Saints, Martyrs Missionaries and Teachers of the Anglican Communion. 8 November 2020. Take a different perspective.
The opening verse of our first reading today says: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God” (Wisdom 3:1). This is a wonderful declaration of faith and something which I know many people find deeply comforting and encouraging. Yet, as was noted to me with concern by a member of the parish this week, the book of Wisdom did not appear in that person’s Bible! Why is that? Why are we reading and including passages which are not in the ‘standard’ Bible??
Partly it is a matter of perspective, the way in which some of the Jewish leaders of the second century saw the collection of books written in the two or three centuries before Jesus was born. They didn’t like the way in which those books seemed to be pointing towards Jesus’ birth and so excluded them from their Bible. Christians kept using those books widely though, including the book of Wisdom. But in the 4th century, when decisions were being made about what was in and what was out the book of Wisdom and many others were placed in separate categories alongside the recognised books of what came to be called the Old and New Testaments.
Bear with me in the history lesson for a moment because there is a point to reflect on: it matters how we are looking to what we see.
Later, at the time of the Reformation, many influential people, including Martin Luther, wanted to cut back on what was accepted as ‘in’ and authorised. For example, if Luther had got his way we would never be reading from the book of James!
The reformers were not worried that those second-canon books, also called the ‘Apocrypha’, the extra ones excluded by the Jewish Council of Jamnia, pointed to Jesus. What worried them was that they were in continuing use in the Roman Catholic Church and that in those books there was a clear focus on paying attention to those who have gone before us, Christians who have died, those who we call Saints. Many reformers said we shouldn’t be doing that and so they excluded those books. If you have a Bible without those extra books it is actually a Protestant Bible, not a complete one.
Anglicans, as we do, tried to find a middle way. In the 16th Century the 39 Articles of Religion set out many ways of approaching the faith with Anglican eyes, though the Articles were still a very Protestant perspective. In Article 6 the authorised books of the Bible are listed but there are 14 others, including the book of the Wisdom of Solomon, which, as it says “the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners”
So, what is included depends on how you are looking and from what perspective. The Church of England took some time to pad around the edges of the rift with Rome and work out what to keep and what to smooth off in those edges. As Anglicans, most of us, try to take a broad view and not to be locked into some of the views formed in reaction to perceived problems.
You know you are an Anglican when you can say that your favourite theologian is a Hooker. Richard Hooker (1554-1600 died November 3) wrote works which shaped Anglican understanding. He wrote about working in the ‘solemn assembly of the saints’, by which he meant (as Paul did when writing to the churches he had founded) the people of God alive and active in the world as well as those who have gone before us.
In the Anglican tradition, from our beginnings as a separate part of the whole Church, we have recognised that there are people who are saints. Importantly, though, we and not saying that they were particularly good people, but that the light of God shone in them.
Alan Cadwallader, an Australian Anglican theologian (still alive!) wrote an article 10 years ago exploring Anglican understanding of Saints. I will put the link in the sermon and online, or if you want a copy to read please let me know.
Alan noted that from the time of the Reformation there was a lot of ambivalence among many Anglicans towards ‘saints’. I referred to the 16th century 39 Articles. Article 22 states: “The Romish Doctrine concerning purgatory, pardons, worshipping and adoration, as well as of images as of relicks, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”
If we had kept to that narrow perspective the church buildings where we meet would have different names and a lot of how we approach God would be different. How we understand God in our lives would also be very different. That article is an example of a view ‘formed in reaction to perceived problems’.
Anglican practice, as it has grown, has been fed by the recognition that we observe God’s presence in and through the community of the people of the family of God. God is among us, working still. It has long been argued that the Incarnation, God tangibly among us, is at the heart of Anglican Theology. And so it is right and a good thing to honour those in whom we see God working. As I was saying last week, it is about allowing ourselves to be inspired, taking that positive perspective.
The way that has happened, the way we recognise holy people, for Anglicans has been different from what developed in the Roman Catholic Church. We have tended, since the Reformation, to recognise locals and celebrate them. You may have heard and read about the exhaustive investigations which happen in the Roman Catholic Church when someone is being considered as a saint. Our process of ‘canonisation’ is very different. It comes through a groundswell of recognition and, Cadwallader argues, is more like the approach of the Orthodox Churches and the approach of the undivided church than the legal process focussed on proven miracles which exists in the Roman Catholic Church.
At the conclusion of the article Cadwallader writes: “Saints … provide an ongoing witness that the sanctifying word of God has been enfleshed amongst us, taking our flesh and our bone. Saints are made from such as us.” Saints are seen in communities which bear witness to ‘the holy one’, to God. https://acuresearchbank.acu.edu.au/item/89v95/the-local-and-the-universal-anglican-appreciations-of-the-saints-and-mary-mackillop
This matters for us because here we are, in 2020, far away from Jerusalem, far away from England, 500 years after the Reformation, part of the Anglican Communion which has grown throughout the world. And in our church calendar today is set aside to celebrate all of those who don’t get otherwise individually named, the Saints, Martyrs Missionaries and Teachers of the Anglican Communion. Holy people in whom God has been working and is working still.
If you look through the church calendar you will see that most of those who ARE named lived before the Reformation. We have kept adding to the list though. From around the world we look from different perspectives and so we see some things differently. Over the last century at least there have been invitations from many parts of the church to recognise those who have local connections, and they have invited others to share that celebration of the light of God which has been seen. In 1957, when the bishops gathered at the Lambeth Conference were considering an Anglican approach to Saints and revising our calendar, holy people from Africa were included though the invitation of African Anglican churches. In the 1970s the Episcopal Church of the USA took up the invitation to include our local New Guinea Martyrs on September 2.
There are some parts of the Church, including some parts of the Anglican Church, which would be happier if we stopped talking about Saints at all. But I think that the invitation to take a perspective that God is and has been and will be deeply active in particular lives, as well as in each of us, is an invitation to open our eyes with wonder and delight. We should be celebrating Saints and learning from them. We do that, not because they were particularly good people but because the light of God shines in and through them.
George Herbert, an Anglican priest of the 16th century (1593-1633) wrote many poems which have come down to us as hymns. One of these poems ‘The Elixir’ was in An Australian Hymn Book as a hymn ‘Teach me, my God and King’ (AHB 458) but didn’t make it into Together in Song, perhaps in part because of the gender exclusive language. The third verse of that poem speaks to me every time I see stained glass windows depicting saints in our churches.
‘A man that looks on glass, / On it may stay his eye; / Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, / And then the heav’n espy.’
Herbert reminds us that the invitation and celebration of saints is seeing not just the person but the light of God shining in them.
I wonder, as a living part of the Anglican Communion, who would be our local examples of those in whom we see the light of God?
Benjamin Glennie? He is certainly remembered as a holy person, saintly, revered and – if the fruit of the service of God is counted – someone who was very effective in sharing God’s love and building up the church! In Benjamin Glennie God’s light shone. There is precedent for such recognition. In recent years in The Diocese of Perth Georgiana Molloy was added to the calendar. Her life is celebrated on April 8, though unfortunately the remembering is often lost because of the closeness of the date of Easter.
Looking at the current calendar of saints most of those recognised are male and ordained. Depending on how the observances are counted perhaps 75% are in that category. They are also predominantly people who are either ancient or white and western.
On this Sunday at the beginning of NAIDOC Week, I wonder when we will have an influx of recognition of those among our indigenous community in and through whom we will be recognising (and so celebrating) the light of God shining? In time Bishop Arthur Malcolm may well be added to our calendar. James Noble, a pioneer Aboriginal deacon who died in 1941, is the only indigenous person included so far.
Among Australian and New Zealander members of the Anglican Communion we do have fourteen individuals. Some we have celebrated here recently:
Eliza Hassall 2 January; William Grant Broughton 20 February; Sister Emma Society of the Sacred Advent 9 March; Frederic Barker 6 April; Georgiana Molloy 8 April; George Augustus Selwyn 11 April; Sydney James Kirby 13 July; Eliza Darling 3 September; Mother Esther Community of the Holy Name 11 September; John Oliver Feetham 15 September; John Ramsden Wollaston 18 September; John Coleridge Patteson 20 September; James Noble 25 November; Frances Perry 2 December.
Six of them are women, two of whom established religious communities in Australia. The other eight are ordained men.
In our Australian calendar we recognise the first Anglican service at Sydney Cove on 2 February and Coming of the Light to the people of the Torres Strait on 1 July. We also have the communal celebration of the Martyrs of New Guinea on 2 September, one of whom is the indigenous evangelist Lucian Tapiedi whose statue graces the façade of Westminster Cathedral in London.
Look around. Where is God’s light shining among us today? “The souls of the righteous ARE in the hand of God” and some of them are among us still.