This article was originally posted on Anglicans Ablaze in January 2011. It is one of a number of selected articles that I plan to repost in coming weeks.
By Robin G. Jordan
Among the ecclesiastical reforms that the English Reformers implemented was to do away with the practices of invoking the saints and venerating their relics. The Reformers rejected both practices on solid biblical grounds. The Scriptures teach that we have need of only one mediator with God—Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). We do not need a priest or a dead or living saint as an intermediary between God and us. The Reformers recognized the veneration of relics for what it was—idolatry. The condemnation of idolatry and the human proclivity for idolatry are major theme in the Bible.
Nowhere in the Bible do we find any passage that condones the practice of invoking the blessed dead. The Bible, on the other hand, is very clear in its condemnation of a number of practices involving communication of any kind with the dead. Among King Saul’s sins was that he consulted a witch who also a necromancer (1 Samuel 28:7-25)
The angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary (Luke 1:28-37) and Mary’s song in praise of God (Luke 1:46-55, cf. the Song of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2:1-10) do not justify the practices of venerating Mary, petitioning her for favors, and making pilgrimages to sites where her apparition has been seen. Nor do they provide adequate grounds for the practice of bearing the statue of Mary or the consecrated host in procession in honor of the Virgin Mary, as is done at Walsingham.
While Revelations 5:8 and 8:3-4 contain references to the prayers of the saints in heaven, these references do not support the idea that we can ask the blessed dead to pray for us. They will not bear the weight of such an interpretation.
Although the Church of Rome and the Eastern and Oriental Churches may have a very ancient tradition of invoking the saints and venerating and petitioning Mary, a tradition that goes far back into antiquity, we cannot assume on this basis that the practice is acceptable, much less apostolic. The teaching of the apostles is found in the New Testament. While we find in the New Testament, precedence for praying to Jesus, we do not find any precedence for invoking the saints or venerating and petitioning Mary.
From where then did this practice come. The similarity between this practice and the ancient pagan practice of keeping and invoking household gods, the Lares and Penates of the Romans and the Telaphim of the ancient Israelites, is inescapable. In addition to these household gods and the gods of the major pantheons, the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world offered sacrifices to a host of minor gods and petitioned their favor. They also offered sacrifices to the dead. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a number of minor deities were Christianized and made saints. The cult that developed around Jesus’ mother incorporated many beliefs and practices associated with the pagan goddesses of the ancient Mediterranean world. Those areas were the cult of Mary flourished were the same areas were the cult of the Goddess in her many forms had flourished. Devotion to the Goddess was transferred to Mary who in the eyes of the pagini, the country folk, was simply another manifestation of the divine Mother. In one ancient icon Mary is depicted with the cow horns of the Goddess Hathor.
The modern practice of labyrinth walking is traced to the Medieval practice of walking around the labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in lieu of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Chartres Cathedral was built in an area of France in which the cult of Mary flourished in the Middle Ages and the cult of the Goddess flourished in pre-Christian times. The labyrinth is the icon of the Goddess. It is carved over the entrances of ancient tombs as a symbol of her protection of the dead. The cross at the center of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth is actually the double-bladed ax, or labris, of the Goddess, itself an icon of the Goddess. In Neolithic times labyrinths were built at the entrance to temples dedicated to the Goddess and double-bladed stone axes have been found within these labyrinths, votive offerings to the Goddess.
Devotions to Mary, the invocation of the saints, and the veneration of relics have no place in authentic historic Anglicanism. The argument that Anglicanism cannot be tied to a particular historic period and has evolved since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is spurious. It has been used to justify the acceptance of all kinds of innovations that are at odds with the biblical, Protestant, and Reformed character of Anglicanism.
What then is the place of Mary and the saints in Anglicanism? Mary and the saints have in the Anglican tradition been highly esteemed for their example of faithfulness, godliness, and obedience to God, not for any special relationship with Christ or God or their miracles. Churches have been named in honor of Mary as they have been named in honor of the apostles. Anglicans mark Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel.
Then Mary said, "Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word." (Luke 1:38)They also take note of the words of Luke 11:27-29:
And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, "Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!" But He said, "More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!"They do not forget that Mary was a mortal woman. They remember how Jesus entrusted the care of his widowed mother to the apostle John while he was dying upon the cross.
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, "Woman, behold your son!" Then He said to the disciple, "Behold your mother!" And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.(John 19:25-27)Anglicans have observed feast days such as the Annunciation and the Purification of Mary because they celebrate events in the New Testament story of Jesus’ birth and life. They recite or sing the Song of Mary because it glorifies God, as well as recalls such an event.
"My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever." (Luke 1:46-55)The Ancient-Future movement, sometimes known as the Convergence movement, has in recent years promoted a number of practices in the Anglican Church that are alien to the spirit of biblical Anglicanism. In doing so it has followed in the steps of the Oxford Tractarian movement and its Anglo-Catholic successors. The object of the latter was to undo the English Reformation and to “Catholicize” the Anglican Church to the point where the Pope would accept the Anglican Church back into the Roman fold. The object of the Ancient-Future movement is less clear. Its adherents have a fascination with antiquity and an overly romantic view of the past. They are apt to equate with the primitive faith the accretions that have defaced and overlaid that faith. They are far from critical in their reading of the Patristic writers and are willing to embrace their teaching where it does not agree with the Scriptures. While the English Reformers greatly esteemed the early Church fathers, they were much more cautious in their approach to the Patristic authors. They also sought to strip away the accretions and to restore the purity of the apostolic faith, the faith of the New Testament. They retained the old where the old might still be well used provided that it was consonant with Scripture, was edifying, and did not foster superstition.
Modern Anglicans can learn from the teaching and example of the English Reformers. Before incorporating a practice into the life and worship of the church, they need ask these three questions:
Is this practice agreeable to Scripture? Any claim that the practice is consonant with Scripture must be carefully examined. Many texts that are used to support a practice really do not. They are being read out of context, twisted, or stretched so that they give the appearance of supporting the practice. The whole testimony of Scripture must be considered, not a single text in isolation, expounded so that it conflicts with other passages. Where it is unclear whether or not a practice is agreeable with Scripture, it is best to avoid the practice.
Is this practice edifying? Is it easy to understand? Does it actually serves to build the congregation up in the Christian faith and way of life? If the practice requires a complicated explanation and the benefits of the practice are not immediately obvious to the congregation, it should be avoided.
Does this practice foster superstition? Does it encourage or strengthen belief in “erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s word?” A number of practices while they themselves may not be inconsistant with the Scriptures, do, however, promote beliefs that are. If there is any question as to what belief a practice may be teaching or reinforcing, it is best to avoid the practice. Here we would be wise to give thoughtful consideration to 1 Corinthians 8:11 and Romans 14:21.
The principles underlying these three questions are found in the essays “Concerning the Service of the Church” and “of Ceremonies, Why Some Be Abolished, and Some Retained” in the front of The Book of Common Prayer of 1662. They lie at the heart of classical Anglicanism. They are an integral part of the legacy that the English Reformers bequeathed to posterity—the heritage that they passed down to future generations, the patrimony upon which those who accept the papal offer are turning their backs.