The Famous or the Holy?

The editing work is done on A Great Cloud of Witness (hence AGCW) and it is off getting printed. I believe it will be available from Church Publishing next month. Once again, the Official Calendar of the Episcopal Church is Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2006. AGCW has no official standing in the Church. It is merely a devotional resource that can be used or not as a person or parish wills. It is incorrect and misleading to say “Today the Church celebrates…” referencing contents of AGCW. And yet, it is still under discussion within the SCLM as we try to work through what an Episcopal Calendar is and is for.

I have ranted before that the post-Vatican II reworking of the “new” Book of Common Prayer give us in some places—like the Calendar—the appearance of catholicity but without the substance. No where is this more obvious to me than the Calendar. What we have in the Calendar section looks like a sanctoral kalendar, and there are many who use it that way. However, the broad majority of the Episcopal Church does not interact with or utilize the Calendar as a sanctoral kalendar in the Catholic fashion.

Now—clearly—I don’t know the mind of the whole church. What I’m going by here are recent debates I’ve had over individuals in the Calendar and applications—formal or informal—for additions to the Calendar.

I was having a discussion with one senior clergyman formerly on the SCLM over John Calvin (May 28th in AGCW). The most telling moment was when he responded to one of my queries with “I don’t care if people don’t like him—he’s important!”

I’m currently in discussions with a liaison from my diocese to include Origen of Alexandria into one of our calendrical lists. The case being put forward recognizes that Origen was a very important early Christian figure and theologian who has been unfairly treated over the centuries and who deserves to receive his due. I’m largely sympathetic here. Origen got dragged into a complicated tangle of theological and personality conflicts a couple of centuries after his death and was judged as a result of how that played out. De Lubac is absolutely right on the importance of Origen to Christian spirituality and especially Origen being at the heart of most renewals of monastic/ascetic theology.

Not to pick on anyone, but a comment here exemplifies the logic that I’m seeing—wondering about Stephen Langton who gets the credit for the modern scheme of chapter divisions that we use in our modern Bibles.

Do we select individuals because they are “important” or because we think or hope that they should be “famous” or do we select them because they are holy? (And what is or should be the relationship between the two?) And that—right there—is what I would point to as the difference between a catholic perspective on the kalendar versus a protestant one.

I believe that a catholic perspective looks on the names in the kalendar chiefly as examples of lives living out Christian maturity, exemplifying the sacramental path of discipleship. These are our very present fellow members of the Body of Christ who strengthen us with their prayers now and who give us direction and encouragement by their lives and how they participated within the mysteries of Christ. Holiness therefore is the primary consideration and criterion.

A protestant perspective identifies the people who church folk should know. The folks we want to be famous (whether they are currently or not). Importance is therefore the primary consideration and criterion.

So—what is it that we have? Or, what is it that we think we have? Honestly, I think that our first efforts towards the Calendar that we currently have reflect a confusion on this point. Take a look at these two paragraphs. They come from Prayer Book Studies IX (1957), the first published work on the Calendar as the SLC considered revising things…

The choice of commemorations in the proposed Calendar of this Study has been made primarily on the basis of selecting men and women of outstanding holiness, heroism, and teaching in the cause of Christ, whose lives and deaths have been a continuing, conscious influence upon the on-going life of the Church in notable and well-recognized ways. There are included martyrs, theologians, statesmen, missionaries, reformers, mystics, and exemplars of prayer and charitable service. In every instance, care has been taken to list persons whose life and work are capable of interpretation in terms morally and spiritually edifying to the Church of our own generation.

In the list of primary criteria, holiness receives top billing. Importance is in here—as to some degree it must—but the ranking places holiness over importance.

The next page, though, has this:

It has often been remarked that the Prayer Book provides the parish priest with an excellent teaching manual for the study of the Bible, the doctrines and ethics of the Church, and, of course, the principles and practices of worship and prayer. It has lacked but one thing, an adequate instrument for teaching the history of the Church. The present proposal should do much to meet this need. With the names on this Calendar arranged in a historical, or topical order, the parish priest or teacher will have a convenient guide and outline of Church History from its beginnings to the present time. Such a study should greatly reinforce the other teachings of the Prayer Book, as they are exemplified in the lives of the saints.

This is fundamentally an argument for importance. This is Calendar as tool for catechesis, not tool for mystagogy. This is a tool for teaching dates and individuals, not for presenting paths of holiness. What if this paragraph had been written differently to say something like this:

The Prayer Book contains liturgies and provides directions for the worship of the Church. It provides texts for the Church’s daily praise of God and for the celebration of the sacraments as the God-given means of grace. However, what it did not contain up until this point is how this pattern of worship creates and molds lives that are lived primarily outside of churches. The Calendar that we present here teaches Church doctrine and sacramental theology by the ways that these people lived out their lives in the world, conforming their hearts, minds, spirits, and bodies to the call to die daily to self, to daily take up the cross, and follow Christ.

Now that would be Calendar as mystagogy rather than Calendar for catechesis. But that’s not what we got, and that’s not how we see it now.

When I was faced with the dilemma of the Calendar, I saw a cross-road with two major choices. First, try to change the perspective of the Episcopal Church to understand the Calendar as a mystagogical tool first. Second, meet the Church where it was but try to direct it towards what I understand to be the more complete understanding. AGCW goes the second route. It foregrounds the important and significant but also states quite clearly that it is not and is not intended to be a sanctoral kalendar. It embraces the catechetical role. Had it been approved, it would have much more clearly put the responsibility for sanctoral recognition and use at the local level, not the Church-wide level. But it wasn’t. And now we need to figure out where to go next…

6 Replies to “The Famous or the Holy?”

  1. Derek – Thanks very much for this helpful post. I quite agree that we seem to be very uncertain about whether the sanctoral calendar is to commemorate people because they were important and/or famous, or because they were signally holy. That is, as you say, are we doing catechesis or mystagogy? Your example of John Calvin comes to mind: I was presiding at a weekday celebration on May 28, and I passed on him. I don’t doubt that Calvin was deeply committed to the Lord, but I can’t help but think that when he died the Lord said to him, “Welcome, John, it’s good to see you; but we need to talk.” (I am, of course, being mythological/parabolic; I have no idea what actually happens when we die except that I trust we will be with the Lord!)

    But this is not a new problem for the Church – for the Episcopal Church or the Church Catholic. Last week we celebrated the Feast of St. Bartholomew, about whom we know nothing except his name. Yes, the tradition identifying him with Nathaniel is possible, but hardly certain; it raises all sorts of issues about the historical relation between the synoptic and Johannine traditions. And that of course raises the issue of the identity of the referent of “Johannine.” Whom do we celebrate on December 27? Cranmer reduced the sanctoral calendar to some, though not all, of the persons mentioned in the New Testament, about many of whom we know virtually nothing. And in 1552 he added George(!), Laurence, and Clement, which seems to me to be more about English parochial identifications than mystagogy. (And he deleted Mary Magdalene, make of that what you will.)

    And even in traditionally catholic sanctoral cycles, we encounter people who were theologically or historically important, and were no doubt committed to Christ, but whose holiness may not have been without a blemish or two. (Well, that may not be such a bad thing! “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too”!) Of course, historically the first batch of commemorated saints were martyrs, and that’s a pretty good resume. But there’s a fair amount of antisemitism, misogyny, militarism (e.g. the Crusades), and general grumpiness in the collection.

    So I think that a mix of catechesis and mystagogy may not be such a bad thing, and it goes way way back. And on the whole, I think that most of the additions in HWHM, and now presumably AGCW, are not only historically significant but also, if maybe not Signally Holy, at least Very Good Examples!

  2. Thanks for this today. I found it quite helpful, if rather depressing that the trend does not move towards mystagogy as you put it so well. As a matter of fact, in my geographical area, I’ve attended many parishes, and none have given anything more than the most cursory attention to the calendar, either in a mystagogical or an instructive sense. (I will say that in one very friendly parish, I was surprised by impromptu post-communion singing of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and then “Purple Rain” the week he died, which may communicate a certain mystagogical participation though one it took many weeks for me to recover from.)
    Even many major feast days, if listed at all, are rarely referred to or elaborated on during liturgy in my area. I have been perplexed and bereft by this. Having taken a number of years away from churches, and having felt so held by the mystical body years back when I worshiped in more intentionally Catholic parishes where the calendar was very much alive, it feels pretty empty now to return and get the feeling that parishes available to me think they have somehow outgrown the calendar, or that it is somehow not relevant. Actually I do not know how this unfortunate development happened. Maybe I was just geographically lucky in years past.
    When I have been blessed with a living feeling of the saints and sinners of the ages with us in liturgy, this feeling has had little to do with what example of living the officially listed saints and holy people may have set. I can think of some I would like to emulate, and many I feel very ambivalent about. But somehow, in the sacerdotal calendar, “The Church” (whatever that may be) has chosen this odd assortment of the holy, the mad, and the occasionally wicked, and embedded them into the fabric of liturgy. To feel their presence is to feel divine grace working in and through our strange and sometimes twisted natures. Part of my point here is that the choice of saints is much more an imaginative and unconscious development over centuries than it is a conscious and accurate choice based on historical evidence of who we might find holy (or at least tolerable). Who are the individuals that somehow communicate the work of grace in human life and how do we invite them into our calendar to worship alongside us on a day to day and week to week basis?
    The pedagogical view has almost no interest for me personally. What I find moving and enlivening is much more liminal and speaks to the heart, the senses, the Unknown moving in me, and not to some kind of behavioral code of progress towards what a particular age finds holy.
    I wonder to myself whether all that I’ve tried to express here relates as well to a larger sense that the Episcopal Church is quite busy trying to evolve beyond itself, maybe beyond Christianity as we have known it. There is a progressivist ethic at work that I sense but haven’t quite fathomed yet. (I am not really in the know about these things.) I see it in the newer liturgical forms too, where the language seems to tend towards the psychotherapeutic at times, or the exquisitely, politically sensitive. (As a psychotherapist myself I understand that trend, but don’t want to feel therapized when I encounter the Almighty in liturgy.)
    It often sounds as though we are trying to present a very “evolved” picture of ourselves to ourselves, and a very evolved notion of God to ourselves, perhaps as a kind of psychological reassurance, whether or not that notion accommodates the wildness and incomprehensibility and offense of the divine as it presents itself in scripture and tradition and religious experience. It leaves me cold! Sanitized for my protection! And less believable therefore. Am I wrong on this? I don’t know. Less curmudgeonly minds must enlighten me.
    But I will stop before this becomes even more of an off-topic rant than it has! Thanks again for the great post.

  3. Why can’t we use the Prayer Book both for mystagogy and catechesis? We use the Bible for both.

  4. Since I was partly the cause for this post let me state that I do think that Archbishop Stephen Langton was a holy man who was a devout christian, scholar, and devotional writer. He also provides us with a model for how we should act in difficult circumstances when we are confronted with a tyrant. But that gets into the realm of politics. I make a point not to drag my politics overly much into the church, so I pointed to his importance.

  5. That makes total sense! I will note that he dragged church into politics or, rather, negotiated the tangled relationship between church and politics in his day. Thanks for the clarification.

  6. We can; my concern is that the mystagogical angle of the Calendar has been largely absent from the Episcopal conversation that I’ve been privy to.

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