Information for pondering and discussing
According to The Book of Common Prayer (1662) twenty days in the Christian Year from Advent to the end of Trinity are observed in memory of certain New Testament Saints. One very interesting and important fact about the Collects for these days is that most of them are not translations of Latin originals found in the medieval and late patristic Sacramentaries. Rather, they are new creations by Archbishop Cranmer and his colleagues. In contrast, virtually all the Collects for the Sundays and major festivals of the Christian Year are translations of Latin originals from earlier times.
So the question arises: Why is it, with the exception of the Purification and Annunciation, that the Latin originals of the collects for these commemorations of saints were not used (or in the case of two barely used) as the basis for the collects of The Book of Common Prayer (1549 and following editions)?
The answer may easily be found by reading the medieval Collects in the Sarum Rite. They all contained what all the Reformers of the sixteenth century believed was corrupt doctrine—the petition for the saint’s intercession with God and sometimes for his protection. Take for example, the Collects for St Andrew’s and St Thomas’ Days, which literally translated are:
We humbly implore thy Majesty, O Lord, that as the blessed apostle Andrew appeared [upon earth] as a preacher and a ruler of thy Church, so he may be for us a perpetual intercessor with thee [in heaven]. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Grant us, Lord, we beseech thee, so to rejoice in the festival of thy blessed apostle St. Thomas, that by his protection we may be assisted, and may follow the steps of his faith with devotion agreeable thereto’ through Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is important to realize that for the Reformers the question they faced and answered in the negative was not: “Do departed saints actually pray for the Church on earth, or even for particular parts of it they had known and remembered?” Rather the question to which they actually gave a strongly negative answer was: “Are we on earth justified formally in our public prayer actually soliciting their prayers for us?”
It is probably an implicit denial of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints (see Apostles’ Creed) to doubt that saints in Paradise pour out their souls to the Father in the Name of Jesus Christ and do so as filled with the Holy Spirit and with all holiness and godly fervor. We know how St Paul prayed on earth—for he has left us much information in his Epistles—and so we can only believe that he prays more comprehensively and caringly now in Paradise. And likewise do all the apostles and martyrs.
We know so little, for so very little is revealed in Holy Scripture, about the intermediate state (the period for baptized believers between death and the end of this age with the resurrection of the dead), but we can be reasonably sure that death does not eradicate from the souls of the saints their love of the brethren and therefore their concern and prayer for them as the look forward to the full redemption, the resurrection and life of the age to come. So the question is not, “Do the saints have compassion for their brethren on earth and do they pray for them?” We presume that the answer to this is “yes” and that this is not controversial.
To accept freely and gladly that the saints in Paradise engage in prayer to the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit is one thing. However, it is yet another, and a very different other, to say that the church on earth, or an individual member thereof, is justified and warranted in specifically asking for the intercession of departed saints or for putting ourselves/himself (in our context of space and time) under their patronage and care.
All agree, I think, that there is no command, no recommendation and no suggestion in the Holy Scriptures that Christian believers should either pray to departed saints or ask for the prayers and/or protection of departed saints. So any claims made from Scripture must be by inference from what seems related teaching. All agree, also I think, that the saints in Paradise are human beings and though their experience and knowledge of God is vastly increased in this holy time of waiting they remain creatures and, as such, they do not have anything like the attribute of omniscience by which to comprehend the situation in earth and to understand, and anything like the attribute of omnipotence to respond to a multitude of requests for intercessory prayer and protection. In other words, their human nature (even their being-deified human nature) still has creaturely limits.
Then there is that powerfully clear text : “There is one God, and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2). As co-ordinate truths, the oneness of God and the oneness of the Mediator are here related as two fundamental truths. Further, the context is one where the apostle Paul is writing about mediation by intercession and not only by atonement, for he urges that “prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks be made for all men.”
So the scripturally reasonable thing is to believe that the saints are active in their love for the whole Church, but that they do not have the capacities necessary to make them into “assisting mediators” or “listeners to specific requests for help in the creaturely realities of space and time.” Therefore, the Church on earth should not pray to them or ask for their prayer or put itself under their protection.
But what about the argument often made that goes like this: on earth we ask one another to pray for us, why is it not reasonable to ask the departed saints in Paradise to pray for us? The answer to this—as made over and over again in the sixteenth century and since—goes something like this.
To ask for the prayers of our living friends is to ask for something with which there are no obvious moral dangers. We know that despite the prayerfulness of these friends they are very much human with their weaknesses and failures and that they are the first to say they are sinners before God and man. Yet they pray for us in the saving Name of Jesus.
Asking for the prayers of saints is different. Removed from us and not seen by us (but imagined by us) we begin to idealize them and think of them as artists have presented them. The idolatrous tendencies of the human heart come into play and we tend to make them more than human with more than human powers and graces. Soon we are into the belief in the supernatural patronage and intercession of the saints (as was so widespread in the late medieval Church and may still be seen on both sides of the Mexican border with the USA today) and this has a direct effect on the sole prerogatives of the one Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ (so that ten Ave Marias were/are said for one Pater noster).
The Reformers were wholly right to maintain that no other recognition of the blessed dead should be made in liturgy other than that which is Scriptural and primitive—thankfulness for the graces and virtues exhibited by them and prayer to the Father that we may be enabled to follow their example even as they followed Christ. Thus in The Book of Common Prayer these two themes are usually found in Collects for Saints’ Days. And this order of things has not been changed in any official revision of the BCP—cf. e.g. the 1962 Canadian with the 1549 English to see this.
It is worth recalling that the same team that produced The Book of Common Prayer also produced what became known as The Thirty-Nine Articles, wherein in Article XXII the Invocation of Saints is said to be repugnant to the Word of God written.
Finally, something to ponder: The acceptance of this Reformed Catholic teaching and liturgical practice has not been easy for those who believe that the Church of England (and thus the Anglican Churches generally) ought to follow the practice of both modern Rome and the Eastern Orthodox and invoke the saints (together with their veneration). Some have resorted and still resort (in North America) to using an extended BCP called “The Anglican Missal” or “The English Missal” to be able to invoke the saints (and say and do other things as well outside Reformed Catholicism); and in England today many in the Forward in Faith movement use the modern Roman Missal with its collects and so they pray and believe as does the Roman Church to the Saints.
It would appear possible, maybe probable, that the borderline between (a) the Reformed Catholicism of the Formularies of the Anglican Way (classic BCP, Ordinal & Articles) and (b) a “Catholicism” within Anglicanism that is on its way either to crossing the Tiber or alternatively of entering Constantinople is this very territory of the Invocation of the Saints and their Veneration via icon and image. Those who truly enter this territory in mind and heart and, importantly, regular devout practice also, are seemingly on a one way journey, which may take a long time to reach its destination; but, essentially, they are no longer looking to the Bible and the Anglican Formularies but rather to Rome or Constantinople with their Bibles and together with their written and unwritten Traditions.
As an appendix here is the Collect in the BCP for All Saints followed by the medieval Collect for the same festival:
O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast granted us under one solemnity to show reverence to the merits of all the saints; Pour down upon us, we beseech thee, at the request of these many intercessors, that abundance of mercy which we so much need and desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
October 19. 2006 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)