Sunday, August 27, 2006

Our Relation to the Saints: Invocation and/or Comprecation, or Neither.

What it means to be a member of the One Body of Christ that is of heaven and of earth.

The official doctrine of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches with respect to the Saints, who are said to enjoy with the exalted Christ the glory of heaven, includes the practices of both Invocation (prayer to the Saints individually and corporately) and Comprecation (prayer to God that he would cause the saints to intercede for people on earth). In contrast, the official doctrine of the Anglican Way, contained in the Formularies, certainly forbids such Invocation and probably also forbids Comprecation.

Just to be clear, to make this statement is not to say that:

  • All Roman Catholics actually practice the Invocation of Saints and no Anglicans do so (for many R.C’s do not invoke the saints and some Anglicans do invoke them).
  • The Invocation of Saints and Comprecation to God are apostolic in origin for they are not. In fact one has to go several centuries from the time of the apostles in order to see the beginnings of this kind of thinking and devotion.
  • The Church is divided into two, for even though (until the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth) it exists as the Church triumphant and the Church militant (or Church militant, expectant and triumphant), it is always catholic (compassing heaven and earth). There is One Body of Christ with members who are pilgrims in this world or on the other side of physical death, in actual glory or being prepared for such.
  • There was no prayer for the faithful departed made by faithful Christians in the early Church, for there was, but this is a different topic to Invocation of Saints.

But it is to state that there is a clear difference between the official doctrine and practice of the Churches of the Anglican Way and those of the Roman and Orthodox Ways on the matter of relations with, and prayer to, those who are deemed to be in heaven with Christ as his Saints.

This difference (and here specifically with respect to Roman Catholicism) is stated with clarity in Article XXII (of The Thirty-Nine Articles); but, it is also demonstrated by the fact that in the first edition of The Book of Common Prayer (1549) the Church of England did not provide any opportunity or basis to invoke the Saints (which practice had been exceedingly common in the medieval period and was allowed in the Litany of 1544). Article XXII reads:

The Romish doctrine concerning purgatory, pardons, worshipping and adoration as well of images as of reliques, and also the invocation of saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

This may be rendered into modern English in this way:

The Roman Catholic teaching about purgatory, pardons, the worship and adoration of images and relics, and also the practice of praying to saints, is a futile deception, which, far from being grounded in Scripture, is repugnant to the Word of God.

Here several things are linked together under the general heading of purgatory and in the collection is “the practice of praying to the saints.” which is said to be neither found in Holy Scripture nor agreeable to its teaching.

In the medieval Church invoking the saints was exceedingly common and involved both asking the Virgin Mary or some other Saint for specific gifts or blessings and also a general or specific request for prayer for the petitioner or another person. Then in the Mass there was the sense of communion with all the Saints “through whose merits and prayers, grant that we may in all things be defended by the help of Thy protection.”

The Reformers looked at this doctrine and practice, as far as they were able, from the perspective of the teaching of the Bible and the teaching and practice of the Early Church of the first few centuries; and they were surely right to conclude that one cannot justify invocation of the BVM and the saints simply from the Canon of Holy Scripture or the evidence from Early Church writers before circa A.D. 400 at least. One has to look to “sacred tradition” as it developed and also believe in development of doctrine in order to find justification for it.

Now it is true that some Anglican theologians, usually of the Anglo-Catholic School, have sought to interpret Article XXII in such a manner as that it is seen as only forbidding asking the BVM and Saints for gifts and blessings and thus not prohibiting specific petition which asks for the prayers of the Saint to be made on the suppliant’s behalf to God the Father. It maybe observed that while making such a distinction may be helpful in a general discussion of the topic, the testimony of the Formularies is that neither form of Invocation is permissible. (See, e.g., the Collects for Saints’ days in the BCP and compare them with the Latin originals to notice how the Invocation to each Saint is removed.)

While most Anglo-Catholic students of the Formularies have recognized that all forms of Invocation of the Saints are actually prohibited by them, some have argued that what is allowed by them is that which is known as Comprecation. Here is what one writer stated in the 1920s when there was learned debate on these matters in the Church of England:

If we yearn for the intercession of the great saints whose prayer undoubtedly “availeth much” with God (cf. James 5:16 ), we can always ask God that, if it be his will, he would make our need known to them that they may offer their prayer on our behalf. This practice, known as comprecation, is both more ancient than Invocation and absolutely unobjectionable.

Again, the problem is that there is no trace in Holy Scripture of this practice and likewise it is not known in the Early Church. Recognizing this, some have argued for its legitimacy on the basis of the creedal statement “I believe in the communion of saints” but again this deduction does not prove any scriptural basis.

What the Reformers of the sixteenth century believed and felt intensely was the unique mediatorial role of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Through him and with him and in him, the Body of Christ prays to the Father in the strength of the Holy Spirit; likewise each individual Christian offers his prayer to the Father in the Name of the Lord Jesus his Savior. At the same time, God is to be praised and thanked for the “Saints” for they leave us an example to follow in our discipleship.

Looking at this matter rationally we could argue thus -- If it be the case (and we do not know that it is and will never know) that some of the faithful departed (those we call “Saints”) are given supernatural knowledge and insight, not only to view what is going on in the world, but also to know the genuine desires and longings of the baptized Christian people who are pilgrims and aliens on earth (and with them members of the Body of Christ), then we should expect them to be doing whatever they can for their brethren on earth – including interceding for them – without being asked to do so! For charity does not wait to be asked! Thus, the spiritual energy of the individual believer and the congregations of Christ’s flock on earth should be focused on relating to God the Father, the “Our Father who art in heaven,” and on his Incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the one and only Mediator between God and man! Why ask the servant when you have access to the Master?

One warning that has been made consistently and continually since the sixteenth century in the Anglican Way and elsewhere is that it is a small move from invoking a Saint to deifying a Saint, just as it is a small move from venerating an icon, image, or statue to worshipping the same as having divine quality.

It would appear that a major key to this debate is that of having the spiritual discernment and maturity to be able to have a real and living sense of the Church as Catholic in the fullest sense – not only of being universal but also of embracing heaven and earth; of pilgrims on earth and residents of the heavenly Jerusalem. Can one have that profound sense of the unity of the Body of Christ, not only in space and time but also in space and time AND eternity, without the need for an apparatus (e.g., venerating icons and invoking the saints they represent) to support and make practical that unity of Head and members? The Anglican Way says that one can and ought to have this by the gift of faith which works through spiritual discernment without need of an apparatus – however holy it is, while the Roman Catholic Way says that the apparatus is both desirable and needed for the mature as well as for the beginner.

August 26, 2006

See further my just published The Anglican Formularies and Holy Scripture ( or 1 800 727 1928)

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)

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