A big thank you to all of you who commented here and to those who answered a similar call on the SCP list!
So—it appears that the practice isn’t as wide-spread as I expected and, undoubtedly, that’s a function of the types of churches I tend to go to. I’ve summarized it this way in the piece I’m working on:
One of the great triumphs of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the recovery of the Easter Vigil. This celebration of the resurrection reminds the gathered community that the story of God’s people and God’s mighty, saving acts recorded in Scripture are intimately bound to the community where new believers are baptized into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, then fed a holy meal at a place that is simultaneously tomb, sacrificial altar, and family table. As this rite has spread, one of the local customs found at some churches is a litany of the saints forming part of the procession to the font at the time of baptism. A few churches have even brought this custom into every baptismal occasion, and as the gathered community prays for those who are to be baptized, the wider family of saints is likewise asked to pray for them and all gathered there.
This practice, while not sanctioned by the prayer book, reflects an organic understanding and application of the baptismal covenant, and makes a crucial move towards communicating our baptismal ecclesiology. Baptism is a beginning. It is the establishment of a new life in Christ. It is the gifting of the Holy Spirit, and the mystical union into Christ and the physically gathered community of believers. It is not the consummation and perfection of the life in Christ, but its start. The inclusion of the litany of saints directly after the baptismal vows holds up before the eyes of the whole community fellow baptized believers recognized not for their ordination status or because of their historical importance but because they offer us examples of a life lived in conformity to the vows that we have just taken once again upon ourselves. They give us concrete, incarnate pictures of the goal of baptized life.
Furthermore, when we ask for the prayers of the saints, we make a strong statement about the nature of baptism and the life-in-Christ into which we are subsequently drawn: we affirm that the company of the baptized still includes those who have gone before and that they continue to share the same life-in-Christ and participate in the continuing ministry of the church as the baptized whom we see around us.
I do want to address the use and abuse of the saints briefly. There’s no question in my mind that the “cult of the saints” is a deformation of the Christian proclamation. There is a tendency in certain kinds of catholic devotion to treat the saints as deified demigods rather than exemplary fellow-believers. Indeed, certain practices around the BVM make me rather uncomfortable as I think the line between the proper honor she is due and the worship due only to the Uncreated God is crossed. Here’s my take on things in outline form:
- Scripture tells us that we are to pray for one another and the whole world—this is a core part of the ministry of the church
- In Baptism we are united to the life of God; we are hid with Christ in God
- Nothing can separate us from the love of God and, by extension, the life of God including death
- The baptized who have died still live in God in some way that we do not and likely cannot understand by means of bio-mechanical principles
- If the baptized still retain their essential identity within this post-death state then they still continue in the ministry of the church including intercession for the Church and the world
- When we ask the saints to “pray for us” we are not necessarily praying to an individual with the expectation that they will hear us and alter their prayers to add us as a result of our liturgical request. Rather:
- In naming them explicitly, we remember the full scope of the baptized and that our community includes all the baptized regardless of space and time
- We ask God that we be remembered and included within their general prayers for the Church and the world
This may strike some (on both sides of the issue) as being weasely—I’d consider it being precise in such a way to honor Scripture, the tradition, and what reason tells me. The saints then are not mediators through whom prayers must be channeled in order to reach God; they’re fellow voices just as my priest, parish, and family pray for me and I for them. In naming the saints, though, I align my prayers with theirs, and reinforce my own commitment to live a life like theirs which is marked by service in the image of Christ.
Looking at it from a slightly different angle is the “Anglican Cycle of Prayer” model. We pray for churches we will never see and for people whom we will never meet. But in the act of praying for them, we are reminding ourselves of the scope of exactly what “all the baptized” really means, and we hope that we will be included as their church intercedes for ours. I don’t see this as being substantially different from asking to be included in the prayers of the saints, and I’ve never heard any one argue that we shouldn’t pray for other churches.
I am reticent on the degree to which the saints can “hear” us. I’m personally inclined to think that something more than an impersonal action is occurring when we ask to be included in the prayers of the saints, but that becomes a much more difficult line to argue (particularly around what can be regarded as credible evidence) especially if it need not be.