“Holy Women: Holy Men” is the name given to a book of collects and lessons provided to enable congregations to commemorate those who the church singles out as “lights of the world in their several generations”. We used to term such people “saints”. The word “saint” is a variant on the term “holy” and holiness in the Scriptures applies to all the baptized and is rooted in the concept that in baptism we are all incorporated into “a Royal Priesthood, a holy nation” or if you will the Church. From very early times the Church has singled out particular ‘saints’ and designated them as Saints, people whose lives are, if you will, extraordinary examples of Christian virtue. Someone once suggested that a saint is an ordinary Christian who lives an ordinary life extraordinarily well. It was obvious that such a title be afforded to the Apostles and Mary Mother of Jesus and some of the women who were Jesus’ disciples. By extension this was also applied to apostolic people like Timothy, Titus, Barnabas and others who figure in the Church’s first history book, the Acts of the Apostles. As Christians ‘never die’ and thus never cease to love and pray, they formed what the Creeds term “The Communion of Saints” who though not living continue to invigorate the Church by their presence and prayers. We acknowledge this reality when we pray the words, “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to the glory of your name.” We are reminded that we are never alone and that our prayers and lives are lived in communion with those whom we love yet see no more and particularly with those whose lives serve as an example to us as we seek to be a holy people.

The root of the word holy is in the concept of being chosen by God, called out to serve God, not because we are good, or clever, or have done wonderful things, but because God loves us, and has redeemed us, and adopted us as sons and daughters.

From very early days local communities identified such people, and particularly those who gave their lives for Christ, the martyrs, realizing that ‘martyr’ has its roots in another word which means “life-giver”, whether by dying for Christ or simply making Christ He to whom we give our lives and service. In reaction to what was thought to be an abuse of the practice of invoking the saints, our Reformers drastically culled those who were so honored in the Calendar. Our Reformers were so fixed on the concept of prayer as being asking for salvation,that they created a barrier between the Church militant here on earth and the Church in Eternity and thus seemed to deny that those who have gone before us have an interest in our lives and pilgrimage of faith, or at least a love and concern which matters.When the 1662 Prayer Book was adopted, a few pre-Reformation saints were restored, and one post-Reformation person, Charles, King and Martyr added. After the Tractarian Revival in the 19th Century, many began to add, without official sanction, the saints appearing in the Roman Catholic Calendar, or saints of the early days of British Christianity. In the 20th Century Provinces of the Anglican Communion began to adopt official local calendars, honoring more recent heroes whose lives figured in local churches or in the Anglican Communion at large. In the USA a book was endorsed by the Episcopal Church called “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” which gave sanction for the inclusion of specific holy women and men to be remembered on specific days in the Christian years. Each new edition added more names. Lesser Feasts and Fasts has been replaced by a volume entitled “Holy Women, Holy Men”. Indeed this new volume threatens to provide us with as many “saints” as one may find in the Calendars of the Orthodox Churches. However as the 1979 BCP forbids us to observe saints on Sundays, except for a patronal saint, the saint whose patronage is given to a parish church, and the Feast of All Saints if it falls on a Sunday, this multitude of saints remains largely ignored unless a parish has a daily Eucharist or the Offices are said in public. These saints are therefore relegated to personal and private devotion, at least for the most part.

The new approved Calendar has a number of glaring weaknesses, most of which have been noted elsewhere. The texts of many of the prayers no longer identify specifically Christian virtues for emulation. In that a good number of those identified in Holy Women, Holy Men have tenuous links to the Church Universal or local, if any, what seems to have replaced ‘holiness’ as a virtue, is the concept that people who have done notable things should be honored. While there is no harm and perhaps much good in recognizing those who have discovered things which benefit humanity or have championed good causes, these people are not saints as we have used the title thus far. The title of the new volume is therefore ironic. The term ‘holy’ is being defined not as a Christian virtue but in terms of fame. The secular world has its heroes. Nations honor their leaders who have gained fame in being examples of national honor. Again there’s no harm in such a practice. But now our church blurs the distinction between famous people and Christian saints.

It would be good if those responsible for nominating saints to our Calendar let us know what definition they embrace in making their choices. There is of course another practical problem. If our General Convention were to debate each name so nominated and included in an official liturgical observance, there would be no time to debate anything else.

The Roman Catholic Church has a complex method of canonizing holy women and men. Until now our church followed an older practice in seeking to identify people whose lives have inspired local devotion, one worthy of observance by the wider community. It is impossible to know whether many included in Holy Women, Holy Men, have such local followings or have been included in local devotion or in the Calendars of other Anglican Provinces or by other churches with whom we share ecumenical fellowship. This whole process needs to be brought into daylight. We need to know how the Standing Committee of Liturgy etc decides on its choices, in what manner ‘holiness” or even practiced Christian faith is discovered in the lives identified, in what manner such people have become focuses of local devotion and in some cases why they replace those whose days have been observed hitherto. It seems to me that a theological definition of holiness and heroic virtue is being replaced by a concept of admiration for the things some have done whether they were Christians or not. In short how may we have any confidence that such honored people are members of the “Communion of Saints” who continue to share with the Church on earth their virtue, love and prayers?

One Response

  1. I love what I read about the Diocese of Northern Indiana, especially the article in this week’s _Living Church_. But I am saddened by the harsh criticism above of _Holy Women, Holy Men_, the proposed new calendar for TEC. I was on that blog the whole first year of trial and found many faults, but lack of clarity and honesty was not one of them. I wrote twice to the committee with questions, and they were answered quickly. Also– the criteria are spelled out in the book on pages 741-744, including a reference to “those faithful servants of God and of God’s people for the sake, and after the example of their savior Jesus Christ” who “made “exemplary witness to the Gospel of Christ.” I think it would be good to make some of the changes you suggest, such as mention of the Christian virtues. The resolution before GC right now (I don’t know whether it has passed or not) asks for another 3 years of trial use with input from all members of the Church. I felt a sense of Christian community as I read the biographies and collects and scriptures–there was so much I didn’t know–and was very heartened by the inclusion of someone I knew personally who brought many people to Christ. It wasn’t some sort of hollow “admiration” that I felt as I read about the men and women, it was a stronger sense of community and how those people witnessed to Christ’s love.

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