Saints on the chopping block at General Convention

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church has approved a resolution calling for a new calendar of saints for the church year. Yet the House remains divided on what is meant by a “saint” and if those commemorated in the church calendar are to be called “saints”.

At the second legislative session of the 78th General Convention meeting in Salt Lake City on 26 June 2015, the bishops approved after debate Resolution A056: “Authorize New Liturgical Resources: A Great Cloud of Witnesses; Weekday Eucharistic Propers”.

They authorized for temporary use during the next three years “A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations” (GCW) prepared by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and for trial use “Weekday Eucharistic Propers 2015, … replacing Holy Women, Holy Men.”

The bishops further approved a set of criterion for commemorating individuals in the church calendar. Those honored were to be lead a life of “exemplary witness to the Gospel of Christ” but they had to have had an identifiable historical basis. Following the Second Vatican Council St Christopher and other saints whose commemorations were based more on tradition than on historical fact were removed from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. The same criteria of “historicity” would also be applied by the Episcopal Church.

Non-Christians could be considered in exceptional cases, if “the person’s life and work exemplify Christ, significantly impacting the ongoing life of the Church and contributing to our fuller understanding of the Gospel.”

Saints of God “should have been in their lifetime extraordinary, even heroic servants of God”, but also may be “whose creative work or whose manner of life has glorified Go,” such as artists and writers.

The Episcopal Church calendar should pay “particular attention” to Episcopalians and Anglicans, and include “people of different genders and races,” lay people and those of our “ecumenical partners and people who have had their own distinctive influence upon us,” as well as including those whose memory is kept by local or regional churches.

At the same time the “introduction of new names should be done with a certain economy lest the balance of the whole be overwhelmed.” Those have died within the last forty years should be subject to special scrutiny to allow their lives and witness to be viewed through the “ perspective of history,” the committee wrote.

The Bishop of Missouri, the Rt. Rev. G. Wayne Smith, offered the resolution to the House, and summarized it as a reform of the current calendar and Book of Occasional Services. The approach taken by Great Cloud of Witness was “more of a devotion than a commemoration.”

The Bishop of Springfield, the Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins rose to speak in opposition. Bishop Martins said he had been a member of the committee that had prepared the resolution and had been a lukewarm supporter at first, but upon mature consideration was persuaded this was not the way to address the issue.

Great Cloud of Witness, he said, was “not a different speed, but a different species” from Holy Women, Holy Men and the current calendar of saints.  In its discussion, the Committee had been unable to agree on a “common theology of sainthood”. The resulting resolution was a “compromise”, he argued.

The Episcopal Church “deserves a calendar of Saints,” he said, adding that it was foolhardy to think this project could be done in the next three years without a common theology of sainthood and with the limited budget available for the project. “I urge the defeat of this resolution,” he said.

The Bishop of Milwaukee, the Rt. Rev. Stephen Miller, rose in support of the resolution, informing the House he was chairman of the committee that had crafted the compromise. He agreed with Bishop Martins’ statement the committee had been unable to come to a common mind. “It is correct to say we could have struggled more,” he said. But this “is an attempt to allow local communities to recognize people and develop their own calendar.”

The resolution was put to a vote, and it passed on a mixed voice vote. Speaking to the media on behalf of the House of Bishops after the vote, the Bishop of Georgia, the Rt. Rev. Scott Benhase and the Bishop of Vermont, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Ely, said they had endorsed the resolution believing it was an “effective” way to begin revising the Church calendar. In the “current environment” it was not likely the church could reach a common mind on who was a saint and how they were to be honored.

The resolution at hand started the process of examining local commemorations, pruning the existing calendar, and setting recognizable standards for the future additions. The process is “now much clearer,” Bishop Benhase said.


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