More on the Baptismal Litany of the Saints

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.

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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15 Responses to More on the Baptismal Litany of the Saints

  1. C. Wingate says:

    Can you point me to an Anglican example of such a litany? It occurs to me that I’m tending to think about it in a very Roman context, and that an Anglican version is probably different from my preconceptions.

    • Derek Olsen says:

      I doubt an Anglican version would be too different. For instance, here’s the first portion from such an animal included in the new revision of the St Augustine’s Prayer Book:

      Lord have mercy upon us.
      Christ have mercy upon us.
      Lord have mercy upon us.
      O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth, have mercy upon us.
      O God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
      O God, the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful,
      O Holy Trinity, One God,
      Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.
      Holy Michael the Archangel,
      All holy Angels and Archangels,
      All Holy Orders of Blessed Spirits,
      Holy Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
      Holy Moses, Miriam, and Aaron,
      Holy Ruth and Naomi
      Holy David, Samuel and Elijah,
      Holy Zachariah and Elizabeth
      Holy Joachim and Anne
      Holy John the Baptist,
      Holy Joseph,
      All holy Patriarchs and Prophets,
      Holy Peter and Paul,
      Holy Andrew, James and John,
      Holy Matthew, Mark, and Luke,
      Holy Mary Magdalene, Pray for us,
      All Apostles, Disciples and Evangelists,
      Holy Stephen,
      Holy Ignatius of Antioch,
      Holy Polycarp,
      Holy Alban,
      Holy Perpetua and Felicity,
      Holy Thomas a Becket, Thomas Cranmer and William Laud
      Holy Constance and Companions
      Holy Jonathan Daniels and Martin Luther King
      All ye holy martyrs of our God,

      …and so on.

    • Jonathan says:

      The one place I’ve seen this litany in an Anglican context was in the Order of Julian of Norwich’s monastic professions. I don’t think they’ve publicly posted the text of those liturgies, however. Partially because the text changes slightly from person to person.

  2. Fr. Aaron Orear says:

    Re: honouring the BVM…“The Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her Son.” ~ Pope John XXIII
    I love how on the one hand the Pope tells us not to elevate the Blessed Virgin to the status of deity, while on the other hand he makes her sound like a potentially wrathful goddess. “She is not pleased…” For me this captures catholic (both Roman and Anglo) tension around how Mary ought to be honoured.

  3. Toni says:

    I’ve come across some Anglican adaptations of the Litany of the Saints that changes the request from “pray for us” to “pray with us”. This I think is acceptable to a broader swath of Episcopalians.

    As far as the explicit naming of the Saints that is accomplished in say chanting the Litany, Derek. Don’t we already do this in remembering specific Saints in our prayers of the people and in the Great Thanksgiving, as my own Broad Church parish does?

    • Derek Olsen says:

      The problem with the propers as we have received them in LFF and as is continued in HWHM is that the perspective is purely historical; anything eschatological has been rooted out. The only sense these prayers give us is that these were people who did things in the past and are now dead. There’s no sense that they remain fellow travellers and ministers with us in our continuing work.

      If we’re going to stress the baptismal covenant and baptismal ecclesiology to the degree that the Episcopal Church seems to be doing, then we actually have to consider the full implications of what these things imply. It’s not good enough that the covenant is made–it must be kept. It’s not good enough that we celebrate “all the baptized” if we then ignore the majority of them!

      And , yes, I’d say what I’m suggesting here is entirely within the bounds of our eucharistic prayers as we join with “all the company of heaven” who worship Go. But, again, these eucharistic prayers are referring to the eschatological character of the church which is what is being suppressed. I’ll write more about this, hopefully in my next post.

  4. Brother Jeremy, CSJW says:

    I remember when our Bishop made his Visitation on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. He said that as an Anglican, he was not comfortable observing the Feast. I raised my eyes toward Heaven and loudly proclaimed, “Hey Jesus, Bobby says your Ma’s not Immaculate.” We observed the Feast!

  5. Father David says:

    There is such a Litany in the Church of England’s Common Worship – Times and Seasons, titled a Litany of Thanksgiving for the Holy Ones of God, and specifically suggested for use in procession to or from the Font. It can be found here http://www.churchofengland.org/media/41160/tsallstsadv.pdf
    Anecdotal evidence suggests that Parishes from a variety of traditions are beginning to explore its use, especially as it does not use the ‘pray for us’ response.

    • Derek Olsen says:

      Thanks for this link, Father David! I like the way that the litany clusters people and pulls out an aspect—and the way it places them in juxtaposition: the pairing of Cranmer and More is brilliant! This litany too takes no position on whether we understand the saints as past or present, leaving it open, but this does give a great model to think with.

  6. Father David says:

    There is also a fine example of an eschatalogical (and local) perspective in the Scottish Episcopal Church’s First Alternative Litany for use at an Ordination,

    As you called Mary to be the Mother of the Lord, sanctify our wills.
    As you were glorified in Ninian, bringer of good tidings, lighten our darkness.
    As you empowered Columba, apostle of our land,strengthen our weakness.
    As you received the worship of Kentigern, Mungo the loved one,deepen our love.
    As you advanced your kingdom through the work of Margaret,Mother and Queen,
    fill us with zeal.
    As you built up this church by the witness of …,
    renew us in faith.

    The full Litany has a prayerful dignity to it, and can be found here http://www.scotland.anglican.org/media/liturgy/liturgy/scottish_ordinal_1984_amended_2006.pdf
    scroll down to page 20 in the PDF

  7. Stephanie Curtis says:

    If I had to categorize myself, I would say that I come from the Evangelical stream of Christianity. You know–we’re the people who run the other way at the mention of the word “Saint.” I just wanted to mention that I thoroughly enjoyed this post and the perspective of “saints” that you put forth. I may not be “there” yet, but am not running the other direction either.

  8. Annie Ham says:

    Very interesting. I become more aware of the reality of the Communion of Saints as my faith progresses.

  9. Pingback: Theses on Sanctity | haligweorc

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