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Toward Convention III: celebrating the saints

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Resurrection is the fundamental datum of the Christian faith. The astonishing claim of the earliest Christian communities was that, because Jesus was raised from the dead, death no longer has the last word for those who follow him in faith. That from which all fear springs and that toward which all fear leans has been robbed of its power. This is, of course, an eschatological hope, and it is precisely and only through death that we know death to be conquered. But because of our resurrection hope, Christians have generally supposed (the exception being the excesses of Protestantism) that the veil separating those disciples of Jesus who continue to labor in this world from those who have “gone on before” into the nearer presence of God to be exquisitely thin. We are knit together in “one communion and fellowship” encompassing both the living and the dead.

As a consequence, Christian worship has always included (again, save for the excesses of Protestantism) prayers specifically on behalf of the faithful departed, that they will continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God, that they will continue to yield themselves to the loving ministrations of the Divine Physician of their souls, to the end that the image of God with which they were conceived, but which has been distorted by the power of Sin, be perfectly restored, such that they can look God in the eye and not die.

Among the faithful departed, there have been some in whom the Christian community has perceived and discerned that this process of sanctification — being made holy — is substantially complete. Different sections of the Church have had varying procedures for identifying these individuals. Some are exceedingly formal, and others quite informal, intuitive, consensual. Invariably, of course, there are indications during the person’s lifetime that he or she is extraordinary, giving evidence of uncommon virtue or heroic witness for the gospel, perhaps to the point of shedding blood. But, whatever process is used, it has been the custom to honor these “Saints” (holy ones) on the liturgical calendar, usually on the date of their death. In celebrating these heroes liturgically, it has been a ubiquitous part of Christian piety (again — dare I pick on them again? — save for the excesses of Protestantism) to invoke their prayers on our behalf.

The liturgical calendar, like an old cemetery, eventually filled up. Every saint could not be commemorated universally; there had to be room for local and regional variation. But it seemed to make sense to set aside one day on which “all saints” could be honored. In the west, this ended up being November 1, and in the Episcopal Church, All Saints’ Day is numbered among the top tier of annual celebrations, styled a “principal feast” (one of only seven). As a sort of echo of the feast of All Saints, the following day, November 2, evolved as a more somber commemoration of “All Souls” (in Episcopalian parlance, “All Faithful Departed”). This is a day when we can remember before God — hopefully in the Eucharist — Grandmother Jones and Uncle Harry and that ninth grade English teacher who was so kind and helpful.

There is, of course, some overlap between the two categories, and it would be a mistake to put too fine a point on this, but, in general, those honored on All Saints’ Day (and on their respective days in the calendar) are Christian exemplars of whom we might intuitively be inclined to ask their prayers for us. Those whom we commemorate on All Souls’ Day are really “all sorts and conditions” of Christian people. While some may have been quite virtuous during their journey through this world, they were not distinctively and memorably heroic in their witness. They are more or less like the rest of us. They are people whom we might be intuitively be more inclined to offer our prayers for them, rather than ask theirs for us, though we might, of course, do both with those in either category.

At the time of the English reformation in the 1500s, the liturgical calendar, as part of the reactivity of the times, was pared way, way back. It wasn’t until the middle of the last century when Anglicans allowed the pendulum to swing in the other direction, adding the names of selected non-biblical saints to the calendar. The volume Lesser Feasts and Fasts was commissioned by General Convention, and when the most recent Prayer Book appeared in 1976, its calendar included scores of new commemorations. At each General Convention since then, this calendar has been expanded, but with only a handful of additional commemorations in any given triennium.

In the 1990s, the liturgical calendar began to become a political football. It was noticed that those commemorated were disproportionately clerical and disproportionately male and disproportionately Anglican (imagine that, in an Anglican calendar). In an effort to redress these perceived imbalances (indeed, some would argue, injustices) the pace of new proposals for inclusion began to pick up markedly. Then, in 2006, the convention passed a resolution that directed the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to begin work on a thorough revision of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. The ensuing fruit of the SCLM’s labor was presented in 2009, renamed Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints, and authorized for trial use. At the upcoming 77th General Convention, the SCLM has offered a slight revision of the proposed revision (mostly as concerns the collects), asked that HWHM be continued for trial use, and also asked that convention direct it to produced a finished product for consideration by the 78th General Convention, which will meet in Salt Lake City in 2015.

Holy Women, Holy Men is, unfortunately, a train wreck.

In 2006, the SCLM set forth some criteria for inclusion in the sanctoral calendar:

  1. Historicity. There should be some evidence that the person commemorated actually existed.
  2. Christian Discipleship. This would imply, at the very least, baptism, and probably also a life that is overtly and intentionally Christian.
  3. Significance. “Those commemorated should have been in their lifetime extraordinary, even heroic servants of God…” They should be inspiring in their example.
  4. Memorability. Not necessarily universally remembered — some worthies have fallen through the cracks — but deserving of being remembered.
  5. Range of Inclusion. Try to have more who were not male, not white, not ordained, and not Anglican.
  6. Local Observance. “It should normatively be the case that significant commemoration of a person already exists and … local and regional levels…”
  7. Perspective. Those commemorated should be of the category of history, not journalism. In other words, they should be dead for at least a couple of generations, or fifty years.
  8. Levels of Commemoration. After Principal Feasts, Feasts of Our Lord, Sundays, and Holy Days, “each commemoration should be given equal weight.”
  9. Combined Commemorations. “Where there are close and natural links between persons to be commemorated, a joint commemoration would make excellent sense.”

For the most part, these are excellent criteria. Number nine strays from tradition a bit, since saints are usually commemorated on the anniversary of their death, but this is not egregiously offensive. Number eight is neither here nor there, in my opinion. But numbers one, two, three, four, six, and seven are rock solid, squarely within the tradition. I can even get behind number five, to a point — that point being that it’s not taken to an extreme and allowed to trump all the others. Sadly — and inexplicably, given these criteria — that’s exactly what HWHM does.

In the calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts (still, I should add, the official calendar of the Episcopal Church), I count 143 “days of optional observance” (the Prayer Book term for what we’re talking about here). HWHM (as offered in 2006) proposes (again, by my fallible count) 118 more, an increase, at one time, of 82%. And there are several other proposals for even more additions, coming from both the SCLM and dioceses, slated for consideration in Indianapolis. Some of them are no doubt worthy; others, not so much. But, either way, it’s just too many for us to get to know and decide whether to adopt all at the same time, even with three years to visit with them when their names pop up. It’s like liturgical speed dating, and there’s no compelling reason why we should be forced into it.

Clearly, though, many of the proposed commemorations are just not appropriate for the calendar of the Episcopal Church in 2012.

Some come from streams of Christianity that — both in their time and ours — find the whole notion of a “calendar of saints” ludicrous at best, if not repugnant.
If we really did believe in a living and active communion of saints, then we might rightly fear the indignation of the likes of Fanny Crosby, Lottie Moon, Adoniram Judson, William Carey, and many others. We actually dishonor them by our own insensitivity to their theological convictions.

Some expressly left Anglicanism to embrace the Roman Church, and/or were lifelong Roman Catholics who have not yet been canonized by their own church.
One thinks here of Elizabeth Seton, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Pope John XXIII. Again, they would have been horrified at the prospect of what we’re doing. Could we possibly be more filled with hubris?

Some have not been gone long enough to meet the criterion of “perspective”
(Frances Perkins, Thurgood Marshall, Albert Luthuli). Why do we have to add them right now? Let’s see what their shelf life is.

Some had only a tenuous connection with Christianity
(John Muir, for example) and one was simply not a Christian at all, but a Jewish military chaplain (one of the group known as the Dorchester Chaplains).

Many were undeniably accomplished, and they have blessed both the church and world, but they are not remembered for piety or saintly character, only for their accomplishments.
This is by far the longest list, and it includes the likes of the architects Cram and Upjohn, clinicians William Mayo and Charles Meninger, composers Bach, Handel, Purcell, Byrd, Merbecke, and Tallis (one could possibly make a case for Bach, but probably not the others; and as long as we’re not concerned about piety, why not Vaughan Williams, Britten, or Howells?); painters Gruenwald, Cranach, and Durer; astronomers Copernicus and Kepler; and author Harriet Beecher Stowe. And this is barely scratching the surface.

What we have here is category creep. These are all people worthy of being remembered; indeed, worthy of being remembered by the Christian community. We should find a way to help make that happen. We should know about them. I’ve enjoyed learning about the ones I’ve had to look up. But, with some exceptions, they are wildly out of place in a sanctoral calendar. They are “November 2″ kind of people, not in the “November 1″ class. I’ll be glad to pray for John Calvin’s continued growth in holiness (presuming he is indeed among the elect!). But I’m a long way from invoking his prayers for me. To put Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson in the same category as Perpetua and Felicity does a disservice to all of them.

I’m not in principle opposed to expanding the community of those whom Episcopalians intentionally know themselves to be knit together with. But not 120 all at once. Let’s reaffirm the original criteria for inclusion from 2009, and then restrict ourselves to no more than ten new trial use additions in any given triennium. Eternity is long enough to wait for us.

One Response to “Toward Convention III: celebrating the saints”

  1. Andrew B. McGowan says:

    There’s a lot of good sense here, but I take issue with one element of the critique. In the references to RC saints and heroes the writer doesn’t, IMHO, quite hit the right spot regarding the balance between the local or particular and the universal. Although the warning about hubris is worth hearing, part of the problem with the inclusions of HWHM is actually they’re simultaneously too expansive and too confessional — it picks saints “we like.”

    To exclude members of other communions per se is just another version of this, with denomination substituted for politics or theology. The RC Church’s own canonization processes are not quite adequate for the universal Church’s purposes — take Oscar Romero as the glaring example. Including people in HWHM is not making them honorary Anglicans, it’s acknowledging them as examples of sanctity worthy of our attention (and for some of us, devotion). An Anglican sanctoral in a given Church like TEC ought to have local and specific members as well as universal ones. I agree fully that the respect we owe to faithful Jews and others is best shown by other means than Mormon-like post-mortem baptism.

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