A Baptist Sanctoral Cycle?

A Facebook conversation sparked by Steve Harmon’s blog post on today’s varying Christian celebrations of the Blessed Virgin Mary (in the Roman Calendar, it is the feast of the Assumption – a doctrine that (unlike the Immaculate Conception) raises no theological problems for other Christians (traditionally, both Enoch and Elijah were assumed to have been assumed…), but fails quite badly on the ‘evidence?’ test; in the Eastern Calendar, it is the feast of the Dormition; in the Anglican Calendar it is simply the feast of the BVM) led to Andy Goodliff proposing the gathering of a Baptist sanctoral cycle, a list of Saints to be offered for commemoration in Baptist worship. Of course, Baptists will not want to forget the Reformation objections to the cults of saints.  The Roman Church still teaches that: (a) there is a present distinction between Saints, who have been received into heaven on their death, and other Christians, who are undergoing purgation for their faults; (b) the Saints still intercede for the church, and can be called upon to pray for this or that need by the faithful still on earth; (c) the Saints gained merit by their deeds on earth which lends power to their intercession in heaven. (All this is clearly taught in Lumen Gentium, say, but can be helpfully found in §§954-6 of the Catechism.) All of this, Baptists will want to deny, I assume. What use, then, a sanctoral? I have argued before that every Christian tradition in fact keeps a sanctoral, although most Protestant versions are informal. There is always somewhere a more-or-less fixed body of biographical narrative which functions to enlarge our imaginations about the nature of the well-lived Christian life. At the dawn of the Reformation, the Anabaptist Martyrs’ Mirror functioned like this, as did Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in England. For Evangelicals there was a well-established list of missionary biographies which fulfill exactly this role, beginning with Edwards on Brainerd and traveling down (it might be that the sustained postcolonial criticism of the mission movement, leading to a reluctance now to tell and re-tell these stories, is amongst the biggest problems in Evangelical spirituality today). When I first subscribed to the Baptist Times, the gift offered to entice you was a biography of Billy Graham (still not read it…). And so on. I suppose that, for Baptists, we worked with Foxe and, later, Evangelical missionaries, as our informal sanctoral for many years. In recent years in Britain we have begun to add selections from the Martyrs’ Mirror – I have told the story of Dirk Willems often enough in worship, and heard it told more often, I guess. Most things done tacitly are better done self-consciously, and self-critically, so perhaps Andy’s call is appropriate? A formal sanctoral cycle would open our eyes beyond the small number of favourite stories we happen to have fallen across, and invite us to confront riches and traditions from other parts of the world, and other periods in history. It would force us to face up to patterns of sanctity that are foreign to our own asking anabaptists to respect those who worked with and in political structures to further the cause of Christ, and asking the comfortably Reformed to imagine the holiness of countercultural existence. (At a conference on mission and theology at the end of this month I will be talking a bit about the stylite saints of Syria, who achieved fame and a reputation for sanctity by dwelling on small platforms on top of tall pillars. Had they no place in the sanctoral cycle, it would be tempting to dismiss them without a thought; that another culture and time was impressed enough to point formally to these practices and say ‘this is authentically Christlike’ challenges us to take them more seriously.) I wonder, though, whether to do this in a Baptist way demands we do it differently? The traditional sanctoral cycles reward privilege and ecclesial office (it is often claimed that, between 500 and 1500AD, not one woman who was not either a vowed virgin or a queen was canonised; I seem to recall discovering that this is not in fact quite true in tripping over an obscure Irish saint once, but the point remains telling); with due respect to Margaret of Scotland (in whose honour we have recently named a scholarship), I wonder whether a properly Baptist sanctoral wouldn’t pretty much exclude those of royal rank from consideration? Certainly I suspect that those whose claim to sanctity relies on having deployed violence or oppression in the name of Christ would be excluded from our lists. A step further: a properly Baptist sanctoral...

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Education and religious commitment

The BUGB news sweep picks up another forthcoming piece of social scientific research (the report is from the Daily Mail, but as far as I can tell nonetheless fairly accurate), this one using data from the American General Social Survey. The headline is that there is a pronounced positive correlation between years in education and likelihood of attending religious services – more colloquially, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to go to church (or synagogue, or mosque – but given it is American data, church is the real point) – more precisely, each additional year of education makes an American 15% more likely to attend worship. This is valuable in that the narrative of ‘only ill-educated people are religious’ is still out there in the culture, and hard data to rebut it is useful. That said, it is not a surprising result, nor should we be too quick to claim that education makes people more likely to believe; there is no indication in the report as to whether the statistics have been normalised for other factors; if not, it may well be that religious observance and educational longevity are both related to another variable. (Amongst British students, to take a slightly parallel example, there is simply no question that evangelical Christianity is on average much stronger in elite universities than in others; I am fairly sure that the explanation for this is less ‘cleverer kids are more likely to be evangelicals’ than ‘middle class kids are more likely both to be evangelicals, and to be accepted by elite universities’.) The report goes on to make claims about the nature of the faith of educated Americans: educated people are more likely to read the Bible (again – is this normalised? ‘educated people are more likely to read’ is not news; do they turn to the Bible disproportionately?); less likely to agree that ‘the Bible is the literal word of God’; and less likely to agree that ‘only one religion is the true religion’. These latter results strike me as complex; the researcher, Philip Schwadel (U of Nebraska-Lincoln), narrated them in terms of more educated people being more ‘open-minded’ but not less ‘faithful’; I suspect that this is wrong. As any of us who have been involved in survey design and interpretation know, at the point where you are asking people to agree with simple statements about complex issues, you get into difficult areas of interpretation. For instance, a recent survey showed that British Evangelical church leaders were less likely to agree with the statement ‘abortion is always wrong’ than their church members; in discussing this, the people who did the survey made the point that this was probably an unfortunate artefact of the question, in particular the inclusion of the word ‘always’: anyone who has a measure of theological education these days will have been offered ‘abortion to save the life of the mother’ as a test-case in ethics (I’m not saying it’s a good one, but everyone uses it, including me…); with this background, the word ‘always’ in the question sounds like it is a test on where you stand on this, somewhat obscure, debate on the limits of ethics, not a test of your basic ethical position concerning abortion. Similarly, ‘the Bible is the literal word of God’ is a very complex statement: someone with a measure of theological knowledge will immediately recall debates over ‘is’ vs ‘contains’ in this context; the use of the word ‘literal’ is at least obscure, and probably actually misleading (if one holds to Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation, say, can one say that the Bible is the ‘literal word of God’? The answer is not immediately clear; Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture was hardly cautious). I reflect on what happens in my own mind when confronted with such a survey question: I first note that the question is complex enough not to admit of the yes/no answer required; then reflect on which response more adequately reflects my view; then reflect on what the question might be used as a proxy for (if I say yes, will someone assume that I am closed-minded/a fundamentalist/a six-day creationist/…?); then I probably tick the ‘don’t know’ box… It seems likely that there is a simple correlation between educational achievement and an unwillingness to indicate agreement with a broad-brush statement on a complex issue. In passing, this illustrates the difference between two types of data: church attendance and educational achievement are ‘hard’ data: people may lie (in the aftermath of the Thatcher government, political pollsters found they had to correct for ‘shy Tories,’ people who voted Conservative but would not...

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