A Baptist Sanctoral Cycle?

Posted on August 15, 2011

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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’.

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