Ask an Anglican: The Hail Mary and Corpus Christi

Derek writes:

1.) I have been studying the articles, and have a question about the invocation of the Saints. Now, even as someone who identifies as “Anglo-Catholic”, who is closer to a “Prayerbook Catholick”, I have never, ever thought that St. Joseph will sell my house, St. Clare would cleanse my T.V., or St. Jude would find my missing keys. I have also never thought that “flying to the patronage” of the Blessed Mother would “save me”. But, what is doctrinally wrong with the Hail Mary in regards to asking for prayer? How is it different than me asking you for the same?

2.) Why is Eucharistic Adoration frowned upon? Is it true (as Fr. Benedict Grochel states) that the first Eucharistic procession and adoration was in Canterbury Cathedral?

Although they are not quite the same, I am going to answer these two questions together. Both deal with a popular medieval practice that was attacked and then marginalized within Anglicanism during the sixteenth century. Furthermore, each practice was revived in the nineteenth century, and it is not uncommon to find Anglicans today who are familiar with, or even incorporate, such devotional practices into their own lives. In what follows I want to first look at the historical roots of these changes before answering the questions themselves. Sometimes it is difficult to find grace in someone else’s devotional practice(s), but we must strive to overcome judgmentalism, which sustains and is sustained by the scandal of Christian division.

Reforming Popular Devotion

Why was popular medieval devotion attacked in the sixteenth century? One could argue—and not unfairly—that the reformers were sometimes quite harsh in their approach to less intellectual expressions of the Christian faith. One could also argue—and again, not unfairly—that the reformers spent far too little time explaining why they deemed some long-standing devotional practices unacceptable. Condemnation is not the same as catechesis. These points are fair and sound. But we must also inquire into the historical origins and roots of the reformers’ critiques. However flawed in their application, their pastoral concern was real.

Erasmus of Rotterdam
by Hans Holbein the Younger

I know of no finer (or funnier) pre-Reformation attack on popular religion than Erasmus of Rotterdam’s The Praise of Folly. For Anglicans, Erasmus is especially important. His Paraphrases—short commentaries and summaries on each book of the Bible—were among the official texts of the Edwardian and Elizabethan reformations. Every priest was expected to own and study the Paraphrases and every parish was expected to have them on hand as well. Like the Paraphrases, The Praise of Folly was translated and reprinted in sixteenth-century England. Although never an official text, it shaped the opinion of many people. It therefore offers us much insight.

From start to finish, Erasmus writes in the voice of Folly, a female jester, who opines on the state of religion. She concludes that there is one fundamental problem with pilgrimages, prayers to saints, and excessive liturgical pomp (not to mention overcurious scholastic speculation): each is a distraction which marginalizes the fundamentals of Christian faith and life. Consider the following statement on devotion to the Blessed Virgin:

What a crowd of them can be seen lighting candles to the Virgin Mary, and in broad daylight, when there is no need for them! Yet how few of the same crowd try to imitate her in the chastity and modesty of her life, in her love for celestial things?[1]

Erasmus advocated the philosophia Christi (‘the philosophy of Christ’). From this point of view, external devotions are far less important than the intentional pursuit and practice of piety. Importantly for the first question, Erasmus also opposed assigning particular tasks to particular saints. Such things are the folly of a worldly life, but Christians should pursue the folly of God: the wisdom of Christ.

One might argue that in his criticism, Erasmus was unkind; only a fine line can occupy the ground between satire and cynicism. Yet at the same time, I suspect that we agree with his primary concern. Devotion should always be intentional; it should deepen self-knowledge and strengthen virtue. If devotion becomes a means of distraction or escape, it can become a form of self-deception, indulgent delusion, or an idol. (The same is no less true of theological study, I might add.) First things must come first.

The Hail Mary and Corpus Christi Today

To answer your first set of questions: ‘what is doctrinally wrong with the Hail Mary in regards to asking for prayer?’ Answer: nothing. ‘How is it different than me asking you for the same?’ Answer: it is no different. First, the Hail Mary is based on Scripture. It begins by repeating the archangel Gabriel’s greeting to the Blessed Virgin. By consciously making Gabriel’s words our own, we may better enter into the central mystery of the Christian faith: the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. How could such an affirmation be wrong?

Some people might be upset by the second part of the Hail Mary, which asks the mother of our Lord to intercede for us both now and at the time of our death. This request directs our attention to the communion of saints, the wider body of Christian believers both past and present. To use Biblical terminology, the communion of saints is more than just the living; it also incorporates those who are “asleep in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:18). We live on even after death, and our life-after-death is in Christ.

The Bible tells us little about what lies between our “death” (or, to use a more traditional word, “dormition”) and our resurrection. We do, however, have a small number of interesting tidbits. For example, the apostle Paul says that “to be absent from the body is to be home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). Furthermore, in the Apocalypse/Revelation, John writes that when he beheld heavenly worship, he saw “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8; cf. 8:4). By the word “saint,” the New Testament simply denotes any faithful Christian. Insofar as Christians live on in some way after death, and insofar as that death involves prayer, then Mary is among those who intercedes before the divine throne. Requesting prayers of her is no different than requesting the prayers of the Christian next door, for the communion of saints includes Mary no less than your Christian neighbor. If one disagrees with this, I fail to see how one can make sense of Scripture. (Incidentally, this does not necessitate a high Mariology. Mary’s intercessions are nothing if not part of the wider collection of intercessions offered by the whole communion of saints.)

To answer your second set of questions: ‘Why is Eucharistic Adoration frowned upon?’ Eucharistic Adoration was rejected in the sixteenth century because it was seen as something that undermined the original purpose of the Eucharist: communion with Christ. I do not know how Eucharistic adoration is practiced today, but in the medieval era it did not culminate with the celebration of communion. Rather, people prayed before the Eucharist but did not receive it. The liturgy was no different, for laity could only receive the Eucharistic bread once per year. (They were forbidden from receiving the Eucharistic wine.)

This raises an interesting question. Which expresses greater reverence for the Eucharist— paying much attention to elaborate theology while receiving the consecrated bread only once per year, or receiving the consecrated elements more often while paying less attention to elaborate theology? For Anglican reformers, the latter was preferable to the former. The Church of England maintained a broadly medieval theology of the sacraments as “effectual signs of grace.” This language was maintained in Article XXV in the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. However, the Church of England rejected transubstantiation, a technical definition enshrined at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Anglicanism has never defined the mode of Christ’s presence. Consequently, over the course of Anglican history various definitions have sometimes jostled with one another. (We should note that this variety is little different than the variety of the medieval era; transubstantiation may have been the official view, but it was neither the only view nor the most traditional view.)

Cranmer and other reformers were inspired by a far higher vision of the Eucharist than was prevalent at the time. Because of this, they rejected Eucharistic adoration, which made the Eucharistic something seen but not received. (And just for the record, the first Eucharistic Adoration actually took place in Liège, although it was certainly popular in England.)

Grace in Devotion

But what of today? Despite ecumenism, one of the great, unresolved issues in the Church concerns popular devotion. At a basic level, popular devotion always implies a theology, even if its practitioners are not theologically articulate. In condemning Eucharistic adoration, for example, Cranmer did far more than just condemn one expression of popular devotion: he condemned both a liturgical practice and the divorce of elaborate sacramental theology from frequent sacramental participation.

The pastoral methods of the reformers did much but they also left much undone. I practice neither Eucharistic adoration nor any form of Marian devotion, but I have friends that do. Can I find the grace made manifest in their lives through such practices? Yes. The same is true of evangelicals and their Bible devotions: I can see grace made manifest. We must be able to look at devotion—so often the most intimate and sensitive expressions of faith—and respond with words of grace, rather than judgment. This can be immensely difficult, particularly if we have left one form of Christianity for another. Yet maturity entails proactively preventing my experience from determining how I view the experience(s) of others. When we look at the devotional practices of other Christians, we should be like the Blessed Virgin and “ponder these things” (Luke 2:19). How else can we keep first things first?

Some Further Reading

The Praise of Folly is available in a wide variety of editions. Gregory D. Dodds, Exploiting Erasmus: The Erasmian Legacy and Religious Change in Early Modern England (University of Toronto Press, 2009), is an excellent survey of Erasmus’ influence in England through the end of the seventeenth century. Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1992), is the standard history of the rise, development, and partial demise of Corpus Christi celebrations.


[1] Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, in Robert M. Adams, ed. and trans., The Praise of Folly and Other Writings (W. W. Norton & Co., 1989), p. 48.

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21 Responses to Ask an Anglican: The Hail Mary and Corpus Christi

  1. Pingback: Ask an Anglican: The Hail Mary and Corpus Christi | Guyer's Weblog

  2. Nick Hibbeler says:

    Your responses were incredibly thoughtful and informative. God bless.

  3. Andrew Nixon says:

    Here are some free PDF and other format downloads of “The Praise of Folly”:

    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/erasmus/folly.html

    http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=551

    http://archive.org/details/praiseoffollybyd00erasrich

    I would make reference to the Reformed position of Direct Access to the Throne of Grace requiring no intermediary whatsoever or to put it in the vernacular with no irreverence intended – why speak to the monkey when you can speak directly to the organ grinder.

    Christ Jesus is our all-sufficiency in everything.

    Hebrews 4:16 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

    • guyer says:

      Might I propose that the position above – ‘requiring no intermediary whatsoever’ – is rather overstated? An intermediary is indeed required. The Christian has mediated access to the throne of grace, and the mediation here in question is provided by Christ alone. Furthermore, Hebrews 4:16 is not the preserve of the Reformed, but part of the common deposit of faith shared by all Christians.

      How should we apply this passage? In particular, should the mediation of Christ cut us off from the wider Church? That is, if I have access to the Father through Christ, does this mean that my brothers and sisters in Christ, both the living and the dead, are irrelevant to my prayers? Clearly this cannot be the case. Otherwise, one cannot explain why Christians pray in the Apocalypse and elsewhere in the New Testament.

      The mediation of Christ is all-sufficient for its intended end: the justification of the faithful. The mediation of Christ is not all-sufficient for other ends because the mediation of Christ is not given for the attainment of other ends. Thus the intercessions of the Church, whether by the living or the dead, are not and cannot be set against the mediation of Christ. The end of the latter is not the end of the former.

      • Andrew Nixon says:

        I notice you do not quote Scripture at all in any of your assertions guyer. Are we not people of the book? To the Law and to the Testimony then. I think you will find your post to be quite vacuous when you do.

      • guyer says:

        Mr. Nixon, you may wish to re-read the full post above.

      • Andrew Nixon says:

        “Otherwise, one cannot explain why Christians pray in the Apocalypse and elsewhere in the New Testament.”

        Chapters and Verses? I know of no instance where we are told to invoke those who sleep in Jesus or where they are found interceding on our behalf.

        “The mediation of Christ is all-sufficient for its intended end: the justification of the faithful. The mediation of Christ is not all-sufficient for other ends because the mediation of Christ is not given for the attainment of other ends.”

        Chapters and Verses? I know of no such limitation to the Savior’s mediation.

        Hebrews 4:16 is perspicuous, it needs no “application”.

  4. Fr Ian Wetmore says:

    Very nicely explained. Thank you. As an Anglo-Catholic who graduated from Wycliffe College (you can see the inherent conflict) I felt as if I was between a rock and a hard place as a seminarian on issues such as these.

  5. Bobby says:

    This was amazing.

  6. Josh says:

    I have no issue with the invocation of saints per say. The Lutheran-Roman catholic dialogue states, “Saints on earth ask one another to pray to God for each other through Christ. They are nei­ther com­manded nor for­bid­den to ask departed saints to pray for them.” i am not sure that they can hear me but nontheless it is a great way to remember that the Church in heaven and the Church on earth pray together to the same God. However, what about invoking saints during Mass? we hold that, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation”. I know that Anglocatholics would agree with this but then they pray to the saints and Mary during the Mass. This kind of borders on required belief or putting faith into this subjective but not sinful or wrong practice. What do you think?

    • guyer says:

      I have never actually experienced praying to saints in worship; can you give an example? I have certainly heard saints referenced in prayers – e.g., ‘together with King Charles the Martyr, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the saints’. But I get the sense that this is not quite what you are referring to. (For the record, a distinction should be made between praying to saints and asking the saints to continue in their intercessions for us.)

  7. Josh says:

    To give you a little about my background so you understand where I am coming from, i was raised a confessional Lutheran, but have been attending a Traditional Anglican parish for the last 2 years. I often deliberate between the two Traditions. Sometimes Anglicans win the debate in my mind and other times Lutherans do. My Anglican Priest will pray the rosary as a group and I was just wondering if this is proper. Asking the saints to continue their intercessions for us makes more sense now that you mention it. The fact that the saints pray for us in heaven is an objective truth. Thanks.

  8. MichaelA says:

    Great article, Benjamin+, many thanks.

    “I do not know how Eucharistic adoration is practiced today, but in the medieval era it did not culminate with the celebration of communion. Rather, people prayed before the Eucharist but did not receive it. The liturgy was no different, for laity could only receive the Eucharistic bread once per year. (They were forbidden from receiving the Eucharistic wine.)”

    Good point. A wry illustration of this is provided by the “15 Demands” of the leaders of the Prayer Book Rebellion. They were unhappy with Cranmer’s reforms and wanted a return to previous practice – the detail of their demands inform us as to what things were like in at least some part of England before 1549:

    “3. We will have the Mass in Latin as it was before, and celebrated by the priest without any man or woman communicating with him.

    4. We will have the sacrament hung over the high altar, and thus be worshipped as it was wont to be, and they which do not thereunto consent, we will have them die like heretics against the holy Catholic faith.

    5. We will have the sacrament of the altar but [only] at Easter delivered to the people, and then but in one kind.”

    Part of Cranmer’s response to this was to point to passages from scripture and early Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr which indicate that the whole congregation (except those not yet admitted to full membership) participated in the Eucharist every Sunday.

  9. The Articles of Religion also imply that praying to/for/with deceased saints is “a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

    The Sacraments are “not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.”

    And, “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.”

    That’s a pretty clear statement of Anglican theology on the matter.

    • guyer says:

      As for the first point, Article XXII states, ‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’ On the one hand, I don’t see how this applies to the Hail Mary. On the other hand, I don’t see how one can understand this article without reference to the doctrine of the treasury of merits, which the pope was said to be able to dispense from. Purgatory, Pardons, etc., were all bound up with the medieval concern with merit. But the issue here under discussion has nothing to do with merit. I think that you have extended ‘the Invocation of Saints’ a bit too far by glossing it as ‘praying to/for/with deceased saints’ – and, by ignoring the underlying issue of merit in Article XXII, I think you have not glossed ‘the Invocation of Saints’ far enough.

  10. ianwetmore says:

    Bear in mind also that Article XXII specifically addresses the “Romish” doctrine concerning those things. The framers of the Articles, like Cranmer in his BCP, were so precise in their wording that if they meant doctrines concerning those things in general, they would not have specified “Romish”.

  11. Aaron says:

    This is an excellent response that is fair and avoids alot of the sad polemicism that is a legacy of the Reformation. Christianity is not just a bunch of rational propositions- the communion of saints should not exist merely “in theory” but also “in practice”. Orthodoxy is little use without orthopraxy.

  12. Patricia S Kreis says:

    Ben, how do you find the time to put all this “stuff” on line? I read every word of it and I am tired!!!
    It is only because I love you. Grandma

  13. guyer says:

    Reblogged this on The Conciliar Anglican.

  14. Ralph Davis says:

    1) If communication with saints in Heaven is possible, and desirable, for their prayers to God for us, then why is it that Saint Paul, Saint Peter, Saint John, Saint James, Saint Luke, et al., ALL the authors of the New Testament, never give any instructions whatsoever on it, or example of it? But somehow we today know better than THE APOSTLES did in writing God’s Word….as to what is good for us?

    2) “Requesting prayers of her is no different than requesting the prayers of the Christian next door, for the communion of saints includes Mary no less than your Christian neighbor. If one disagrees with this, I fail to see how one can make sense of Scripture.”

    This is a ridiculous and illogical statement–as saints ARE IN HEAVEN, not present, or even next-door, to one who prays–and there is absolutely NO indication that souls in Heaven attain the all-knowing, all-hearing nature of God–just by virtue of being with Him in Heaven. God can hear our prayers just BECAUSE he is omniscient–and He listens to our pleas because we are in Christ.

    Just as a reader of this text and I may both be in Christ–I cannot invoke that reader in prayer, any more than I can my neighbor next door (unless I go next door to find him)—since you, and the next-door neighbor, are not omniscient–ONLY our Lord is–and you simply cannot hear me asking you to pray, if you are not present with me now. So too, saints in Heaven can’t automatically hear–just because they are in Heaven–even though our Lord Jesus, being God, ALWAYS hears–and He is our designated Mediator. There is no scriptural evidence to the contrary–only layer upon layer of extra-biblical medieval tradition, with no other basis than speculation.

    Even if Jesus allows those in heaven to hear our prayer (and the testimony of the Apostles, holy Scripture, never says He does…)….He alone–in His omniscience–would be the agent, whereby they COULD hear. Why in the world would you go to the King asking him to communicate with His mother (or any other saint) so that she could intervene for you back with Him? This really is medieval nonsense the likes of which Luther and Cranmer et al. sought–by looking to the sufficiency of scripture–to sweep away.

  15. guyer says:

    1.) There is no Biblical basis for the assumption that everything pertaining to the faith is or should be found in the Bible. At no point in the post above did I write (in your words) that ‘we today know better than THE APOSTLES did in writing God’s Word’. Nor is there any Biblical evidence for the claim that ‘He [Jesus] alone–in His omniscience–would be the agent, whereby they COULD hear’. Let’s try and stick to the text, okay?

    2.) I certainly did not claim that saints (in your words) ‘attain the all-knowing, all-hearing nature of God’. Again, let us stick to what has actually been written.

    Despite your repeated insistence on Scripture, I fail to see where you have a Biblical basis for the statement that ‘saints in Heaven can’t automatically hear’. Besides, if you really want to press the point, then the story of Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22ff.), then Abraham certainly heard the cries of the rich man in Sheol. So at least some saints ‘hear’.

    This discussion is a good example of the distinction between Anglicanism and Calvinism. For Anglicans, the Bible leaves an immense amount open, while nonetheless conveying ‘all things necessary to salvation’. For Calvinists (at least today in the United States, where they have been influenced by Puritanism), anything not in the Bible is simply not true and not to be believed. Thus for Calvinists the canon of the Bible is not only closed, but its closure also closes off knowledge of all other things (including, in its more extreme versions, scientific research, etc.). This is why, in the early modern period and especially in England, so many Calvinists ended up creedal Unitarians (that is, not Trinitarians but Unitarians, believing in only one divine person in the Godhead; creedal Unitarians should not be confused with Unitarian Universalists). Puritanism was hardly a bastion of creedal orthodoxy.

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