Ask an Anglican: The Canonization of Saints

Elizaveta_FeodorovnaNick has a very specific question about a Russian saint that I’m not sure I can answer, but it opens the door to talk about the saints in general. He writes:

A few years ago, a statue of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr of Russia was carved and placed above the great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London with images of other “20th Century Martyrs.”… Elizabeth was canonized by the Russian Church Abroad in 1981, and by the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in 1992 immediately after the fall of communism. ¬†She is recognized as a saint by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as well.

Am I to understand that Elizabeth has been or will be added to the Anglican calendar of saints, or simply that her presence (along with Martin Luther King and others) is a sign of deep respect?

I must admit that I know next to nothing about Saint Elizabeth except what I have read on Wikipedia. But the bigger issue to be explored here is how someone comes to be recognized as a saint in the first place.

The word saint is used in the New Testament to speak of all those who have faith in Christ and are a part of His Body, the Church. Nevertheless, since very early on in the life of the Church, certain men and women have been recognized after their deaths as having lived exemplary Christian lives, worthy of emulation by those of us still running the race. These heroes of the faith were called saints in a special sense. Saint comes from the same Greek word from which we get the word holy. A saint is someone who has been made holy, someone who has been sanctified. When the Church pronounces that someone should be addressed as “saint,” she is telling us two things about that person, that he or she is in heaven and that he or she lived the Christian faith in such a remarkable way that we ought to take notice, honor them, and try to do the same in our own circumstances.

Needless to say, those requirements mean that the Church has to set a very high bar. While there are countless men and women who may be properly numbered among the saints, the Church recognizes only a comparable few. The question is, how does she do so? By what mechanism can we be assured that we should be referring to Saint John Chrysostom and not just Mr. Chrysostom? (Yes, that is a joke. A little one.)

In the Roman Catholic Church, there is an elaborate system that involves testing, the performing of miracles by the saints, and finally the seal of the papacy. In Eastern Orthodoxy and in Anglicanism, the approach has always been a bit more bottom up. Saints are recognized first at the local level, as a particular community remembers someone and begins to venerate that person. As time goes by, the veneration spreads and is adopted by other churches in other places. Eventually, entire national churches sign on and canonize or officially recognize a saint, giving the saint his or her own feast day to be remembered throughout the Church. Generally, the feast day corresponds to the day of death, the day when the saint entered into glory.

Each province of the Anglican Communion has its own system of canonizing saints, though we all tend to share a common set of ancient saints derived from the calendar in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In my church, the American Episcopal Church, our official calendar of saints is called Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Every three years at our General Convention, representatives of our dioceses propose adding new saints to the calendar (in theory, they could also propose to remove saints from the calendar, but this almost never happens). If approved by both the bishops and the deputies (clergy and lay delegates sent by each diocese), the feast is adopted provisionally for three years and the saint’s name is added to the calendar in brackets. During the three years that follow, the entire Episcopal Church is invited to receive that saint, to celebrate the saint’s feast day, to look to the saint’s example, and to determine if the Church has made a wise decision or not in adding this name to the calendar. If all goes well, at the following General Convention, the brackets come off and a fully canonized saint emerges. If not, the name comes off the calendar and the veneration becomes just a local custom as the bishop allows.

There are several Saint Elizabeths in the Episcopal Church’s current calendar, but Elizabeth the New Martyr is not one of them. The same appears to be true of the Church of England, though Elizabeth’s addition at Westminster Abbey might be a sign that there is momentum to canonize her there. Canonization, however, is not about categorically stating that someone is or is not a saint. Rather, it is about whether the person in question is a saint that the whole Church ought to recognize and celebrate. Perhaps in time that will become true of Elizabeth. In the mean time, we may be comforted with the knowledge that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that help us to run the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1). It is far less important that the Church recognize us as saints than that God recognize us as such. Saints are not superhuman men and women but sinners just like me and you who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus and given the grace to surround us with their prayers and their love, that we might also come into the glory of everlasting life in Christ.

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Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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13 Responses to Ask an Anglican: The Canonization of Saints

  1. Lambeth 1958 attempted to deal with this in Res. 79:

    The Book of Common Prayer – The Commemoration of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church in the Anglican Communion

    Heroes of the Christian Church in the Anglican Communion The Conference is of the opinion that the following principles should guide the selection of saints and heroes for commemoration:

    (a) In the case of scriptural saints, care should be taken to commemorate men or women in terms which are in strict accord with the facts made known in Holy Scripture.

    (b) In the case of other names, the Kalendar should be limited to those whose historical character and devotion are beyond doubt.

    (c) In the choice of new names economy should be observed and controversial names should not be inserted until they can be seen in the perspective of history.

    (d) The addition of a new name should normally result from a wide-spread desire expressed in the region concerned over a reasonable period of time.

    (http://www.lambethconference.org/resolutions/1958/1958-79.cfm)

    A report on the matter was written, too: The Commemoration of Saints and Heroes of the Faith in the Anglican Communion, used copies of which may still be found.

    It seems to me, though, that the calendar of our own province (Episcopal Church, USA) has largely been turned into a political project. The above criteria are not used in our own calendar (e.g., we do not add saints who are popular locally, but instead add saints first and then try out whether or not they become popular at the local level). Furthermore, when figures are commemorated, they are commemorated not with reference to their own accomplishments, but with reference to the political stances of the Episcopal Church’s leadership. Karl Barth is a great example here; his collect reads, ‘Almighty God, source of justice beyond human knowledge: We offer thanks that thou didst inspire Karl Barth to resist tyranny and exalt thy saving grace, without which we cannot apprehend thy will. Teach us, like him, to live by faith, and even in chaotic and perilous times to perceive the light of thy eternal glory, Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, throughout all ages. Amen.’ (See: http://liturgyandmusic.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/december-10-karl-barth-pastor-and-theologian-1968/; see the commentary on Barth which follows). The collect refers to Barth’s anti-Nazi radio broadcasts. Yet his real accomplishment was his theological work. Barth’s fundamental legacy is wholly ignored because for left-wing Christians, ‘resistance’ is cool – but heavy theological learning is not.

    In the Episcopal Church we have a plethora of saints today, but no coherence about how (if at all) these figures relate to our tradition. Non-Christians are now included in the calendar, too, despite considerable protest against it (which goes to show: laity only have a voice when those in charge want us to have a voice!).

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Thank you for this, Benjamin. I appreciate the context of the Lambeth article, which I knew existed but couldn’t put my hands on.

      You’re right that the Episcopal Church has strayed far from these ideals, particularly when it comes to the proposed Holy Women, Holy Men. Nonetheless, these are the ideals that we are supposed to strive for and that have guided us historically.

    • Father Thorpus says:

      Well said.

  2. Are LF&F commemorations really canonizations, though? The only real canonization I am aware of in Anglican history is King Charles the Martyr.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I suppose one could quibble about exactly what “canonization” means, but it seems to me that once the Church has officially given someone a feast day, a collect, and pointed to them as an example, that counts. The sanctoral calendar forms part of the official doctrine of our church.

      And, incidentally, King Charles the Martyr has never been canonized in our church, much to my chagrin. Fortunately, the English have seen more clearly on that score.

  3. DJ says:

    *sorry if this question gets posted twice. I didn’t get a confirmation that it went through the first time.

    Why hasn’t the Church applied the same process to the OT faithful? St. Abraham? St. Moses? St. David? Or have they?

  4. FatherThorpus says:

    I read once – and I think it can be seen to be true by looking at the BCP (p. 32-33) and other Episcopal calendars – that the Anglican tradition reserves the title “Saint” to biblical figures. Others are simply commemorated as heroes of the faith or some such.

  5. MichaelA says:

    A good reason to commemorate those who have fought the good fight before us:

    “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” [Hebrews 13:7]

  6. Rdr. James Morgan says:

    We have a small relic encased in our icon of St. Elizabeth the new martyr, in our Ortodox parish chruch. when I come in and venerate (kiss) the icons I pray to her that I may be faithful until death, as she was. And yes, I try as i can, sinner as I am, to ‘imitate their faith’.

  7. Sheila S. Conrads says:

    As an ex Episcopalian and now a Roman Catholic that teaches R.C.I.A. – The Roman Church also declares saints from the bottom up. They got more careful hundreds of years ago when newly Christianized people started calling local deities saints. You are well read – please read the facts of how the Catholic Church comes to the decision of who is a saint.

    Also, while my sons have become Antiochian Orthodox in Austin, my dear daughter is bereft in Lincoln. They left a bitter and divided Episcopal Church. The Evangelical Church they now go to is less and less meaningful to them. Any suggestions of an Anlican Church in Lincoln NE.

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