Dean Letter: Celebrating the Saints

Hello St. Paul’s,

Those of us who say Morning or Evening Prayer know that on most days the Episcopal Church recognizes someone who has contributed in significant ways to the spread of the Gospel or the betterment of humanity. You can call these people saints, but we stopped putting “Saint” in front of their names a long time ago.

The honoring of the saints began very early in the church’s history, with recognition of those who had suffered and died for their Christian faith. The story of the first of these Christian martyrs, Stephen, is told in the Acts of the Apostles. As time went on, the calendar of saints was expanded to include people who weren’t persecuted but who made major contributions to the Church’s understanding of Scripture or theology. St. Jerome was a 4th-century monk who translated the Bible into Latin: his translation is known as the Vulgate and is the basis of the Roman Catholic editions of the Bible. St. Athanasius was a bishop who defended the orthodox faith of the Trinity against Bishop Arius and his followers, who denied the divinity of Christ.

The Church of England added a number of Protestant martyrs such as Thomas Cranmer to the calendar, and also honored missionaries who had introduced Christianity in different parts of the world. Teachers, hymn-writers, authors, nuns, reformers, and social justice pioneers are represented. Post-American revolution, the Episcopal Church continued the additions, more recently being intentional about including women and people of color. Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor in the FDR administration, was a devout Episcopalian and led the introduction of Social Security among other reforms. But being an Episcopalian isn’t a required criterion for being on the Episcopal calendar: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a Baptist, is honored, and so is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who defied the Nazis.

We also sometimes celebrate a group of people, such as the Martyrs of Memphis, a group of nuns and doctors who died of yellow fever while caring for victims of a yellow fever epidemic in 1878.

In the Episcopal Church we don’t pray to the saints: we honor them for their example. A favorite metaphor for a saint is a stained glass window: saints let the love of God shine through them in particular ways just as the light shines through the window and is refracted in multiple ways.

The Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints is a living document: every three years at General Convention one or more names are put forward for addition, and it’s very rare for anyone to be dropped, although new additions are included only provisionally for three years and must be confirmed by a second vote at the next General Convention.

We have several publications that include information about our calendar: the most recent is A Great Cloud of Witnesses, successor to Holy Women, Holy Men, and to Lesser Feasts and Fasts. We normally celebrate a saint on the anniversary of their death. For each commemoration, there is a prayer or collect, some Scripture readings, and a short biography. We have the option of using these readings for daily services, but if we want to use one on a Sunday we are expected to get permission from the bishop first.

You can find A Great Cloud of Witnesses online at holywomenholymen.wordpress.com, or you can buy a hard copy from Church Publishing. The app we use for Morning Prayer, Mission St. Clare, also includes optional observance of the saints in our daily services. I recommend getting acquainted with the saints: their stories are inspiring and colorful.

See you on Sunday!

Your sister in Christ,
Penny

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3 thoughts on “Dean Letter: Celebrating the Saints”

  1. What a wonderful image: “a stained glass window: saints let the love of God shine through them in particular ways just as the light shines through the window and is refracted in multiple ways.” May all of us strive to allow God’s love to shine through us.

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