Fragments on the Saints

  • I used to think that the Episcopal reticence to use the word “saint” was out of deference to evangelical squeamishness. I’m coming to understand that it has far less to do with that and much more to do with a broad-church squeamishness around the idea of holiness.
  • 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.

One of my intellectual heroes is the late Victorian churchman and scholar Walter H. Frere, sometime Bishop of Truro. I’ve used his writings rather extensively in formulating my own thoughts around liturgy ceremonial and what-not and see him as a solid Anglican voice rooted in the catholic faith, a thoughtful and moderate man in the best senses of those words.

Today I find myself at odds with him.

I’ve been reading through the book of his that I find the most provocative, Some Principles of Liturgical Reform, published in 1911, part of the lead up to the doomed 1928 revision of the English Book of Common Prayer.  The second chapter focuses upon the revision of the kalendar. Here he writes:

Now there are three principles that have operated in the formation of Kalendars. First they are designed to commemorate the chief events of redemption as recorded in the New Testament; secondly to maintain a memorial of local saints, especially martyrs; thirdly to recall the heroes of Christendom, who claim remembrance on other grounds than those of local interest, because of their prominence in the general history of the Church, or in the Bible. These principles were recognized as regulative in the various processes by which the present Kalendar of the [1662] Prayer Book was reached; but different relative value and force has been assigned to them at different times. The first principle has everywhere produced the same general scheme for the ecclesiastical year; and in this respect our revisers had only to carry on what they found already dominant, refusing to destroy the ecclesiastical year, as the extreme reformers did.

They also characteristically laid far more stress than had been laid before on the biblical element. Cranmer at one time seems to have contemplated a very full Kalendar containing biblical names in riotous and revolutionary profusion; but the eventual Kalendar of the First Prayer Book of 1549 as more modest and more conservative. . . . [T]he Red Letter days of the Kalendar are governed purely by biblical principle, rather jealously applied.

It is not so easy to determine what principle has governed the selection of the “Black Letter” days. Biblical festivals, such as the transfiguration or S. Mary Magdalene, which might have claimed a place in the other category are found here, not there. The principle of local interest which in the earlier ages was so powerful, seems to have had little force, though it was probably responsible for the introduction of the names of S. Alban and the Venerable Bede in 1661. A not very discriminating adherence to the chief days of the familiar Sarum Kalendar seems the most reasonable explanation of what was done in 1561. This is not a very convincing reason for retaining what we have, and the case seems therefore to be open for reconsideration. (Frere, Some Principles, 20-21).

He makes reference in passing to Vernon Staley’s book on the Church Year that contains the best study that I’ve seen on the 1662 kalendar and, in particular, the process in 1561 that added a host of black letter days. Come to think of it, I’ve got an e-book version of Staley’s book that I did but never got around to releasing as a Kindle book. If there’s sufficient interest I’ll try and get it rounded off an submitted to the Kindle Store. (And when *I* say e-book, I don’t mean a half-assed text file—I mean a fully proofread work with hyperlinks and page numbers tied back to the physical version…)

After Frere identifies these three major kinds of commemorations, he offers two principles for discernment:

The chief questions that must be asked are two: first, whether there is sufficient historical justification for the inclusion of the candidate in any kalendar; and secondly, whether it can command sufficient interest to make it suitable to the Kalendar of any particular Church. It will be simplest to deal with the second of these first.

If a festival is to command interest, it will do so, either because of its bearing on the general history of the Church, biblical or otherwise, or because of its special connexion with local history. Besides the ordinary and obvious ways by which a Saint’s Day or a Holy Day may be held to qualify under the last heading, there are two less obvious points to be kept in view—namely its popularity in ancient English Kalendars, and in English Church dedications.

He then has a long aside on English churches dedicated to saints and how some of the black letter commemorations weigh in. He mentions the need for the difference between lesser feasts with full readings and collects and for memorials who just get a collect. Significantly, he’s quite adamant that these readings be for the Eucharist and that sanctoral readings should not displace the Office readings (concerning which I heartily concur—our own LFF/HWHM provide Mass propers, not Office propers). Finally, he gets around to the first principle of discernment that he introduced:

If Lesser Feasts are to have some real liturgical commemoration, it will be difficult to admit any to the place, unless it can be shown, not only that there is real historical support for the claimant’s case, but also such a story as can be really edifying. Further, unless there is only a Memorial provided, that story must be at the least one that is capable of association with some available Epistle and Gospel of the “Common.”

In the case of early Martyrs, the only really satisfactory names are those that can produce genuine and approximately contemporary Acts of martyrdom. . . . [A] claim which rests solely on a martyrdom must be judged by the genuineness, and the value from the point of view of edification, of the writings that it produces to support the claim.

But there is a second class of Saints which may claim sympathetic consideration, those whose cult is better evidence than their Acts. The Acts may be legendary, and yet there may be sufficient support for the main facts therein contained, available from good outside evidence to justify the acceptance of the Saint as genuine and worthy of a place in the Kalendar. (Frere, Some Principles, 28-29)

As far as additions of black letter days go, Frere first begins by going through the English church dedications of people not yet in the kalendar. Then he recommends some of the great teachers of the Church, particularly those of the East. Monastics also get added. Then he notes, “Apart from martyrdom, it is rare that anyone should obtain this pre-eminence except by being either royal, episcopal, or monastic. Again, virginity has hitherto had more than its share of representation, and saintly motherhood has had less” (Frere, Some Principles, 61). He recommends Monnica and Margaret of Scotland for this last group and also Katharine of Siena. Lastly, he makes recommendations of some local—i.e., English, Scottish, and Welsh—folks. A few post-Reformation names are forwarded too.

What’s so important about this particular chapter is the weight that it has had on subsequent discussions. When you look at the kalendar of the Proposed 1928 revision, it largely reflects Frere’s list. Even more telling, Prayer Book Studies IX on the Calendar cites this work frequently and the Calendar of the ’79 BCP is indebted to it. Furthermore, most of those left off the BCP Calendar are added back through LFF or HWHM.

What bothers me about this chapter is the apparent lack of theology or theological thinking. Apart from a few references to historicity and edification, there is no reflection on why and how saints are edifying and what that contributes to the discussion. I’ll suggest—and address at a future point—how this lack of theological reflection flows into PBS9 and subsequent Episcopal discussions of our Calendar.


9 thoughts on “Fragments on the Saints

  1. aredstatemystic

    “I’m coming to understand that it has far less to do with that and much more to do with a broad-church squeamishness around the idea of holiness.”

    I think you are spot on, as always.

  2. AKMA

    ‘Significantly, he’s quite adamant that these readings be for the Eucharist and that sanctoral readings should not displace the Office readings (concerning which I heartily concur—our own LFF/HWHM provide Mass propers, not Office propers).’

    Amen. I would encourage, perhaps, the use of a collect for a saint within the context of the intercessions at the Office — but the Office lectionary has an overriding integrity and coherence which the constant interruption of proper lections for lesser feasts (now virtually every day, among those who embrace HWHM) eradicates.

  3. rick allen

    I ask the following because I really don’t know, but also because it seems to me it goes to your own questions. As a Catholic I understand the saints to be those who can always be asked for intercession, as Christians who now are patrons of parishes and individuals, whether their canonization came from martyrdom, or teaching, or founding an order, or simply by example.

    What is the contemporary Episcopal/Anglican position (if any) on what the saints do, how they interact with us? Obviously the thirty-nine articles was hostile to the cult of the saints, but I have little sense of whether that distrust continues (and how one can really interact with the saints in a corporate way if there is some significant portion of the faithful who feel that way). It’s hard for me to believe that there is an actual aversion to holiness. Is it more a sense that it is superstitious to interact with the saints, to pray to them, even for intercession, and that one therefore must merely commemorate them, like any remembered heros and exemplars? Seems to me that the answers to these questions would determine the basis on which your calendar of saints should be chosen, and how they are honored.

  4. Derek Olsen

    Rick, there is little official position on the saints—that’s one of the reasons why HWHM is so important: it represents the official stance.

    My general sense is that the idea of holiness and the idea of the saints as on-going partners in the life of the church is seen primarily as superstition. What we seem to be commemorating is history–historical moments and historical examples. I’m certainly not against history myself, but the saints aren’t the past of the Church–they’re part of our *present* in important ways! I’ll say more about this whole situation shortly.

  5. Sean+

    [Full disclosure: although born and raised in the Episcopal Church, and loving it very much, I am there no longer; not because I made any attempt to leave, but because at one point in my life I believed God distinctly called me elsewhere. I can not speak from within the EC, but have no sense of separation.]

    I have noticed a tendency within the Episcopal Church to think of a concern for personal holiness as being almost in bad taste. It is something those tacky Baptists and Pentecostalists worry about. (I am more than willing to admit that my experience in this area may not reflect the norm.) There may in fact be quite a bit of holiness present in any given parish church on a Sunday morning, and I believe there often is, but one does not talk about it, or even think about it too much. This attitude colors how a group thinks about and relates to the saints.

    I would really like to hear from somebody who has a different perspective.

  6. Jim of Olym

    I’m coming from an Eastern Orthodox perspective here. We believe tht God is glorified in His saints, but also that He glorifies His saints who are put before us. Certainly ther are many holy ones around the Throne whose names we will never know until we get there ourselves! On the other hand, there are those who have worked miracles here (in our own lives) and who have done healings after their departure from this world, who we should honor publically and promote.
    I never understood the ‘cult of the saints’ until I came to Orthodoxy from Anglicanism — disclaimer: the Anglican ethos does not understand the Orthodox understanding of ‘saints’. We view them as living witnesses who help us, and in the case of the Mother of God, save us in a sense. I think
    looking at the intercessions of those who really truly live ‘before the Throne’ will help some in the west to see a broader picture of sanctity.

  7. Pingback: Tracking Sanctity: Prayer Book Studies IX | haligweorc

  8. Pingback: Responding on the Saints | The St. Bede Blog

  9. Pingback: The Dorchester Chaplains | The St. Bede Blog

Comments are closed.