What’s a saint for?

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Who or what is a saint in the Episcopal Church?  Of course, we are all saints, yet there are still exemplars, heroes and heroines of faith that we hold up and celebrate.  But why do we celebrate these people and not others, and how do we evaluate whether new heroes and heroines of faith are worth emulating and celebrating?  The Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music and the General Convention are once again wrestling with how to honor the vast army of Christian worthies, with multiple new people suggested (or re-suggested) through GC resolutions.

 

Most of us are aware that the Roman Catholic church has a well-defined process, with committees and investigators plus the blessing of the pope to move from venerable to beatific to saintly – plus you need to have accomplished some verified miracles post-mortal death.  That’s rooted in the idea that saints are people who have ascended directly to heaven and are able to effectively lobby the godhead to accomplish a miracle here on earth.

 

Protestants (and Anglicans, for you sticklers) have from the beginning largely rejected that idea of sainthood.  Martin Luther once preached;

I have previously and often said how the saints should be honored.  That is, you must make a distinction between the saints who are dead and those who are yet living, and what you must do for the saints.  You must turn away form the dead and honor the living saints.  The living saints are your neighbors, the naked, the hungry, the thirsty; poor people; those who have wives and children, who suffer shame, who lie in sins.  Turn to them and help them.

 

In the Episcopal Church, back in 2006, the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) outlined some guidelines for naming new persons to our calendar of saints;

  1. Historicity. Christianity is a radically historical religion, so in almost every instance it is not theological realities or spiritual movements but exemplary witness to the Gospel of Christ in lives actually lived that is commemorated in the Calendar.
  2. Christian Discipleship. The death of the saints, precious in God’s sight, is the ultimate witness to the power of the Resurrection. What is being commemorated, therefore, is the completion in death of a particular Christian’s living out of the promises of baptism. Baptism is, therefore, a necessary prerequisite for inclusion in the Calendar.
  3. Significance. Those commemorated should have been in their lifetime extraordinary, even heroic servants of God and God’s people for the sake, and after the example, of Jesus Christ. In this way they have testified to the Lordship of Christ over all of history, and continue to inspire us as we carry forward God’s mission in the world.
  4. Memorability. The Calendar should include those who, through their devotion to Christ and their joyful and loving participation in the community of the faithful, deserve to be remembered by the Episcopal Church today. However, in order to celebrate the whole history of salvation, it is important also to include those “whose memory may have faded in the shifting fashions of public concern, but whose witness is deemed important to the life and mission of the Church” (Thomas Talley).
  5. Range of Inclusion. Particular attention should be paid to Episcopalians and other members of the Anglican Communion. Attention should also be paid to gender and race, to the inclusion of laypeople (witnessing in this way to our baptismal understanding of the Church), and to ecumenical representation. In this way the Calendar will reflect the reality of our time: that instant communication and extensive travel are leading to an ever deeper international and ecumenical consciousness among Christian people.
  6. Local Observance.Similarly, it should normatively be the case that significant commemoration of a particular person already exists at the local and regional levels before that person is included in the Calendar of the Episcopal Church as a whole.
  7. Perspective.It should normatively be the case that a person be included in the Calendar only after two generations or fifty years have elapsed since that person’s death.


The SCLM has occasionally opted to ignore these guidelines as they created alternative trial calendars (Holy Women, Holy Men & A Great Cloud of Witnesses) in the years since.  Tom Ferguson, who blogs as the Crusty Old Dean has a great piece on this here.

 

Back in the 1960’s the Church created Lesser Feasts and Fasts (LF&F), a separate book with propers (readings, collect, preface) for each person included on the calendar.  Over the years, LF&F grew bit by bit.  Then the church created Holy Women, Holy Men in 2010 as a “trial use” book of commemorations.  That volume was replaced by A Great Cloud of Witnesses in 2015 (all the while, LF&F was the “official” calendar volume).  And then for this General Convention, SCLM proposed to just update Lesser Feasts & Fasts.  Here’s what they wrote back in March;

We took up this complicated challenge, and offer the church a new version of Lesser Feasts and Fasts that can either stand alone or also be used in cooperation with A Great Cloud of Witnesses for those who would like a more exhaustive list of commemoration. We are asking General Convention to authorize Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018 “for optional use throughout the church.”

 

At this year’s General Convention, there were again, several proposed resolutions asking for people to be added to the “official” calendar.  Everyone from Origen of Alexandria to Emily Malbone Morgan (In 1884 Emily Malbone Morgan founded the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a dispersed, vowed community of women – I didn’t know who she was either).

 

Whether any of those eleven will make it, is still undetermined.  I had the chance to correspond with the Rev Mark Stanley, who proposed Origen to be added.  When I asked why Origen (whose theology underpins a great deal of early Christian thought, but who later was thought of as theology suspect) should be added, he replied;

Great questions! Was Origen condemned “by an ecumenical council of the undivided church”? Some scholars would say yes, but many are unsure or would say not.  Many scholars proclaim that Origen has been unfairly condemned. One of my favorite quotes is from the great Anglican historian Henry Chadwick,

 “If orthodoxy were a matter of intention, no theologian could be more orthodox than Origen, none more devoted to the cause of the Christian faith.” I think Origen’s multilayered approach to scripture is so needed today when fundamentalism is on the rise. Saint Augustine scoffed at Origen for not believing in the endless torments of hell. I think a little more emphasis on the mercy and love of God could certainly help today.

 I am not an academic – just a parish priest. But I have been a fan of Origen since my Seminary Professor Rebecca Lyman (who strongly supports this resolution) taught me about him. Recently we have had a big influx of people in our Episcopal calendar. It started bugging me that this holy man of tremendous influence has not received the honor his deserves. Can the church correct its past wrongs – I sure hope we can.

 

Origen is probably worthy, and Emily Malbone Morgan sounds like a hero of faith for certain.  On one hand, our calendar is heavy on Europeans and men, on the other hand it’s kind of unwieldy.  How can we balance the need for celebrating the diversity of saints with the need to recognize, across the whole church, only those especially worthy of remembrance?

 

Here’s the thing, your parish can celebrate the life of any saint you want to.  When, God willing, the Lord takes Fr. Adeeb Khalil from this earth, I intend to celebrate the life of that worthy and faithful servant of the Lord.  At the same time, I’m not convinced that the whole church should do so just because I think so – the Holy Spirit needs a say too.  Ministry is contextual, maybe our celebrations should be too?  The Roman church differentiates between those honored in local contexts and those honored across the whole church.  Maybe we should look to do the same?

 

Here’s what I would propose.  A Lesser Feasts and Fasts that is a bare bones calendar of saints that reflects the diversity of heroic Christian life.  And then a second volume of worthy Christians, call it Holy Women, Holy Men (HWHM) that just gives short biographies.  Then we could add criteria that prior to inclusion in the church’s calendar (LF &F), a “saint” could be added to the HWHM volume without need to resort to GC resolution, and prior to inclusion in LF & F, they should be demonstrably celebrated in multiple congregations across several dioceses.  People could look through HWHM for inspiration, or they could just look around their own parish.  That way we could avoid the rush each General Convention to add people and we would lift up only those truly worthy of praise and prayer across our whole church.

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Elizabeth Anderson
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Elizabeth Anderson

That is pretty much exactly what the SCLM proposed, albeit with A Great Cloud of Witnesses as the larger, more comprehensive volume. The legislative committee seems to have been concerned that this would set up "tiers" of saints, with some of them "demoted" from the main calendar to the more comprehensive supplement. Their recommendation is to include everyone on one giant omnibus list. We'll have to see how Convention responds to that proposal. Certainly the feedback that we received on the SCLM was that most people find the calendar to be too crowded and unwieldy, but it is difficult to make any concrete suggestions for pruning without upsetting people!

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