In recent weeks I have written four or five pieces on The Seventh Ecumenical Council (in response to questions sent to me) and these have been widely dispersed on the web and, not surprisingly, sometimes misunderstood. This is inevitable when one keeps to a minimum number of words, has no footnotes, writes in a semi-popular mode, and readers approach an emotional topic from different angles and in varying moods.
My position is that subscription to the doctrine and piety set forth by this Council cannot be required of any Anglican for the simple reason that the classic Formularies of the Anglican Way (BCP. Articles and Ordinal) represent Reformed Catholicism; and Reformed Catholicism, solely on the basis of Holy Scripture, does not require the veneration of icons or the asking for the intercession of the BVM and the Saints. Of course, individual Anglicans, or even local congregations, have received and may receive the doctrine of Nicea II and practice the veneration of images and the intercession of the saints – if their bishop allows. As far as I know, subscription to the Seventh Council has never been part of the constitution or canon law of any Province of the Anglican Communion, and the presence of icons for veneration has never been required of Anglican church buildings in these Provinces.
[Here it is perhaps necessary to state that what the Decree of Nicea II calls for is not merely the kind of respect shown when people stand up when the President enters the room or even when people bow to the Holy Table when they enter a church. It is a more intense and developed form of veneration and devotion which is addressed to the person represented by the icon/image. Certainly it is not adoration but it is more than respect; for it is presented as part of the saving provision and work of God in the economy of grace. The Anathemas of the Council make this clear.]
One aspect of the decree and doctrinal assumptions of this Council which I have not addressed as yet in my short pieces, but which I have referred to above, is this: that, quite naturally, together with the veneration of images/icons goes the intercession of the saints so venerated. Belief in such intercession was common at the time of the Council in 787 and it was actually discussed and confirmed by the Council in its fourth session (see Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol.1., ed N.P. Tanner S.J., p.131). And, of course, such intercession is widely present in the Service Books of the Orthodox Churches, in the Missal and Breviary of the Roman Church, and also in The Anglican Missal, used by a minority of Anglo-Catholic Anglicans.
One (but by no means the single one) of the reasons why The Anglican Missal and similar books were produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by the Anglo-Catholic School was to allow for the intercession of the saints in daily Mass, which practice, very specifically, is not allowed by the BCP and The Articles. Again, as far as I know, no such Missal has been officially made a Prayer Book for any Province of the Anglican Communion.
Perhaps at this stage it will be well to distinguish different kinds of prayer.
First of all, and pre-eminently, there is the prayer offered in Christian worship – to the Father, through the Son and with the Holy Spirit. The Eucharistic Prayer is so offered and so also are most Collects. It is also possible to pray directly to the Lord Jesus and on rare occasions to pray directly to the Holy Spirit. In all such prayer, adoration (latreia) should be present along with thanksgiving, praise, confession and petition. In The Book of Common Prayer this type of prayer addressed to the Holy Trinity or to one Person thereof is the only kind that is to be found. Virtually all the time when it is petition and intercession to God it is for those alive on earth, living in the present evil age. On rare occasions, in one or two later editions of The Book of Common Prayer, there are general and vague prayers for those who are in the intermediate state (between death and the final redemption at the last Day). [In contrast, prayers for the dead presumed to be in purgatory are common in the Roman Church.]
In the second place, and this is not found in The Book of Common Prayer, and is actually condemned in Article XXII, there is “the invocation of the Saints.” In such a prayer it is not God who is addressed but rather the Saint; and divine assistance is asked for, of and through the Saint, as being “a special friend of God.” It is presumed that the Saint has both the desire, the will and the access to God to intercede for those who are pilgrims on earth and that his or her interceding has special value. This is seen to be especially true of the BVM, the Mother of Jesus (the Incarnate Son).
In the Roman Mass (Prayer 1) the priest prays: “In union with the whole Church we honor Mary…[then a List of Apostles and Saints]. May their merits and prayers gain us your constant help and protection.” Then on hundreds of Saints’ Days through the year the intercession of each particular saint is asked for. Sometimes the intercession is asked for in addressing God in the Collect and sometimes the Saint is directly addressed. Perhaps the most well known of the latter is: “Pray for us, O holy Mother of God. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”
There is no doubt but that the veneration of images/icons and the asking for the intercession of the Saints belong together in the same doctrinal bundle as it were, as can be seen in the Council of Trent’s decrees and in its Catechism of the sixteenth century. As noted above, they were both debated and approved as belonging together at Nicea II in 787.
My point with regard to Anglicans is simple. Notwithstanding that they are doctrines and practices approved by Nicea II and subsequent western councils; and notwithstanding that they are found in the major Service Books of the East and West, the veneration of icons and the invocation of saints y have never been required doctrine, devotion and practice in The Anglican Way as it is known in The Church of England and the Anglican Communion of Churches. In fact Reformed Catholicism, strictly interpreted, rejects them both on its basic principle of the authority, sufficiency and clarity of Holy Scripture.
Again, I accept and do no doubt that (a) various Anglican theologians have accepted and defended such doctrine, devotion and practice; and (b) small groups of Anglo-Catholic Anglicans have received and practiced them. But this proves nothing in terms of official commitment by whole Churches.
Thus the use of icons and the invocation of the saints should not be required in any Anglican jurisdiction but should belong in this ecumenical age (2006) in charity to the spheres of local option and private judgment. If the Seventh Council is received for subscription by any group (e.g., the AMiA or The Network) then it is thereby required of all who sign that they place icons in churches, venerate them and ask for the intercession of the saints whom they venerate through the image. But so to require and so to do is to go well past what Scripture itself requires and is for The Anglican Way a major development of doctrine and change in direction (See Articles VI & XXI).
The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon August 3, 2006.