Sanctoral Criteria: On Objectivity and Subjectivity

I sat down with Holy Women, Holy Men yesterday in the presence of my handy spreadsheet from whence colorful graphs issue. I added several new columns to it and grouped them all under the heading of “HWHM Criteria”. After consulting HWHM pp. 742-6, I labeled 6 columns:

  • Historicity
  • Discipleship
  • Significance
  • Memorability
  • Local Observance
  • Perspective

These are the labels in the criteria, after all. I omitted “Range of Inclusion”, “Levels of Commemoration”, and “Combined Commemorations” as I see these as directives concerning the shape of the kalendar as a whole and not directly applicable in assessing a particular commemoration.

Looking at these, I thought I’d try and tackle the easiest first. Which are the easy ones and which the hard? Well, in my book the two simplest are the first and last. “Historicity” isn’t without its gray areas, but it’s a lot more black and white than the others. Similarly, “Perspective” includes an objective value: “fifty years have elapsed since that person’s death.”

“Local Observance” is also a fairly objective measure though by no means a simple one. The central clause in this one is the following: “…significant commemoration . . . already exists at the local and regional levels.” Then, two and a half pages (744-6) are substantially devoted to outlining the process of what local/regional commemoration looks like, then how these are moved to the national/churchwide level. As a result, there ought to be a significant paper trail that will objectively demonstrate “local observance” in a satisfactory fashion. Thus objective, but needing a certain amount of leg-work to hunt all of this stuff down…

“Christian Discipleship” is complicated. The heart of this criterion is “the completion in death of a particular Christian’s living out of the promises of baptism” from which we can draw two objective measures: 1) were they baptized? 2) did they die in the communion of the Church? The wording of this criterion strongly suggests to me a set of sub-criteria: “the promises of baptism” short-handed as holding the Apostles’ Creed and exemplifying the 5 promises of the Baptismal Covenant.If we were to introduce these as supplemental guides to the fulfilling of this criterion do we take a minimalist or maximalist approach? Do we look for historical evidence of fulfillment of all six sub-criteria, or does a significant failing of one or more of the sub-criteria indicate a negative judgement on the larger criterion? (I’m told there was great resistance to adding Martin Luther to Lesser Feasts and Fasts back in the 80’s/90’s due to his anti-Semitism; perhaps that debate can shed some light here…)

“Significance” heads into some interesting territory. Perhaps the best summary of it is captured in the binary nature of the final line: “In their varied ways, those commemorated have revealed Christ’s presence in, and Lordship over, all of history; and continue to inspire us as we carry forward God’s mission in the world.” I see at least two things here. First, the commemorated must have achieved a notable revelation of Christ. But, second, it must be the kind of achievement that inspires us.  Consider the implications of the second one… I can use an objective checkbox for “achieving a notable revelation of Christ”, but that’s incomplete without an assessment of what inspires us. Our church and its needs are now a necessary aspect of the decision-making process.

The turn towards us only accelerates as we consider “Memorability.” This is not Memorability simpliciter; we’re not asking if these people should be remembered by history students, correct-thinking members of progressive circles, or the general public. Rather, we’re after those who “deserve to be remembered by the Episcopal Church today.” A few key things here… “Deserve to be” which is different from “are” sticks out. Also, “the Episcopal Church today.” This criterion is less about the historical person being investigated, and is much more about who we are as a church and what we need to remember—or be reminded of. That is, I can’t chalk this one up based on historical research on a person’s life. Instead, we have to take stock of who we are and how that person connects with and/or challenges our self-understanding.

Indeed, this is the place where memorability begins to help us see the failure of the “Range of Inclusion” criterion. As I said before, the Range is properly applied to the kalendar as a whole and not to individual candidates thereof and the problem is that it is too narrow in scope to be fully useful. It identifies a variety of diversities needed in the kalendar: race, gender, ecclesial affiliation, ordination status, but misses the really big one—charisms. That is, the kalendar needs to have an effective balance of the charisms and virtues that are needed for the church as a whole to reflect itself as a reflection of Christ. Attention to ordination status only begins to take notice of this.

What are the charisms that define the Church and are necessary, even essential, to the Church? How do the saints individually and collectively coherently display the dispersed virtues of Christ?

I see I’m starting to wander a bit from my topic…

There are some objective measures that can be tallied to determine whether a candidate should or shouldn’t enter the kalendar. There are more subjective measures. But there are additional necessary inputs regarding who the church is, and what the church needs to represent itself to itself. And, again, the kalendar cannot simply be a collection of worthy individuals but must be a coherent collection that reflects an authentic Christology.

I’ll let you know how the spreadsheet goes…

6 Replies to “Sanctoral Criteria: On Objectivity and Subjectivity”

  1. I’m glad you’re breaking this all down into component parts, I have to say; that’s just what’s needed, to my way of thinking. It’s very, very important to examine built-in assumptions that we often don’t even notice, let alone talk about..

    This way people can see and think more deeply about some of the issues you’ve pointed out here – the “us” focus in particular. (Also, many of us don’t have the book itself, so we don’t see this stuff at all, or even know that it’s there.)

    BTW, I think “charisms” is a really interesting approach; it could really be a very helpful and productive way to think about all this….

  2. Hi Derek – yup, we need to some serious thinking about sanctity, the sanctoral cycle, and political correctness – thank you for your (as usual) interesting approach. I did a book review for HWHM in which I tried to sum it up in very few words (always difficult). The best I could do, and I still stand by it, is that we’ve confused saints as icons of Christ with saints as mirrors of ourselves… any thoughts??? Lizette

  3. I think you’re right on, Lizette. The problem that I perceive here is, at root, the exact same problem that bedevils the whole Communion Without Baptism controversy: we have substituted identity politics for sacramental theology and ecclesiology. With regard to CWOB the question is not “how do Baptism and Eucharist relate as a means for leading individuals and communities into full discipleship?” but has become “how do we show that we’re inclusive?” In a similar way, regarding HWHM, the question is no longer “what does Christian maturity look like in varying ages and situations?” but “how do we show that we’re ideologically appropriate?”

    Has your review come out yet? I’d love to read it.

  4. Thanks for that link! I didn’t realize it was online in full.

    “Charisms,” BTW, is another area about which most of us are in the dark, I’d venture to say. Evangelicals seem to think more easily in these terms – and since TEC is almost Evangelical-free at this point, the concept almost never comes up. It’s come up exactly twice during my 10 years around the church, in fact; I can actually count them!

    I think one very basic issue is that not many of us have much fluency in basic ideas like this. One of the best things about religion, to my way of thinking, is that it’s a complex system that actually has a great deal to offer to people in the way of ideas and ways of seeing. What happens is that all that gets left (as I mentioned before) in the sacristy; I’ve still never had a long look, for instance, at Lesser Feasts and Fasts or The Book of Occasional Services. They sits there near the vestments – and all these ideas and ways of seeing are hidden between the covers of the books. Since these are supplements to the BCP, and by definition contain different material – well, all that is lost. (People of course never actually look at the BCP itself anyway, because of bulletins!)

    The basic problem, to me, is that current culture is neither interesting nor salutory by itself – and if we never open up historical Christian culture and ideas for people, we’ll never have a chance to go anyplace really interesting. We’ll be stuck forever where we are – and that’s not a prospect I find even remotely attractive.

    This is why Lent Madness was such a good thing; people are newly discovering these various “charisms” via the saints of the past – and starting to be able to identify with some of them. That opens up a whole world, and gets us out of our current situation to see a bigger picture. I think perhaps this discussion around HWHM can do exactly the same thing….

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