The Dorchester Chaplains

Susan Snook mentioned the Dorchester Chaplains below; I didn’t address it in the comments because this issue does deserve a full-on post of its own to sort through what we’re working with here.

For those unaware, the commemoration of the Dorchester Chaplains kicked off one of the biggest focused arguments around Holy Women, Holy Men (HWHM). You can see the commemoration here. I see a lot of different pieces to this commemoration and the controversy around it. Let’s call them out one by one…

1. The inclusion of an unbaptized person on the calendar. Of the four people listed in the commemoration, one of them is Rabbi Alexander D. Goode. Obviously, Rabbi Goode was not baptized. For those of us with a higher theology of sanctity, this presents a problem. We define “saints” as—among other things—Christians who witness to the particular character of God in Christ through their life and works. Therefore, having an unbaptized saint is a non-starter; it contradicts the definition. However…

2. There is a lack of consensus in the Episcopal Church on the definition of the term “saint.” People’s Exhibit A here is the (in)famous Dancing Saints mural at St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco. Exhibit B would be the exchange that Donald Schell (part 1, part 2)  and I (full thing) had at the Episcopal Cafe on saints and sainthood sparked by his writing on the mural. Exhibit C is the comment section for Lent Madness each year. I fear that the broad middle regards sainthood and sanctity in terms borrowed more from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism than it does from classical Christianity. That is, linking MTD’s points 2 and 5, I think the default definition is “good, nice, fair people who went to heaven when they died.” The additions that came in with HWHM also left some asking if the new criteria could be simply summed up as “proto-progressives.” What’s tricky here too is RC theologian Karl Rahner’s notion of “anonymous Christians” which, as far as I’m concerned is like throwing the back-door open wide and laying out a welcome mat for MTD theology.  Because there is no formal definition, those who see saints as (minimally) baptized have nothing substantive to appeal to against those who counter that a given person was “really good.”

3. Unbaptized martyrs. To complicate matters, there was one class of unbaptized persons who could make it into the rolls of the saints in classical Christianity: martyrs. This was a necessary situation because of the persecutions of the pre-Constantinian period. You would have catechumens and such who were seized by the authorities and killed for their faith without ever formally having been baptized. As a result, the church came up with the idea of a baptism with blood which lays down the principle that those who desired baptism but were killed before receiving it did get a de-facto baptism with their own blood and could, therefore be honored as sainted martyrs. The most famous examples on our calendar are Perpetua and Felicity.

It was absolutely axiomatic in the early church that martyrs were saints. The first saint of the church was Stephen and he provides the foundational account: he followed Jesus and imitated him so perfectly that he died a death like his—killed on account of his testimony concerning Jesus, condemned despite his innocence of any real crime, and forgiving his killers, even praying on their behalf with the result that one of them—Saul—was himself converted. Once we hit the Constantinian period and the opportunity to die at the hands of the state decreased, the church had to start thinking about other criteria and other forms of martyrdom. Fast forward to the present day and we see that the concept of martyrdom has become a little murky.

The 1988 4th edition of LFF first includes “Constance, Nun, and her Companions” with the subtitle “Commonly known as ‘The Martyrs of Memphis.'” What killed them was not a hostile government but a mosquito-bourne illness; they were not killed because they refused to recant or burn a pinch of incense to the emperor. Rather, they died because of their commitment to their mission of helping the sick and poor who could not or were not able to flee the diseased city. I think we can see why this is referred to as “martyrdom”; their deaths were due to their commitments to Christian principles. In this case, we can see how dying for a principle is linked to dying for Christ. But is all death on behalf of principles death, on behalf of Christ? Do we need to draw any lines—and if so, where? Since we already mentioned St. Gregory of Nyssa, how would we assess one of their choices, Iqbal Masih? Here’s how Donald described his witness in part 1 linked to above:

He was a Pakistani Christian child sold into indentured servitude at age four. At ten he escaped from crippling work as a rug-knotter, and fearlessly told his story to the world, offering his voice and experience to support the Bonded Labor Liberation Front that was freeing thousands of child-slaves like him and teaching rug buyers around the world to ask who was making their hand-tied rugs, how the workers were being treated and whether they were being paid fairly. In 1995, when Iqbal Masih was twelve, he testified before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. That Easter he went home to his village to go to church, and that afternoon was shot dead, martyred in the street for helping other children find freedom.

Is this martyrdom? On what criteria do we make a judgement yea or nay?

Then, of course, we return to the original subjects, the Dorchester Chaplains. They gave away their life-vests to other men. They died on behalf of their principles. Is this martyrdom—and to what do we appeal to ground our answer?

Then, to complete the step, is any martyrdom a baptism in blood; why or why not?

(The flip side of this is a controversy over the definition of marytrdom reflected in the Revised Edition of LFF. Typically martyrs were identified by assigning a person the propers for a martyr and/or the preface for Holy Week. But Christians killed by Christians–like Cranmer, Ridley, Tyndale, et al. receive the preface for a saint rather than those for a martyr. Someone judged that a death was not a martyrdom in the case of Christian-on-Chrstian violence. Do we agree or not? If not, why not?)

4. The Long Shadow of anti-Judaism/anti-Semitism. This is one that both sides in the controversy have to be very careful about. There are those who suggest that we can keep the commemoration, but just drop Rabbi Goode from it. There are a couple of reasons why this doesn’t fly including some I’ll hold until my next point. Suffice it to say that this approach would smack of continued Christian anti-Judaism/anti-Semitism. We have a history of saying and doing very bad things to Jewish people in the name of Christianity; we don’t want to perpetuate this in any way or form. But we’re in danger of doing it in two different forms here. One is the approach that seeks to lift up the Christians and dispense with “the Jew.” That’s a complete non-starter for me. The other is to say that we welcome his presence and accept that his faithful witness to God is identical or certainly equal to that of his Christian brother chaplains. He was being very Christian, but maybe didn’t realize it… But is there a way to do this without passing him in as an “anonymous Christian”? How do we do this without the spectre of supercessionism raising its ugly head? Again—in the face of the pervasive presence of MTD and its philosophy in our culture, how do we properly differentiate Christian virtue from a more generic “being excellent to each other”?

5. There are politics involved. One of the factors that makes this commemoration more complex than others is its source. If you notice, there are actually no Episcopalians in the quartet; there was the rabbi, a Roman Catholic priest, a Methodist minister, and a Dutch Reformed minister. So, where did this come from and why? This commemoration was passed to the SCLM by the office of the Episcopal Church that deals with both military and hospital chaplaincies, an office overseen by an Episcopal bishop. One of the reasons why this particular commemoration was offered was because it underscores and celebrates the ecumencial character of chaplaincy work. Its interdenominational and interfaith character is a feature, not a bug.  The other key reason why removing Rabbi Goode from the commemoration (in addition to the appearance of anti-semitism) is that it would undercut one of the key purposes of the observance in the first place. It is politically more complex for the SCLM to refuse a commemoration that we asked for from an official body with a bishop behind it.

6. Memorable/Important/Significant vs. Holy. One of my great liturgical heroes and a person I look up to quite a lot is Walter H. Frere. An English bishop who did a lot of work in late medieval Sarum sources and a correspondent of Evelyn Underhill, Frere did some important work in thinking through incorporating classical catholicity into the process of modern prayer book revision and was one of the architects of the failed English 1928 effort. One of the topics he wrote about was how to do a responsible Anglican sanctoral calendar, and his approach was widely followed in prayer book revision processes across the Anglican Communion throughout the 20th century. But I think he failed in one very important and significant way. He entirely avoids any discussion of the miraculous or the holy. Instead, he takes what I’d consider a rationalist approach to the saints, portraying them chiefly as historically significant individuals.

This is the place where our processes diverge the most from—say—the Roman Catholic approach. As is well known, Roman Catholic saints must “prove” their sanctity through two well-documented miracles. Largely we tend to consider this to be wierd and a hold-over of medieval superstition. But what we don’t do is consider why this factor is important to begin with… Miracles and holiness functioned for medievals and continue to function for modern Roman Catholics as proof of the eschatological character of the saints—that they were hooked into the life of God in an extraordinary way by virtue of their devotion and manner of life.

Following Frere, we don’t go there. No Anglican commemoration process looks at or asks about miracles. Instead we focus around notions of memorability, importance, and significance. I think we lose something important here. I stand behind what I said in the post I linked to above: “I understand perfectly well the banality of modern life. What I ask of my saints is the capacity to crack open reality and reveal to me the numinous life of God hid within it.”

Where is the numinous here? As we amass a collection of “good, nice, and fair” progressive people, are we considering elements of the numinous and mystical as part of their witness—that weird connection into the life of God that is part of eschatological experience? That’s actually something that jumped out at me in the materials submitted for Hiram Hisanori Kano; he had that.

Final Thoughts

The SCLM did recommend some commemorations to remove from the calendar; this was not one of them. I support that precisely because of the shift away from the liturgical/sanctoral model of HWHM to the catechetical/family history model of GCW. Because GCW is not intended to be a sanctoral calendar, I can see this commemoration catching the outside of the plate in terms of people and events who are significant and important for how the Episcopal Church sees and understands itself moving into the 21st century.

I do think that Rabbi Goode—or at least what little I know of him—shows a good and noble character. But that’s not all there is to a saint. We should fully believe in and celebrate good and noble people without feeling the need to either force them into our vocabulary or to warp our vocabulary to accomodate them. Saints are models of Christian maturity, mirrors of the virtues of Christ, present intercessors on our behalf, and signs of who the Church is. Rabbi Goode can’t be that for us on several levels but that doesn’t make him any less of a person.

As an analog, in addition to the necrology model I mentioned in the previous post, I am reminded of Jerome’s On Illustrious Men. This work was a collection of Jerome’s thoughts and opinions on early writers who were important and significant for the Christian Church. Chiefly, he is identifying authors and the books they wrote that ought to be read by Christian readers. Generally, it serves as a catalog of the orthodox Christian Fathers of the Church and an ennumeration of the books they wrote. However, amongst the people you’d expect are a number of interesting choices: the Jewish philosopher and exegete Philo Judaeus, the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca whom he includes on the technicality of some apocryphal works (which I’m pretty sure Jerome knew were spurious). Jerome performs a little CYA here:

Lucius Annaeus Seneca of Cordova, disciple of the Stoic Sotion and uncle of Lucan the Poet, was a man of most continent life, whom I should not place in the category of saints were it not that those Epistles of Paul to Seneca and Seneca to Paul, which are read by many, provoke me. In these, written when he was tutor of Nero and the most powerful man of that time, he says that he would like to hold such a place among his countrymen as Paul held among Christians. He was put to death by Nero two years before Peter and Paul were crowned with martyrdom.

Jerome’s list isn’t really a sanctoral list. Properly, it’s a list of authors who were important and significant—which is what GCW is too. If Jerome can include a few outliers like Philo and Seneca, I think GCW can survive an occasional exception like Rabbi Goode.

That having been said, I do think that we need a much better and clearer agreement on what saints are. For me, this is directly tied to the sacraments and to seeing Christian discipleship as intimately tied to the living of a sacramental life that begins with Baptism and is nourished by Eucharist, Confession, and the rest. We need to cultivate our appreciation for the numinous and to explore it as an important part of our faith, not to flee from it as some kind of superstitious embarrassment.


8 thoughts on “The Dorchester Chaplains

  1. David

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the individuals included in HWHM and GCW are not “saints” and are not purported to be. I’m not sure I understand the fuss. But I do agree we need to be careful. Few things would be as offensive to our Jewish brothers and sisters as declaring a Rabbi to be a Christian saint. If he is included with the other Dorchester Chaplains, we need to be clear that HWHM or GCW is unequivocally not a list of saints.

  2. Derek Olsen Post author

    Well–that’s the thing. HWHM is not entirely clear as to their status, but suggests that those in it are saints (albeit leaving the term nebulous); GCW is clear that local communities are the ones who identify saints, not those who put the resource together.

  3. David

    Thank you for explaining the background to GCW in this and the previous post — not to mention your efforts with everyone else on the SCLM. I may not be talking to the right people, but I’ve never heard it suggested that someone who wasn’t baptized could be a saint (aside from the martyr exception).

  4. Will J. Abbott

    David, I don’t think anyone will say as a general policy that unbaptized people can be saints. The issue always comes in particular cases: Rabbi Goode, here, or Gandhi. These are people who lived lives which in some way exemplify saintly behavior, but who weren’t Christians. It’s common to have an instinct to add such people to a calendar of saints. After all, we know the life Gandhi lived, but some of the saints are at best obscure for many people.

    That doesn’t mean that I think one can be a Christian saint without being baptized, except in the case of those baptized in their own blood. I’m just trying to understand the religious impulse that lies behind it.

  5. David

    Thanks for the explanation. I don’t want to wade into a conversation that other people have given significant thought to. I’m just wary of the optics of designating exemplary persons of different religious traditions as Christian saints. It could be viewed as condescending, similar to the LDS church posthumously “baptizing” others into their own tradition.

    At another level, to designate an exemplary non-Christian as a saint strikes me as not unlike inducting someone into the baseball hall of fame in Cooperatown because he played hockey really well.

  6. Susan Snook

    Thanks for this really helpful explanation, Derek. I have to say I agree with David, above, that naming non-Christian persons as “saints” would be akin to LDS posthumous baptisms – certainly not respectful of the traditions those persons followed. And it shows a paltry understanding of sainthood, for which the minimal requirement is baptism (other than martyrs – I didn’t know that – thank you). But I guess it is somewhat helpful to keep repeating to oneself, over and over, that this is not a sanctoral calendar, this is not a sanctoral calendar, this is not a sanctoral calendar. Sigh – I would have hoped for a sanctoral calendar. I think Lesser Feasts & Fasts was one, or certainly was treated as one. I’m afraid we have diminished ourselves by saying that, other than the major prayer book feasts, we just don’t have saints of the whole church any more. We only have heroes and historically notable figures, should we choose to pay attention to them in our local contexts.

    And by the way, depending on one’s beliefs about sainthood, one might say that when we celebrate one of these commemorations at a Eucharist, the communion of saints is celebrating with us, including the person we are commemorating. Except for Rabbi Goode? Is he standing by observing, and not taking communion? It’s an unanswerable question, of course – but it points again to what you have already said – we don’t seem to believe in the eschatological dimension any more.

  7. Will J. Abbott

    Edge cases tend to make good laws but bad theology. I’m not sure I want to develop a theory of the presence of the communion of saints at the Eucharist based on the possibility of invoking Rabbi Goode. There’s too many questions about the afterlife and concepts like “anonymous Christian” to allow for anything better than speculation. I’m content to say that the saints in heaven (under both understandings of “saint”) are present at our celebrations, and Rabbi Goode is present inasmuch as, and in the way that, it is appropriate for him; and what that means is up to God.

  8. Susan Snook

    Clearly, Will – as I said, it’s an unanswerable question. My point was that it’s another example of the fact that we really don’t have a common agreement about what sainthood means, either here on earth or in an eschatological dimension.

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