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.