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 cycle would recognise the story of the local church. We have a member in St Andrews who in prayer or comment will often recall the six women and six men who covenanted together to found this local church in 1841; in his eyes, rightly, they are our Saints. This remembrance of the locally departed works unhappily in Baptist fellowships, as every minister knows (‘You want to move the pulpit?! Mr Wilson built that pulpit with his own hands, pastor!’), but, for Baptists, an intentional remembering of the faithful in Christ should be this local. I know lots of Baptist history, but my list of Baptist saints would begin with names like Vernon and Rosebud, unknown to anyone except those of us who had the privilege to be their fellow-members at, respectively, St Andrews St Baptist Church in Cambridge and Ramsden Road Baptist Church in Balham in the later years of last century.

Finally, I wonder if a properly Baptist sanctoral would not be a memory of communities more than individuals. Holiness, for us, is something that happens when saints covenant to walk together and to watch over each other – and it happens to them all or to none. If one or another name comes to prominence in the telling of a story, that is almost accidental. Perhaps the truly radical way is to insist that we would remember not the Blessed Virgin, but the Jerusalem house-church that, through her gifts and those of its other members, was graciously enabled by the Holy Spirit to remain faithful as a community in the service of her Son.

Come to think of it, I have led, more than once, a properly Baptist celebration of the Saints who have gone before. We called it a ‘Church Anniversary’.

8 Comments

  1. Andy Goodliff
    Aug 15, 2011

    Steve thanks for these helpful comments which were trigged by an impulse in me to think how I might further shape the daily prayer that happens in Belle Vue each morning … we use a liturgy that adapts to what season we are in and I was looking at how we might mark some more days in particular around moments in the Christian story with the intention that we might be shaped more by it … and in doing that I wondered whether it might be appropriate to have days where we remember certain people whose lives helped shape our faith … so for myself on the 6 May I might want to remember Colin Gunton, whose theology was so important to how I understand God and the world: on that day I would read an extract … beyond that I wondered whether it might also help us Baptists, whose forebears are so unknown to remember them and additionally be challenged by them in terms of how we seek to faithfully live out the gospel … the intentional is historical and missional … I guess in the many response already offered there is a need to ask who makes ‘the list’ if there was one … i wonder whether they might be local lists of saints we want to recall and remember, as well as more widely shared ones, whose life and faith impacted on a larger scale, so MLK, so Smyth and Helwys … if we are storied people, if seems vital to me that we find ways of telling the stories of our churches, our particular tradition, our biblical saints that help us see there was a church, and a people before I was born/joined …

    • Steve H
      Aug 16, 2011

      Hi Andy, thanks,

      I guess the other take-home points I have if you are compiling a list are:
      1. Assuming we will start with (one or another version of) the standard Western lists, there needs to be a pruning as well as an adding – the Anglicans (say) will venerate those whose lives we find to be much less convincing as visions of well-lived Christian discipleship;
      2. Can we find a way of recognising the communal nature of our vision of sanctity? Celebrating the founders of the BMS, not specifically Carey and Fuller, say? Or at least making sure we tell Carey’s story in a way that honours Fuller’s fundraising John Thomas’s pioneering, and even Dorothy’s silent but heroic self-sacrifice?

  2. John Sutherland
    Aug 15, 2011

    I doubt that St Margaret of Scotland, a sore saint for the Roman Catholic Church, can seriously be mentioned in this piece. As far as I remember, the church calendar is built around incidents in the life of Christ: annunciation, birth, visit of the Magi, crucifixion, resurrection, Pentecost (the giving of His Spirit). Whilst leaving open the question of the timings of these in a Jan-Dec calendar, it does give us a structure which all Christians can be agreed upon, IMHO.

    The lesser calendar of saints days is, as such, of secondary importance.

    I suggest Baptists join the bulk of the rest of Christendom and embrace the principal, Christ-centered, calendar.

  3. Terry
    Aug 16, 2011

    Steve, one thing I’d like your opinion on (though it’s only partially related to this post, in so far as it’s about saints!): At SST 2010, someone asked me why I didn’t pray to the Saints, asking them to intercede for me, when I do the same thing in asking my friends to pray for me. I didn’t have an answer and I still don’t. Help?

    • Steve H
      Aug 16, 2011

      Hi Terry.
      I think the basic Protestant position (see Calvin, e.g.) is that we have no reason to believe that the Saints are aware of our condition or requests – the martyrs under the altar in Revelation cry out for justice for their past lives, but make no request for the church’s continuing life – and so, without good reason to believe that the practice is useful, we should direct our efforts towards practices we know to work.
      I suppose that there are at least three further underlying reasons, however:
      1. Pastorally, we all know that prayer is difficult in a way that asking your friends for help is not; given that, if we take seriously the caution above, there is added reason not to pray to the Saints: why do something both difficult and uncertain, when we can do something certain (praying to God/speaking to friends) instead?
      2. Historically there seems some credible evidence that the practice of seeking the intercession of the Saints was linked to a loss of faith in the graciousness of God – crudely, looking for another mediator who would stand between us and God, and not trusting only in Christ. Even if such an understanding is not inherent in the practice, it seems invited or encouraged by it, and an uncertain practice that might tend to lead us into serious doubts should be discontinued.
      3. Theologically, the practice of invoking the Saints still relies (see Catechism passages cited in OP) on the belief that the Saints have accrued merit which (very crudely) gives their requests added leverage in the eyes of God. I come as an unworthy sinner seeking mercy; the Saint comes as one with a credit-balance in God’s eyes. Of course, this gets us to the heart of Reformation theology – justification sola fide – and puts the one who invokes the Saints on the wrong side of that fundamental dogmatic division. Now, it would be possible to imagine a devotional practice that did not make this assumption, but in point of fact the historic Christian tradition has never imagined one (though there may be an Orthodox tradition I am unaware of here). The live option in the tradition, therefore, is theologically unacceptable to anyone who believes the core principles of the Reformation.

      • Terry
        Aug 16, 2011

        Much to digest; thanks, Steve.

  4. Rachel
    Aug 16, 2011

    Great piece Steve, and I’m afraid one of the bits I’m going to remember most vividly is the image of tripping over an obscure Irish saint…

    • Steve H
      Aug 16, 2011

      Yeah, well, relics are two-a-penny here in St Andrews, and just left lying around after the Reformation…

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