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So great a cloud of memories

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By Derek Olsen

The Episcopal Church’s 2003 General Convention kicked off a process for revisiting the venerable liturgical supplement, Lesser Feasts and Fasts. In 2009, General Convention authorized for trial use the fruits of this process, now called Holy Women, Holy Men. It’s fair to say that reactions to the new work have been mixed. Some people from either a conservative or catholic perspective were outraged by the book and its contents. My dominant feeling is not outrage but disappointment — so much could have been done that was not; this book was, at the end of the day, an opportunity not taken.

Lesser Feasts and Fasts was produced shortly before the authorization and publication of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Therefore it was, in a sense, still created within the paradigms set by the 1928 prayer book. But Holy Women, Holy Men was authorized 30 years later; it had the opportunity to integrate further the theology of our current prayer book — especially its emphasis upon our baptismal theology and its implications for Christian life and Christian death — and it failed to do so.

The introduction to the volume offered by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold specifically cites two collects from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the first from the Common of Saints, the second from the Burial Office. These collects emphasize two central points: the fellowship between believers present now upon the earth and those who have gone before us, and the intercessory role of the saints. These prayer-book doctrines exemplified in Bishop Griswold’s chosen collects are decidedly absent from the rest of the book. More troubling, these doctrines flow from a common source that forms the centerpiece of the current prayer book: a recovery of the centrality of baptism.

In the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, we are baptized into the death of Christ and are raised from the waters with him, partakers in his resurrection life (see Rom. 6:3-5). We are incorporated as “very members incorporate in the mystical body” of Christ in a bond that is “indissoluble” (BCP, p. 339; cf. p. 298). Or, as stated best by St. Paul, continuing his meditation on life in Christ: “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38,39). Paul’s words reinforce Jesus’ statements concerning the God of Abraham being the Lord of the Living and not the dead — made cryptically in the Synoptic Gospels and more plainly in the mystical heights of St. John: “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:25,26). The prayer book collects these passages and more into the assurance proclaimed in the Proper Preface for the Commemoration of the Dead: “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens” (BCP, p. 382).

Thus our faith teaches that, as a result of this baptismal life, our physical death is not and cannot be the end of our life in God. Our prayer book — like our Scriptures — takes a studied reticence toward the exact mechanisms and states of those who have died in the flesh. However, in continuity with catholic teaching East and West, two broad groups are distinguished from one another in the prayers of the Church: the Church Expectant and the Church Triumphant. On one hand, we pray for the departed, asking for them “eternal rest”; on the other, we praise God for the “saints who have entered into joy” (BCP, Form III, p. 387). On one hand, there are those yet in the process of “continual growth into thy love and service”; on the other, there are those who are “partakers of thy heavenly kingdom” and who — in the fullness of that growth — “see [God] as he is” (BCP, pp. 330, 862).

No matter the current state of the faithful dead — whether they are still growing in grace or have already arrived into the full presence of God — both the Scriptures and the prayer book leave no doubt that, through baptism, they share in the same life that we live. They remain part of the “communion of the saints” that we confess in the creeds. By virtue of their life in Christ through the mystery of baptism, they are for us not historical figures but eschatological figures. The difference between the historical and the eschatological is one of timing: historical figures are beings of the past who exert influence upon us solely at our initiative, through our memories of their past deeds; eschatological figures are beings of God’s present and are therefore simultaneously past, present, and future within our human frame of reference. Furthermore, their influence upon us is based in fluid interaction like our interactions with those physically present with us now.

When we recognize the faithful departed as eschatological beings, we realize that they are full and present members within our worshipping assemblies. This is the fellowship spoken of in the collects I have cited, the same “fellowship of Christ’s Body” with reference to baptism in the collect for the Second Sunday of Easter (BCP, pp. 172-73). In their eschatological role, the alive in Christ pursue without hindrance the same ministry that they performed in the days of their physical life: “The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love” (BCP, p. 855). They continue to pray for us as we continue to pray for them and with them, maintaining the spiritual demands of fellowship.

And these are precisely the grounds on which Holy Women, Holy Men fails.

While the collects of Holy Women, Holy Men have been criticized on a number of grounds (most notably by Bishop Daniel H. Martins) as have the application of the selection criteria, my central concern is that in both of these areas Holy Women, Holy Men has fundamentally chosen to treat the saints of our church as historical figures and not as eschatological ones. It mistakes and misrepresents the relationship between the present Church Militant and the equally present Church Triumphant, constructing a vision of the Church at odds with the prayer book.

When we look across a representative sample of the new collects, a distinct structural pattern begins to appear. The collects for Anna Julia Haywood Cooper and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright and for the Mayos and Menningers are perfect examples:

Eternal God, who didst inspire Anna Julia Haywood Cooper and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright with the love of learning and joy of teaching: Help us also to gather and use the resources of our communities for the education of all thy children; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever.

Divine Physician, your [sic] Name is blessed for the work and witness of the Mayos and Menningers, and the revolutionary developments that they brought to the practice of medicine. As Jesus went about healing the sick as a sign of the reign of God come near, bless and guide all those inspired to the work of healing by the Holy Spirit that they may follow his example for the sake of thy kingdom and the health of thy people; through the same Jesus Christ who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The pattern inherent here can be described — perhaps a bit reductionistically — as follows: “O God, we thank you for A. and B. who were great Xs. Help us to be great Xs too.” The action and the relationship described in the prayer are strictly between “us” and God; we thank God, and ask God to motivate us in particular ways. The saint or saints serve only as historical illustrations. They are neither engaged nor beseesched: within the scope of the collect, they have lost both their agency and personhood. They are historical, not eschatological.

Also troubling is the relationship between the “X” for which the prayer asks and the Christian life. In these collects, the saints are exemplars, but what we ask to imitate is their professionalism, their success at “X-ness.” The problem is that we are not trying to form professionals; we are trying to form Christians. Whether the saints were good at their jobs — however holy those jobs might have been — is not the point. Rather, the point should be that these specific people displayed the incarnate presence of Christ in their lives and were thus participants within the sacramental conversion of all creation into the life of God.

In contrast to what I believe to be its original intention, the ecclesiology of Holy Women, Holy Men as taught through these collects shrinks the effective Church to the merely visible. We may have reference to the figures of the past, but that was then and this is now. There is no sense that those who labored for Christ in ages past are yet working with us hand in hand, our prayers mutually supporting and aiding one another. While intending to display the broad array of those who have proclaimed Christ through the ages, the reduction from the eschatological to the historical level does the opposite. It reinforces the “tyranny of the visible,” the assumption that the Church is composed of the ones whom we see around us.

In one sense, this perspective does grant a sense of the Church’s particularity: that the Church is not an abstract notion, but is made up of real individuals who gather together for real reasons. But more important than this (literally) parochial perspective is the understanding that the Church is broader and wider and deeper than our local community. This is why we have things like diocesan cycles of prayer and the Anglican cycle of prayer; in our intercessions we are reminded that our praise and prayer are bound not just to those we see around us, but to all those who are bound into Christ through the miracle of baptism. Our prayer is an opportunity to name the Church, recalling those who are separated from us physically yet present with us eschatologically in Christ, whether the separation is due to geographical distance or to physical state.

When our liturgical books and services restrict themselves to the Church Militant, we are impoverished through the loss of our two additional orders: the Churches Expectant and Triumphant. In a stroke, we reduce the faithful departed to memories and histories, excluding them from our continuing communal life in Christ. Doing so distorts our understanding of the eschatological arc of the Christian life.

Treating the Church Triumphant historically also allows us to treat the faithful departed in ways that appear more problematic when viewed eschatologically. For instance, history deals with facts and ideas, not feelings. When we recognize our treasured dead as still active in our midst rather than sources of good ideas it changes how we relate to them and treat them. How do John Calvin and Karl Barth feel about being included in an Anglican calendar — especially given their own statements on the sanctoral system within their earthly lives? What do John XXIII or G.K. Chesterton think about it — particularly when they have not been so recognized within their own communion?

Alternatively, several individuals are recognized as being the first at achieving or accomplishing something. Firstness is a historical category, not an eschatological or spiritual one. What if some unknown archive were rediscovered and their “firstness” were overturned? If they became the second at their achievement would they still be remembered on the strength of their witness to the risen Christ ahead of the deserving alternatives? These questions and more lead me to ask if Holy Women, Holy Men has met the mandate asked of it in 2003: Is it truly complete, or would it benefit from further thought and revision?

Holy Women, Holy Men had the opportunity to serve as an extended parish directory for the Episcopal Church to give names, addresses, and snapshots of those who even now participate within our larger community. What we received instead is a history book filled with facts and past dates. Our eschatological partners have been reduced to historical examples. The theology of our prayer book requests more, expects more. Good work has been done here — but better work awaits.

Derek Olsen, theologian in residence at Church of the Advent, Baltimore, completed his doctoral studies in the New Testament at Emory University, where he taught courses in homiletics and liturgics. He writes about liturgical spirituality at haligweorc.

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Holy Women Holy Men

One Response to “So great a cloud of memories”

  1. Bishop Daniel Martins says:

    This is a superb and insightful article. I am extremely grateful for it, as it will inform my contribution to the Committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Music and General Convention, which will consider finalizing HWHM.

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