the grounds that the Invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Saints, and the Angels is foreign to the early and united Church. It’s ubiquitous, as ubiquitous as the soteriology of deification that undergirds it.

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