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Ora Pro Nobis: A Response to Rev. Ben Jefferies' 'Reformed Litany of the Saints'

By Fr. Wesley Walker

This Friday is All Saints’ Day. In preparation, Rev. Ben Jefferies, a Task Force member for ACNA’s Book of Common Prayer (2019) and current assistant to the custodian of the BCP, wrote an article for The North American Anglican titled, “A Reformed Litany of the Saints: For All Saints’ Day.” Rev. Jefferies interprets Article XXII of the XXXIX Articles in a way that precludes the use of the traditional Litany of the Saints because of its use of the phrase ora pro nobis (“pray for us”). 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.” Rev. Jefferies opposes the use of ora pro nobis as it falls under the condemnation of the Articles because “in reaching out in one’s spirit to departed saints very quickly trespasses on the communication that God intends for us to have with himself alone.” Though it is unclear to what part of the Litany he is reacting, Rev. Jefferies further warns, “to assume that the Saints somehow take more pity on us than the Father who would give his only Son for our sake is to insult the goodness of our God and Savior.” As a result, he proposes an adaptation of the Litany because he still appreciates that the classical prayer includes “All those names,” giving “concrete ‘faces’ to the abstract idea of the Communion of Saints” while simultaneously admitting, “I cannot in good faith pray ‘ora pro nobis,’ and as a priest I am bound to not lead the People of God in such a vainly invented thing.” His proposal is to write a new litany that appropriates what he personally appreciates while replacing “ora pro nobis” to “Glory to God.” While Rev. Jefferies argues with great sincerity and conviction, the substance of his proposal is lacking in his interpretation of the Articles and his use of Scripture, both of which prevent him from providing cogent argumentation for why the prayer is wrong, resulting in liturgical revisionism that is ecclesiologically lacking.

Article XXII and Anglican Precedent

For Rev. Jefferies’ proposal to be tenable, his assertions about Article XXII have to be correct. He takes “invocation of saints” to mean any communication with the Ecclesia triumphans, including the phrase ora pro nobis. However, his premises fail to bear the weight of his conclusion. The Article’s change from the original condemnation of doctrina scholasticum (“doctrine of the schoolmen”) to doctrina Romanensium (“doctrine of Rome”) reflects antipathy towards excessive practices in the Catholic Church rather than a blanket condemnation on all Patristic forms of prayers which involve the Saints. This is further strengthened by the fact that the Articles trend toward Lutheran language and theological inclinations and the term Romanistae is a common reference to the abusive Medieval Roman Church and her practices (see Richard Laurence’s An Attempt to Illustrate Those Articles of the Church of England, Which the Calvinists Improperly Consider Calvinistical).There is a helpful distinction to be made that clears up the ambiguity of the article. “Invoking the saints” can have two potential meanings. The first possibility is a prayer which requests saints to affect change through their “own power,” almost as if they are demigods. An example of this might be this prayer to St. Christopher while travelling: “Dear Saint Christopher, protect me today in all my travels along the road’s way. Give your warning sign if danger is near so that I may stop while the path is clear. Be at my window and direct me through when the vision blurs from out of the blue. Carry me safely to my destined place, like you carried Christ in your close embrace. Amen.”

However, the second possibility for what is meant by “invoking the saints” differs substantially in that it only requests the saints advocate for the Christian to God, in a way we might ask a friend or loved one here on earth to pray for us. This is embodied in the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of the womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Those are two radically different approaches. There is precedent in the post-Reformation Anglican tradition to thoroughly reject the first kind of “invocation” while allowing the second. Far from being a Tractarian “historical revision,” the devotional practice of asking saints for prayer finds room in William Forbes (1585-1634), a Scottish Bishop, who called the latter form the “advocation of Saints” in contradistinction to the “invocation” condemned by the Articles. This divide is admitted also by E.J. Bicknell, who, though he opposes it in corporate worship, allows the distinction in private devotion. There is a form of advocation in “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night” by Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711):

O may my Guardian while I sleep,
Close to my Bed his Vigils keep,
His Love angelical instil,
Stop all the Avenues of Ill.

Ken’s form of advocation does differ from his Catholic predecessors. Nevertheless, there is not a significant difference between this stanza and the use of Michael and other angels in the Litany. Finally, it should be noted that the homilies which address the topic are against the superstitious use of invocations, which resemble the former types of prayers, not against the latter (see Homily on Peril of Idolatry and On the Place and Time of Prayer). Homily on Prayer specifies the kind of invocation that ought to be avoided:

Let vs not therefore put our trust or confidence in the Saints or Martyrs that be dead. Let vs not call vpon them, nor desire helpe at their hands: but let vs alwayes lift vp our hearts to GOD, in the name of his deare Sonne Christ, for whose sake as GOD hath promised to heare our prayer, so he will truely performe it. Inuocation is a thing proper vnto GOD, which if wee attribute vnto the Saints, it soundeth to their reproach, neither can they well beare it at our hands. When Paul had healed a certaine lame man, which was impotent in his feet, at Lystra, the people would haue done sacrifice to him and Barnabas: who renting their clothes, refused it, and exhorted them to worship the true GOD (Acts 14.8-18). Likewise in the Reuelation, when Saint Iohn fell before the Angels feet to worship him, the Angel would not permit him to doe it, but commanded him that he should worship GOD (Revelations 19.10, 22.8-9). Which examples declare vnto vs, that the Saints and Angels in heauen, will not haue vs to doe any honour vnto them, that is due and proper vnto GOD.

Advocation does not violate the spirit of the Homily because it does not give the Saints and Martyrs undue trust because it does not request their aid in anything other than prayer.

A final example of where advocation is permitted is in Bishop Lancelot Andrewes Two Answers to Cardinal Perron, and other miscellaneous works where he states:

This one point is needful to be observed throughout all the Cardinal’s answer, that he hath framed to himself five distinctions: 1. Prayer direct, and Prayer oblique, or indirect. 2. Prayer absolute, and Prayer relative. 3. Prayer sovereign, and Prayer subaltern. 4. Prayer final, and Prayer transitory. 5. Prayer sacrifical, and Prayer out of, or from the sacrifice. Prayer direct, absolute, final, sovereign, sacrifical, that must not be made to the Saints, but to God only. But as for Prayer oblique, relative transitory, subaltern, from or out of the Sacrifice, that, saith he, we may make to the Saints. For all the world, like the question in Scotland, which was made some fifty years since, whether the Pater noster might not be saith to saints. For, then they in like sort devised the distinction of 1. Ultimate, et non ultimate; 2. Principaliter, et minus principaliter; 3. Primarie, et secundarie; 4. Capiendo stride, et capiendo targe; and, as for ultimate pincipaliter, primarie, et capiendo stride, they concluded it must go to God; but non ultimate, minus prcinipaliter, secundarie, et capiendo large, it might be allowed Saints. Yet it is sure, that in these distinctions is the whole substance of his answer. And whensoever he is pressed, he flees straight to his prayer relative, and prayer transitory; as if prier pour prier were all the Church of Rome did hold; and that they made no prayers to the Saints, but only pray for them. The Bishop well remembers that Master Caubon, more than once, told him, that reasoning with the Cardinal touching the invocation of Saints, the Cardinal freely confessed to him, that he had never prayed to Saint, in all his life, save only when he happened to follow the procession; and that then he sun ora pro nobis with the clerks, indeed but else not...They say to the Blessed Virgin, Sancta Maria, not only ora pro nobis; but, Succurre miseris, juva pusillanimes, refove flebiles, accipe quod offerimus, dona quod rogamus, excusa quod timemus (Holy Mary, be thou a help to the helpless, strength to the fearful, comfort to the sorrowful, pray for the people, plead for the clergy, intercede for all holy women consecrated to God; may all who keep thy sacred commemoration feel the might of thine assistance). (emphasis added)

Andrewes points out the inconsistency in the Cardinal’s words. In practice, the Cardinal would only go so far as to pray the ora pro nobis, with which Andrewes does not seem to have a problem. However, he points out that the Roman practice was not just to pray Hail Marys but it is clear, through prayers like Sancta Maria, Succurre Miseris, that Roman Catholic devotion to saints was often excessive, in violation of the Articles and Homilies. So while his attempt at upholding the Articles is admirable, Rev. Jefferies interprets them in an overly rigid way that does not allow him to see the devotional nuance of advocation, a practice which has precedent in the Anglican Church prior to any sort of purported “Tractarian revisionism.”

Scripture and Tradition

Another facet of Rev. Jefferies argument is that there is not biblical support for the idea of “invocation.” Of course, the practice of advocation of saints did develop, most likely starting sometime in the 3rd century. It is always dangerous to rigidly put a direct date on a practice because of manuscript attestation. While the first recorded prayer to Mary, the Sub tuum praesidium, dates to some point in the 200s, it does not mean it was the beginning of the practice (a similar argument could be made about infant baptism). Further, the development of devotion could have occurred in light of biblical support. In fact, there are three main places in the New Testament which have bearing on the discussion: Hebrews 12:1, and Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4.

Hebrews 12:1

Hebrews 11 is the famous “Hall of Faith” passage where the author defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, by the conviction of things not seen” and then lists a plethora of examples of faith from the Old Testament: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, the people of Israel at the Red Sea, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel, among others. On the basis of these examples, the author concludes:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

The imagery of the “great cloud of witnesses” does not envision the Ecclesia triumphans as passive observers but a group of spectators cheering on athletes, in this case the Ecclesia militans, running “the race that is set before us.” Far from being disembodied and aloof, the author presents them as concerned with what occurs to members of the Church here on earth.

Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4

In Revelation 5, John experiences a vision of heaven where there is a scroll that cannot be opened by anyone in heaven or on earth (5:3) until the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, arrives and opens it (5:5). John records, “When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (5:8).

Revelation 8:3-4 presents a similar phenomenon: “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.” John depicts a reality where the saints and angels in heaven are active in offering prayers to God for the saints on Earth.

The two passages taken together, while not fully proving the advocation of saints, certainly support the practice. The biblical case is not as dire as critics of the practice readily assume.

The Church Fathers

The practice has attestation in the writing of the Church Fathers, a fact which should influence our reading of the above passages. In 208, Clement of Alexandria wrote, “In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of saints standing with him [in prayer]” (Stromata, 7:12). By 350, it is clear that the advocation of Saints worked itself into the liturgy based on Cyril of Jerusalem:

Then [at the Eucharistic prayer] we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God would receive our petition. Then on behalf also of the Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word of all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it will be a very great benefit to the souls, for whom the supplication is put up, while that holy and most awful sacrifice is set forth. (Catechetical Lectures 23:9)

These trends developed with little resistance (at least on record). Not only that, but they harmonize with the Scriptures mentioned above. However, the most important piece of patristic evidence for the practice is the Seventh Ecumenical Council, The Second Council of Nicaea (787), which ruled, “If anyone denies the profit of the invocation of Saints, let him be anathema.” Of course, some Anglican jurisdictions only embrace the first four Ecumenical Councils and the “christological clarifications of the final three.” However, advocation is a christological clarification because it pertains to how those of us who occupy the mystical Body of Christ interact with one another. As mentioned above, the practice needed to be purged of its medieval excess, but it also has the support of an ecumenical council. The councils form the authoritative teachings of the undivided Church and ought to be submitted to by orthodox Christians everywhere.

Answering Objections

Having established Anglican, biblical, and patristic precedent for the advocation of saints, it is important to respond more specifically to some of Rev. Jefferies’ arguments. One of his major concerns is that the practice of saying ora pro nobis in the litany may take glory away from God and mistakenly bestows it on saints, to the point that we may be assuming the saints have more pity on us than God. In light of the abuses of the practice in Medieval Catholicism, it is an understandable concern. However, it misunderstands a healthier view of how to put the pieces together. The abuses do not negate any value in the practice and the practice predates the abuses. In the spirit of the Homilies, we can all affirm that the saints should not receive glory that is reserved for God alone. This requires priests to teach their people that when we request the prayers of saints, we do not bestow upon them undue honor. Instead, we are acknowledging our need for the prayer of others. Further, the saints are not in competition with God, but rather give him glory through their own prayers and worship. When done properly, the practice does not diminish but actually accentuates God’s glory.

Rev. Jefferies raises a common objection frequently employed by those who oppose advocation. “Nowhere in the Bible,” he says, “has God revealed that the departed saints are capable of hearing our petitions.” The saints are not omniscient or omnipresent so the concern is that they may not be able to hear our sundry prayers. Fortunately, Thomas Aquinas has provided a sufficient answer to this problem. For Thomas, the Divine essence is the medium whereby the beatified may know all things (Summa Theologia, Supplementum Tertiae Partis, 72.1). Even in their beatification, they are still finite creatures (the creator/creature distinction is not done away with, after all) so the saints still lack omniscience but “since the souls of the saints do not comprehend the Divine essence, it does not follow that they know all that can be known by the Divine essence...but each of the blessed must needs see in the Divine essence as many other things as the perfection of his happiness requires.” As a result, we should ask the saints to pray for us. He also cites the Litany as an example of “the common custom of the Church” (ST, Supplementum Tertiae Partis, 72.2). Thomas should assuage any concerns we might have that the saints can hear our requests for advocation.

Problems with the Substitution

The final area of importance is the proposed substitution made by Rev. Jefferies. In his opinion, it is better to add “Glory to God” in the place of the ora pro nobis. Like many projects of liturgical revisionism, it feels artificial. Tract III of Tracts for the Times, “On Alterations in the Liturgy,” helpfully provides guidelines about redactionism. In the Tract, Newman keenly observes, “But once begin altering , and there will be no reason or justice in stopping, till the criticism of all are satisfied...But this is not all. A taste for criticism grows upon the mind. When we begin to examine and take to pieces, our judgment becomes perplexed, and our feelings unsettled.” Liturgical changes should be undertaken carefully, not rashly because of the principle lex orandi, lex credendi: what we pray shapes what we believe.

So what is being communicated in the adjustment of the Litany? By transitioning from ora pro nobis to “Glory to God,” we are communicating something not only about martyrology but ecclesiology. In reacting against supposed abuses, the revised Litany relegates the saints to a place of passivity. This is done with the noblest intentions as Rev. Jefferies undoubtedly seeks to relieve competition between the saints and God, but the problem is that it is unnecessary and risks being counterproductive. The Litany realizes a hierarchy by which we can understand ourselves in the context of the Ecclesia militens and our relationship to the Ecclesia triumphans, which is one of love and support. To altogether remit the advocation of the saints is, whether intentionally or not, to obscure that relationship.

Rev. Jefferies has presented a thought-provoking alternative to the traditional Litany. Unfortunately, his critique is based on an understanding of Article XXII that seems freighted with assumptions which are not borne out or supported in his piece. Precedent from within the Anglican tradition, Scripture, and its reception in the Church give us a reason to believe advocation is an acceptable practice. As a result, this All Saints’ Day, pray the Litany with vigor!


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