Starting in this post and continuing in this post, I’ve been doing some thinking about the liturgical naming of our ecclesiology particular with reference to the dead and the saints. My focus there was looking at prayers and practices that try and express through language the contours of the spiritual community.
There are other ways that liturgies inform our understanding of spiritual community, though, and one of the most important is categorization. That is, through the vehicle of the Commons of the Saints, liturgies provide us a framework for understanding what sanctity looks like and charts out identifiable routes to sanctity.
This notions of commons and categories arose pretty early in the church’s worship. By the fourth century, we had three clear categories in particular: martyrs, confessors, and virgins. The martyrs were, of course, those who had died in the persecutions and had given the ultimate witness to the steadfastness of their beliefs. Confessors were those who had been tortured for their beliefs yet had survived. The historians’ descriptions of the bishops at Nicaea give us a sense of this. Theodoret writes:
Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. Among these was Paphnutius of Egypt. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs. (EH 1.7)
Virgins were women who had pledged themselves to virginity and who were typically martyrs as well. (In fact, I can’t recall off the top of my head any 5th century or earlier virgin saints who weren’t martyrs…)
I want you to notice something about this list. Martyr, confessor, and virgin aren’t job descriptions. It’s not about careers. Yes, many of the martyrs and confessors were bishops, priests or deacons but not all. But let’s also recall that taking any sort of leadership position in the church in the age of persecution was equivalent to painting a bulls-eye on your chest.
If I had to try and describe how these folks were being grouped, I think it would have to be something about dedication to the faith. Again, martyrs were those who had given the ultimate witness about their dedication. The confessors displayed with their bodies the depths of their commitment. Same with the virgins. Their dedication to the church not only deprived them of sex (which is pretty much the only way we think about it these days), but—more importantly and more significantly—deprived them of the whole social safety net for women which placed them in dependence to their spouse and children. And a virgin was giving up both.
So—this construction of sanctity seems to be oriented around levels of dedication or commitment to the Gospel.
There was a shift in how these categories were understood as we make the turn from Late Antiquity and into the Early Medieval Western Church. When we look at the main line of the Gregorian and Gelasian sacramentaries and other liturgies we see a clear set of folks that tends to start from the liturgical naming found in the Te Deum. Thus, hymns and sermons of the period talk about the angels, patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist, the apostles, marytrs, confessors, and monks & virgins.
When we look at this list in relation to Carolingian homilies, it is described as being a temporally sequential list. First there were angels, then partiarchs, then prophets (then Jesus), then apostles, then martyrs, then—once the period of persecutions were over–confessors. Furthermore, these confessors were clergy and, when you actually check the kalendars, virtually all of them were either bishops or abbots (who were hierarchically on the same level as bishops). So, you had a strong redefinition of the term “confessors” (concerning which AKMA and I had a good discussion in the comments section of the post linked to above). By the end of the Early Medieval period, the categories where people were being added were Confessor (= Abbot/Bishop), Doctor, Monk/Hermit/Virgin.
In a sense, you have a professionalization of the sanctoral categories.
On one hand, this method of defining sanctity makes me uncomfortable. It says that only people who have established professional places within the Church’s hierarchy are eligible to be declared as saints. That is, you’ve either got to be high-level clergy or religious or forget about it. And that’s just not right.
On the other hand, the people who were living these kalendars day in and day out were clergy and religious. Even in the Early Medieval period there was a practical distinction between the saints revered by the people and saints revered by the monks. (Aelfric makes this distinction in the intro to his Lives of the Saints as one data point.) Thus, the clergy and religious were lifting up examples for themselves. That makes it a little more understandable—and reveals to me the depth of my own bias that insists that laypeople can and should be saints too…
This tendency and set of categories dominated the thinking of the Western Church until the current day. A decent representative list (actually more inclusive than some) is that of the Commons of the Anglican Breviary:
- the BVM
- Bishop Confessor
- Doctor [often combined with the above]
- Confessor not a Bishop
- Abbots, Hermits, and Monks
- Saints not Martyrs
- Holy Women [Not married but not virgin, i.e., penitents]
- Matrons/Widows [i.e., women not virgins]
Since I’m a breviary programmer, when I see this list I automatically read it as a hierarchical tree-structure taxonomy. Or, to shift metaphors, you use it by sorting things into buckets that contain smaller buckets until you’ve found the right bucket. Thus, if we wanted to celebrate St Cecelia we’d analyze her as saint:(female):virgin:virgin_martyr. In the Anglican Breviary, that means we’d use Common 12.2.
One of the issues this raises is that when e see a tree-taxonomy laid out this way there’s a natural human tendency to read value into the order. The higher on the list, the cooler you are. That leads to logic like the following:
- the BVM is the coolest of all (actually, this one’s true…)
- martyrs are cooler than non-martyrs
- Bishop Confessors are cooler than Confessors not a Bishop
- boy saints (Commons 2-11) are cooler than girl saints (Commons 12-14)
- The coolness of girl saints is determined by the amount of sex they had
Since we’re talking about saints, coolness is invariably replaced by “holiness.” And this leads me in places where I’m simply not willing to go. No, a bishop is not inherently holier than a matron; it simply doesn’t work like that. Of course, there were mitigating factors in actual liturgical practice like the class of feast that various saints received. Thus, it was not uncommon for a Bishop Martyr to only receive a simple while a Matron like Bridget of Sweden might be a double or higher in some places.
Nevertheless, this is what we inherited: a tree-structure that had morphed from devotion into profession.
When the 1979 BCP decided to start using Commons of Saints, this was the starting place. Moving from here we have Commons reflecting something both similar and different:
- Of a Martyr
- the first mentions explicitly witness in official or politically-sponsored oppression (“before the rulers of this world”)
- the third is generic but the use of “her” as the default pronoun and the similarity to the payers for monastics suggests this collect for Virgin Martyrs
- Of a Missionary
- Of a Pastor
- The second contains a bracketed clause specifically for “bishops”
- Of a Theologian and Teacher
- Of a Monastic
- Of a Saint
(See more on this here.)
This also gives us a hierarchical tree-structure taxonomy. What it does is to mitigate some of the problematic issues around both gender and professionalism that I find in the earlier one. Bishops are no longer the automatic top of the heap once we leave the martyr category and that’s good. Furthermore, women aren’t isolated into a secondary place. That’s good too. It’s still based on a bucket-system/tree-structure. Now if we go looking for St Cecilia we find that she is saint:martyr:virgin_martyr. Same specificity, less baggage.
Looking at the sanctoral kalendar printed in the BCP you’ll find that most folks have epithets that direct you to one of these categories. Not all, though—no epithets direct you to “Theologian and Teacher”; you have to figure those out on your own. Overall, the epithets tend to be professional: “Bishop of X”, “Priest”, “King”, Abbess”, “Princess” etc. and more often than not ecclesiastical. This is an observation, rather than a strict judgement.
In the Anglican Breviary or a Roman kalendar, the epithets have a strict and clear correlation to the Commons. By glancing at the entry, you know what set of prayers, etc. to use. The BCP epithets give a strong correlation to the Commons but it is not as strict and clear as the Roman particularly around the distinction between pastors and teachers.
Now we turn to Holy Women, Holy Men.
The new entries display a dazzling array of new epithets: “Witness to the Faith”, “Iconographer”, “Prophetic Witness”, “Friend of the Poor”, “Educators”, “Pioneers in Medicine”, etc. Furthermore, we have “Teacher” or “Theologian” added to some pre-existing folks in addition to titles like “Bishop” or “Priest” that they already held. In one sense this makes things easier, in another it doesn’t—which Common do you pick for this person/these people?
Furthermore, some people who were recognized separately are now grouped together.
What’s going on here?
There’s a very simple explanation, actually, and it goes back to our discussion of taxonomies. What we’re seeing is the effect of new technologies and media on taxonomy: these aren’t categories, they’re tags. When you mass all of these together, you realize that we’re not dealing with a hierarchical bucket-system/tree structure. Instead, individuals are being tagged by a set of labels that don’t have a hierarchical-structural valence. Groups are then formed by assimilating high-correspondence tag clusters. Thus, we receive: Johann Sebastian Bach, 1750, George Frederick Handel, 1759, and Henry Purcell, 1695, Composers. They’re celebrated together based on a profession tag.
To go back to Cecilia, in this system she’s simply be (virgin, martyr, patron:music). And no one of these takes precedence, predominance or preeminence over any of the others.
A tag-based cloud taxonomy removes some of the problems and dis-ease I was feeling earlier. This is a fundamentally non-hierarchical system of taxonomy. Even tagging girl and boy saints does not thereby impute value to either category. This is a win. But in this win, what have we lost?
A tag-based construction of sanctity breaks apart the old system of categorization. Despite its flaws, the old system gave us a clear conceptualization of what sort of roles and levels of dedication to the Gospel were necessary in order to strive towards sainthood. In a cloud taxonomy, that clarity is gone. We don’t have something specific to aim at any more.
The creation of new Commons furthers this thinking. In the back of HWHM there are the BCP Commons, then a group of prayers identified as “New Commons for Various Occasions”. A whole bunch of things are mixed in here. Some of these are people-tags (“Artists & Writers”, “Prophetic Witness in Society”) some of these are event-tags (“On the Occasion of a Disaster”) while more are concept-tags (“Goodness of God’s Creation”, “Reconciliation and Forgiveness”, “Space Exploration”). As I think through the eminently practical question of how I would code these into the breviary, I feel caught between two different paradigms, two different taxonomies, and—therefore—two different ways for how Episcopalians are expected to conceptualize what the life of sanctity looks like.