I have written before on the controversy in early Anglicanism about the interpretation of Article XXII and its ban on the invocation of the saints. To be sure, classical Anglicanism sought to distance itself from the folk practices of saint worship that were being carried out in churches throughout Europe, from the buying and selling of relics to the cottage industry that had developed in assigning specific saints to specific tasks (carried over today into popular practices like burying a figure of Saint Joseph upside down in the backyard when you want to sell your home). Nonetheless, there was legitimate disagreement amongst early Anglicans over whether the problem of saint worship included the much more ancient practice of asking the saints for their prayers, a practice that is taken for granted and even commended by many of the Fathers.
A Classical Anglican Perspective
The Scottish priest William Forbes (1585-1634) was among those who fought adamantly for the licitness of calling upon the saints for intercession. Forbes’ only surviving major work, Considerationes Modestae, was published posthumously in 1658, at the high point of classical High Churchmanship in the Church of England. In it, the extremely learned Divine makes the case that the practice of asking the saints for their prayers should not be a Church dividing matter:
Whatever the more rigid Protestants may formerly have taught, or even teach at the present day, that it is not certain that the Saints departed pray for the living; not even in general–yet all their more just and sound divines are of the same mind as was James 6, the ever-to-be-praised King of Great Britain in his answer written by Isaac Casaubon to the letter of Cardinal du Perron, “His Majesty venerates the blessed Martyrs and other saints now reigning with Christ, Who is the head of the triumphant and of the militant Church, and he does not doubt that they assiduously pray for the necessities of the Church, and firmly believes that their prayers are not useless.”
Nay some Protestants do not deny that it is probable that the Saints departed pray for the living even in particular.
Forbes makes his case through extensive quotation from the Fathers as well as from his contemporaries, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. The thrust of his argument is simply that the practice of asking the saints for their prayers is so ancient and so universally held throughout the Church that to dismiss it would be an incredible act of hubris. He does, however, make a distinction between invocation, which belongs to God alone, and advocation, which can be applied not only to the saints departed but also to the living, as well as to requests made of angels:
The bare addressing of angels and saints, whereby they are admonished and invited, that they should pray to God with us and for us, in the same way that we ask good persons during their life-time that they should intercede with God for us, join their prayers to ours, and make our salvation a continual object of them,–We, with those Protestants who love to speak rather more cautiously and distinctly than do many others, term, a calling upon: for Protestants in general can scarcely bear to hear the word ‘invocation’ applied to the saints… That it should be called ‘advocation’ or a ‘calling unto’ is preferred…
As Forbes notes, this is generally how Roman Catholics describe what they are doing when they pray to the saints, though he is quick to criticize the rampant folk practices of ascribing super powers to saints, calling upon them for remedies on their own merits rather than by the power of Christ, and praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary because she seems somehow easier to talk to than the Lord Himself, towards all of which the Roman Church of his day was largely willing to turn a blind eye. Forbes sees these as abuses worthy of refutation by Anglicans and other Protestants, but he believes that if everyone understood each other better, there would be no discernible reason why the issue of asking the saints for prayer should cause division.
Forbes’ case for allowing latitude on this issue is a good one, but I believe it is incomplete in one very important way. He argues that asking the saints for their prayers is a matter of adiaphora since Scripture does not directly reveal one way or the other whether the saints are capable of hearing our prayers and responding. He sees such prayers as being on the same level as the giving or a ring in marriage, something which is neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture and therefore something which the Church may make use of but which cannot be held by the Church to be necessary for every person to believe. To a certain extent Forbes is right, in that no one has ever been required to ask the saints for their prayers and no one ever should be. Yet it would not be fair to say that nothing is at stake here given that the entire idea of a Communion of Saints that includes both the living and the dead is predicated upon the truth of the Gospel, particularly the truth of the Incarnation and the Resurrection.
It is no accident that we speak of the “Communion of Saints” and the “resurrection of the dead” within one breath in the Nicene Creed. The heart of our faith as Christians is the conviction that in Jesus, God truly became a human being, taking on our sin and dying in our place, then rising from the grave to a new and better resurrected life that is, nevertheless, still completely human. Jesus did not cease to be a human being at the moment of His Ascension. He lives on in the fullness of what awaits all of us, a resurrected body and soul.
The saints are those who have been been perfected in their holiness by being covered in Christ’s Blood and made one with Him. They are not yet resurrected, at least from our vantage point within time, but they are one with Christ, still very much alive. If it is impossible for the saints to hear the calls for intercession that we lift up, and even more impossible for them to do anything with them, on the grounds that they are dead and waiting while we are still alive, then it must be equally impossible for Christ Himself to hear our pleas since He is also dead and gone. We cannot have it both ways. Either the saints and all the faithful departed are alive in Christ, in which case they are not so radically far away from us as it seems, or else they are dead because He is dead, cut off from us because He is cut off from us.
New Prayer, Ancient Truth
Modern Anglicanism has been more amenable than the Anglicanism of previous eras to the practice of asking the saints for their prayers, most likely under the influence of Anglo-Catholicism. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer goes so far as to include this prayer in the burial service:
O God, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we beseech thee that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Admittedly, this prayer does not have a long history of Anglican usage, and perhaps some of the Reformers would have balked at it, but it sums up beautifully the teaching of the early Church, reiterated and defended by Forbes and others, that both the example and the prayers of the saints are a testimony to the Gospel. Far from being replacements for Christ, they bear witness to the living hope that is Christ’s death for us and His resurrection which we shall one day share in.