Ora Pro Nobis, Pt. 2: A Defense from Scripture and Tradition

By Fr. Wesley Walker


Editor’s Note: This article is part of a larger discussion which began when Fr. Ben Jefferies (ACNA) posted a proposal for a Reformed Litany of the Saints which involved removing the traditional request that the saints pray for us. Fr. Wesley critiqued his article here at Earth and Altar. In an article titled, “Concerning the Saints,” Fr. Jefferies responded to his critics, implicitly including Fr. Wesley’s essay.


Icon of Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

Fr. Ben Jefferies’ reply to my critique of his article invites a continued conversation about comprecation of the saints. This is an issue of great importance because, while a devotional practice, it belies certain theological assumptions which should be explicated. Further, the issue is important because it speaks to the many fault lines of which modern Anglicanism is comprised.


In his initial argument, Fr. Jefferies suggested that reading Article XXII precludes the use of ora pro nobis in our prayers. Further, he asserts that the practice “very quickly trespasses on the communication that God intends for us to have with himself alone.” As a result, he suggests replacing the ora pro nobis in the Litany with the phrase “Glory to God.”


In my response, I offered a counter-reading of Article XXII which distinguished between simple advocation and invocation. Advocation is requesting the intercessory prayers of the saints while invocation goes further, crying out to the saints to effect some change in and of themselves. Rightly understood, advocation should pose little problem to the Christian based on our ecclesiology which sees the Ecclesia triumphans and the Ecclesia militans as ontologically united as Christ’s mystical Body. Further, I pointed to Scriptures like Hebrews 12:1 and Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4 — as well as the Church Fathers — as precedents for the practice. I also sought to answer Fr. Jefferies’ objections by utilizing St. Thomas Aquinas to explain how the heavenly host can hear our prayers through the very essence of God which they behold in the beatific vision. Finally, I leveraged Tract III to warn against liturgical alterations which change accepted liturgies merely out of preference.


Fr. Jefferies responded first with a few admissions. Namely, he finds it probable that the Ecclesia triumphans intercedes on behalf of the Ecclesia militans and suggests that a mature Christian may be able to add ora pro nobis to their private prayers. Still, he maintains, the Anglican Church cannot have ora pro nobis in public prayers because “The public witness of the Anglican Church must only present as true what the Word of God reveals with certainty. No more, no less.” He then moves through criticisms directed at his article, methodically advancing his position. In order to streamline my reply, I have organized it under the classic headings of “Scripture” and “Tradition.”


Scripture


I appreciate Fr. Jefferies’ willingness not only to respond to criticism gracefully but also with specificity. One way this is clear is his response concerning the Scriptures; however, despite his effort, there are three places in particular where his reasoning is insufficient. The first problem is methodological, concerning an argument about deduction from Scripture. The final two issues are his handling of specific Scriptures, particularly Hebrews 11:4-12:2 and Revelation 5 and 8.


Speculation and Deduction


The first aspect of the biblical debate which deserves to be addressed is the role of speculation and deduction from Scripture in theology. Fr. Jefferies warns, “Deduction from the Bible is never safe.” As he rightly notes, John Calvin’s double predestination — a synthesis of God’s sovereignty with the existence of hell — exemplifies dangerous extrapolation. I certainly share Fr. Jefferies concern in this area, especially in light of the Council of Orange’s rejection of the doctrine in AD 529. Yet, Calvin’s error is not reducible to the act of deduction from Scripture; rather, the problem is that the substance of what Calvin deduces, is unsatisfactory in light of the whole testimony of Scripture as received by the Church.


Fr. Jeffries’ position as an Anglican is puzzling. The Articles and the Prayer Book both profess a Nicene Trinitarianism which affirms the word homoousios to define the relationship between Father and Son. This is not a biblical word, nor is it so obvious to all readers of Scripture — hence the heretics who insisted on homooisios in its place. This is not to say the heretics were right. Far from it! It is, however, to affirm that the conclusion to use homoousios was arrived at through the use of careful deduction.


In arguing for a variation on the regulative principle, Fr. Jefferies leaves the Book of Common Prayer open to attack from other adherents to the same principle. Ironically, while considering his arguments, I was brought back to my time in seminary at Liberty University where I was often challenged on the issue of paedobaptism. Why do we baptize babies? Besides a few vague references to “household baptisms” which may or may not have included infants, there is little explicitly suggesting we ought to baptize the youngest among us. We baptize babies because it is a wholesome use of logic and inference — and also, to anticipate my argument from Tradition, because it was a consistent practice of the undivided Church. Similarly, but more absurdly, why do women take Communion? Nowhere in Scripture does it explicitly say they can. Of course, I expect Fr. Jefferies agrees that babies should be baptized and women should take Communion. Fr. Jefferies’s error is not the same as these admittedly extreme examples. Nevertheless he affirms the right position on paedobaptism and woman receiving Eucharist precisely because he understands the necessity of deduction in the task of theology.


It seems helpful to introduce a distinction between speculation and deduction. Speculation is the formation of a theory without firm evidence. Deduction reaches a conclusion through inference based on a universal premise. From an Anglican perspective, doctrines like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary seem best described as speculation. Surely we are capable of seeing the difference between those and the advocation of saints, a biblically deducible practice. Deduction is a helpful tool in biblical theology. It is not the only tool, and it does not guarantee right doctrine, as proven by Calvin and the heretics. However, Fr. Jefferies does not do enough work to justify his wholesale dismissal.


That being said, my case for advocation is more inductive than deductive. That is, I used a number of particulars, both in Scripture and Church History, to derive a universal conclusion. So even if I am wrong about the value of deduction, this would not affect my inductive approach to Scripture in my previous article.


Hebrews 11:4-12:2


In my initial post, I argued that Hebrews 11:4-12:2 can be used to bolster the practice of comprecation. The imagery of the “great cloud of witnesses” is about the active participation of the Ecclesia triumphans, much like the crowd at a sporting event. This imagery is solidified by the author in 10:32 where he describes the “hard struggle with sufferings” in athletic terms. Luke Timothy Johnson explains how the role of the “cloud of witnesses” is even more expansive than that of just “spectators”:

These are the heroes of faith who have themselves been ‘witnessed to’ through faith and by God (see Her 11;2, 3, 5, 39). They are not simply onlookers; they are fellow pilgrims who have run the same course to which this generation of believers is committed. It is small wonder that this image of a ‘cloud of witnesses’ lends itself so well to the belief in a communion of saints, bound together by the same life and effort. Indeed, the author has suggested that these witnesses themselves need the present generation to complete the race if they are themselves to be perfected (11:40).

I am the first to admit that this is not, in and of itself, conclusive. It is however one piece of evidence by which we can reach the conclusion that the saints are involved in our lives.

Interestingly, the only real pushback offered by Fr. Jefferies on this passage is that the witnesses in the mind of the author of Hebrews are Old Testament figures. “Indeed,” he states, “the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ per Hebrews 11 properly only consists of Old Covenant heroes, and so it may not even be a proof text for the Communion of Saints at all.” This is curious because any of the “Old Covenant heroes” who are in heaven are there on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice and are members of the mystical body of Christ just as much as any Christian. As the great Anglo-Catholic writer Vernon Staley observes in his masterpiece, The Catholic Religion, “In short, the old Church was absorbed in the new; and the Jewish religion, filled with new meaning and endowed with new powers, through the coming of God in the flesh, and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, passed into the Catholic Religion.” There are no dueling ecclesiologies here, only the fullness of faith brought about through progressive revelation. Far from a solution, Fr. Jefferies’ interpretation creates more problems by introducing a distinction between the audience of Hebrews and “Old Covenant heroes” that is aliens to the author and poses problems concerning the coherence between Old and New Testaments. Hebrews 12:1 is not the decisive building block for ora pro nobis, but it certainly helps the case.


Revelation


Fr. Jefferies also contests my use of Revelation 5 and 8 where the elders and saints offer prayers to God, depicted as incense. Fr. Jefferies dismisses this argument, saying, “Revelation 5 and 8 have been brought forward, but somewhat confusingly since the image of prayer as incense is manifestly apocalyptic, and again, there is no warrant for addressing a saint, since those prayers symbolized by the incense are directed to God” (emphasis original). He goes on to talk about how Revelation 6:9-10 is a better starting point because the saints in heaven are aware of things happening on earth, a point I happily grant.


In Revelation 5:8, the elders offer golden bowls full of incense which are the prayers of the saints. The elders are exercising a priestly function, especially in light of the fact that they hold harps (see 1 Chr 25). They are participating in Christ’s mediative activity as they offer the prayers of the faithful to God. Revelation 8:1-5 beautifully depicts the angel censing the heavenly altar: “and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.” It is not just probable that the saints pray on our behalf. It is biblical. As a result, the speculative assumption that the Ecclesia militans might not participate with the Ecclesia triumphans can be safely deemed contrary to Scripture.


Fr. Jefferies also dismisses the usefulness of the imagery of incense in this discussion as “manifestly apocalyptic.” Yet the very purpose of apocalyptic literature is to peel back the layers to show reality as it actually is. Whether the image of incense is figurative or not is of little importance, though the image in metaphor is how one should consider the substance (res) itself. The image participates in the res. So while we should be careful not to think the imagery here is literal, we should not doubt the actual reality to which they point. The fact that these verses appear in the apocalyptic genre heightens rather than diminishes their significance.


Zdzisław Jasiński (1863-1932): Palm Sunday Mass

Tradition


A second major topic in this debate has to do with the Church’s Tradition. The first major stasis point pertains to the accusation that I proposed a “private interpretation” of Scripture in violation of Articles XX and XXXIV. The second major issue is Article XXII in light of Anglican liturgical tradition. In the first instance, Fr. Jefferies’ response is only correct if one disregards the Second Council of Nicaea (787). For his second argument to be true, one has to expand the meaning of Article XXII beyond what it says to include the practice of the undivided Church while also ignoring early Anglican liturgies and contemporary Anglican bodies which utilize the Missal tradition.


On Private Interpretation of Scripture


It is interesting that one of Fr. Jefferies’ first arguments chides “private interpretation” of Scripture. He rightly affirms that “as Anglicans we cede our individual perspicacities to the mind of the Church.” Article XX is an agreement:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and keeper of Holy Write, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

He goes on to cite Article XXXIV, “Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly.” Far from supporting the omission of the ora pro nobis, the reasoning contained in these articles actually support its inclusion. The articles identify that the Church has the power to make decrees. The Church of England and her offspring are part of that Church but not the Church in toto. However, before our “unhappy divisions,” the Church did make declarations on many issues, including the use of saints in prayer. At the Second Council of Nicaea (787), the denial of invocation of the saints was anathematized.


Fr. Jefferies’ reply features a glaring lack of engagement with the Seventh Ecumenical Council. If it is because Fr. Jefferies belongs to a province where they only adhere to the “Christological clarifications” of the last three Councils, then this creates two problems. First, it is arbitrary, especially given that no warrants are provided to justify the decision. Second, the term “Christological clarifications” as a standard is so broad that it leaves open a variety of interpretations. The use of ora pro nobis concerns the Church’s internal relations as the mystical body of Christ and is thus inherently Christological. More broadly, the Seventh Ecumenical Council was intensely interested in hashing out the issue of icons and images on Christological grounds.


This undercuts Fr. Jefferies’ argument from silence assuming that the practice was absent in the first three centuries of the Church. Silence on the practice is not condemnation of it. The Anglo-Catholic conviction is that devotion may develop, though doctrine does not. So, for example, in my first post on the subject, Cyril’s explanation of the commemoration of the saints in the Mass (Catechetical Lectures 23:9) is not reflective of a new doctrine but a new practice based on inherited doctrine.


Further, Fr. Jefferies seems to assume that, because you cannot find a positive instantiation of comprecation in the first three centuries of the Church, it is more catholic to avoid the practice. Yet his contention that the saints may not be able to hear us is a unique product of the Reformation. Because silence is not condemnation, the claims that form the basis of his case cannot be found until the 16th century. Even then, these Reformation-Era arguments were reacting to the abuses of medieval Romanism which, as I established in my first essay, included much more than what we now call comprecation or advocation. These objections are understandable in their day because they are reactionary — but, as a result, they are not necessarily enduring.


This raises a final issue on the topic: authority. Do the Articles have precedent over the Ecumenical Councils, or vice-versa? I have no problem affirming that the Articles are important and necessary documents to be treasured by Anglicans. They are affirmed in the Solemn Declaration of the APA’s Constitution and Canons. However, as mentioned above, they are produced by one branch of the Church, not the whole Church. Therefore, while we adhere to them as Anglicans, we cannot adhere to them in a way that is in conflict with what has been decided by the undivided Church. To do so would go beyond the scope of the Article’s authors in light of Article XX, which gives authority to the Church. The clearest exertion of authority by the Church on this issue is the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Therefore, the assertion that interpreting Scripture to support comprecation is a “private opinion” is far from true.


Article XXII and Anglican Liturgy


To reaffirm an argument from my previous essay, Article XXII is very careful to make its condemnation specific to Romish abuses. In making ora pro nobis a target of the Article’s ire, we are not just condemning the practice of Rome but the undivided Church. This poses problems given the Seventh Ecumenical Council, as articulated above.


Fr. Jefferies argues that Anglican public liturgy does not address saints:

But when it comes to Addressing the Saints in a public liturgy we have a different story: The Articles are definitive, the Prayerbook is definitive (when contrasted to predecessor liturgies, the total absence of the Litany of Saints is glaring), The [sic] entire witness of catholic-minded teachers in England prior to 1850 are [sic] in perfect harmony and are definitive: it is not to be promulgated…In suggesting a Reformed Litany, I was not ‘altering the Liturgy’ as I have been accused of doing (The Litany of Saints is not one of our Liturgies!).

First, in looking at the development of Anglican liturgy, it should be pointed out that the BCP has included an appeal to the ministry of Angels. The 1549 Eucharistic prayer contains the following:

And although we be unworthy (through our manyfolde synnes) to offre unto thee any Sacryfice: Yet we beseche thee to accepte thys our bounden duetie and service, and commaunde these our prayers and supplicacions, by the Ministery of thy holy Angels, to be brought up into thy holy Tabernacle before the syght of thy dyvine majestie; not waiyng our merites, but pardonyng our offences, through Christe our Lorde, by whome, and with whome, in the unitie of the holy Ghost: all honour and glory, be unto thee, O father almightie, world without ende. Amen.

This is fully consistent with what has been discussed above regarding the use of Revelation.


The inclusion of the 1549’s reference to the ministry of the Angles is a secondary issue. The main problem for Fr. Jefferies is that the Litany of Saints is within the bounds of practice within the Continuum, where the Missal is an approved resource for general use. This is not unique to the Continuum, however, as some ACNA dioceses also allow the use the Missal and St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. So perhaps it is not what 16th century Anglicans did — and I believe they had good reasons for abstaining from the practice entirely given their context — but it is the public practice of at least some Anglicans today. The inclusion of the Litany, therefore, is not merely a private decision. The rhetoric of Reformed Anglicans who oppose the ora pro nobis verges upon a fallacious appeal to purity — they simply ignore the Anglicans who do engage in the practice.


While one might dismiss the inclusion as a mere quirk of Continuing Anglicans, it adheres to the spirit of the BCP’s preface:

So on the other side, the particular Forms of Divine worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein, being things in their own nature indifferent, and alterable, and so acknowledged; it is but reasonable, that upon weighty and important considerations, according to the various exigency of times and occasions, such changes and alterations should be made therein, as those that are in place of Authority should from time to time seem either necessary or expedient.

In one sense, this fits with the Reformational spirit of Anglicanism. There exists a freedom to properly adapt liturgies. The genius of Anglo-Catholicism in particular is that it brings a Catholic-minded reform to the broader Anglican tradition.


Further, Fr. Jefferies contradicts himself in his distinction between public worship and private devotion. In his first essay, though he did acknowledge that he might occasionally throw up an ora pro nobis, he refers to the practice as “false piety” that "very quickly trespasses on the communication that God intends for us to have with himself alone.” If this is true, there can be no room for the individual to make a decision to engage in a practice privately which tends towards “a slight to God.”


While the distinction between “private” and “public” prayer is a biblical one, it seems misapplied here. The biblical distinction rejects public displays of narcissistic indulgence in which one’s eloquence or piety is held over others. That is out of the scope of this discussion. Further, when one prays, one is joining with “Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven.” Because prayer is a participation in the Body of Christ, the distinction between public and private worship is overwrought. In one sense, private prayer is done alone. But in another sense, it is with all the saints, because to be a Christian is to be a member of this cosmic sacramental organism called the Church which includes both the living and the dead.


Conclusion


My hope and prayer is that this dialogue is fruitful and irenic rather than contentious and destructive. I certainly respect Fr. Jefferies, even as I disagree with his proposal, and hope my words convey that. The arguments from Scripture and Tradition simply do not seem to support his position. As Fr. Jefferies agrees, lex orandi, lex credendi is a foundational adage for liturgical practice. What we pray really does shape what we believe. It is hard for me to see how Fr. Jefferies’s theology — in which death so bifurcates Ecclesia triumphans and Ecclesia militans that it is wrong to ask for intercessory prayer — does not produce a sterile ecclesiology. Such a view, in my opinion, risks cutting off hands or feet or legs from the Body. Of course I know that is not what he actually believes or intends. However, the use of ora pro nobis conveys a stronger ecclesiology which sees the Ecclesia triumphans and Ecclesia militans as ontologically and metaphysically united in Christ. Ora pro nobis reminds us that we are members of a Body, linked by a union that transcends time and space, that is not bound by geography, and that is stronger than death.

EARTH &

ALTAR

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