One of the more recent kerfuffles in the Anglican world surrounds the recently adopted statement of belief by FiFNA (Forward in Faith North America for those who aren’t nourished on the Anglican alphabet soup), the Anglo-Catholic organisation. The point of controversy is #8, which affirms that the (first) Seven Ecumenical Councils are in fact “ecumenical and catholic”, i.e. universally applicable.
The resulting problem concerns the last of these councils, Nicea II, which upheld the veneration of icons in the wake of the Iconoclast Controversy (one which, admittedly, had some inspiration from advancing Islam). For those of a more Reformed or Protestant bent in Anglicanism, the veneration of icons or images is anathema.
I can remember an Episcopal Church which had reservations about using a crucifix as opposed to a plain cross, something which I had some fun with at the end of this. But the issue has many alley ways, and this piece hopes to explore at least some of them.
Let’s start with the business of conciliar authority. One of the aims of Anglo-Catholicism is to improve union with other churches which share the apostolic succession (and that, for some Reformed types, is controversial in itself). The ecumenical councils would seem to be a good place to start. But the stopping point varies even among these. The non-Chalcedonian churches such as the Copts, now in the crosshairs of the Muslim Brotherhood, would stop earlier than that. (We won’t even discuss the Nestorians…) OTOH the Roman Catholics claimed to have run up the number of ecumenical councils to 21, including controversial Vatican II. So, in some ways, the stopping point is arbitrary, and the attempt for unity and continuity isn’t as meaningful as Anglo-Catholics would like to think.
Second, the authority of any of the councils is an iffy proposition in the formative stages of Anglicanism, up to and including the 39 Articles. Basically a religion Reformed (well, mostly) in doctrine but “catholic” in liturgy and ecclesiastical structure, councils such as Nicea I were helpful but only so insofar as they affirmed what was in the Scriptures. Since the Scriptures didn’t explicitly endorse the veneration of icons much less asking the dead to intercede for us (to say nothing of that pesky Second Commandment, about as unpopular in some circles as the Second Amendment), most Protestant churches, even ones which are not strictly speaking Reformed, reject these practices.
Under these circumstances, getting to the heart of the matter can be difficult. Usually the central issue is worship or veneration, but for those of us doing the praying the heart of the matter is intercession, and that’s the way I plan to approach this problem.
The concept of asking someone else to pray for your needs–or something that’s on your heart that may or may not directly affect you–is well supported in the Scriptures. The intercessor par excellence is Jesus Christ, who as both God and man is able to take requests effectively from the latter to the former:
Again, new Levitical priests are continually being appointed, because death prevents their remaining in office; but Jesus remains for all time, and therefore the priesthood that he holds is never liable to pass to another. And that is why he is able to save perfectly those who come to God through him, living for ever, as he does, to intercede of their behalf. This was the High Priest that we needed–holy, innocent, spotless, withdrawn from sinners, exalted above the highest Heaven, one who has no need to offer sacrifices daily as those High Priests have, first for their own sins, and then for those of the People. For this he did once and for all, when he offered himself as the sacrifice. (Hebrews 7:23-27 TCNT)
As time moved on and Christians moved on to eternity, the idea sprouted that those who had lived especially exemplary (saintly) lives here had special favour with God, and that favour (along with their souls) did not expire when they did. So, if we asked them to intercede on our behalf, it would be effective.
But why did Christians feel the need to do this, with Jesus Christ at the right hand of God? The core force driving this trend was the nature of the Roman Empire itself. The whole Roman system was patronage driven, and as the Empire wore on the role of government expanded even as its stability receded. In a system like this, the key asset is access–access to those in power who can affect our lives, even to the point of ending them.
Coupled with this was the increasing remoteness of those at the top. The Roman Empire, without modern telecommunications of any kind and sprawled from Arabia to Scotland, was never a “flat” society (and our own society isn’t as flat as we’d like to think either). As time went on and the security of the system deteriorated, the emperors became more remote, and the Middle Eastern tendency to deify them in their lifetime became standard practice. With a remote leadership, the need to “know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody” to get what you need became even more important.
This kind of thinking permeated the Church as well. Jesus Christ became more and more remote, a trend accelerated by the theological controversies that followed Christianity’s legalisation. Those who were perceived to have access to him–Mary, the departed saints–took a larger role. Coupled with a society which had up to then worshipped pagan gods and idols, and the incentives for icons and their veneration was complete. And, seen in a context of intercession, the thing was entirely sensible.
Part of the goal (if that strong of a word can be applied) of the Reformation was to “cut out the middle man” (and woman) and restore the direct access we have to Jesus Christ, since “Our High Priest is not one unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has in every way been tempted, exactly as we have been, but without sinning. Therefore, let us draw near boldly to the Throne of Love, to find pity and love for the hour of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16 TCNT)
The basic problem with any system that encourages the veneration of icons and statues and asking intercession from those which they represent is that it distracts us from Jesus Christ, who is our perfect intercessor. It also discourages us from asking intercession from those who are still with us on the earth, which is an injustice to them because we pray not only to get results but to build our relationship with God, and the saints in heaven need neither. One of the reason modern Pentecost has been as successful as it has is that its saints on earth have had the reputation of getting prayers answered, something that would have been forfeited if it had encouraged asking the saints in heaven to intercede.
And as for Anglo-Catholicism? It needs to recognise that its idea is not really compatible with Anglicanism as originally formulated. It needs to either merge into Roman Catholicism (something the Ordinariate has simplified) or recognise itself as another branch of the Apostolic tree, a tree which is these days very leafy.