All Saints

All Saints (2009)

Marian Free In the name of God, who sent Jesus Christ to be our only mediator and guide. Amen.

I’d like you all to turn to the back of your prayer books. On page 476 you will find the text of the thirty nine articles – those tenets “agreed upon by the Archbishops, Bishops and the whole clergy of the Provinces of Canterbury and York” form the basis of the Anglican expression of Christianity. These were the articles of faith, which the Church in England determined in response to the Reformation. Every ordained person and every Liturgical Assistant in the Anglican Church of Australia still signs their assent to these before they are licenced to serve in the church.

That they were written in a time of foment and religious debate – particularly with the Church in Rome – is obvious in more than one of the articles. The one that concerns us today, as we celebrate All Saint’s Day is number XXII of Purgatory. It states: “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

Strong words you will agree, and something of an embarrassment in the context of modern ecumenism.  However, it is important to remember the context in which the articles were written. The Middle Ages were a time of great religious revival. New religious orders were founded, people from all walks of life embarked on pilgrimages, people like Julian of Norwich became anchorites, mysticism abounded and great spiritual works were written. It was also a time of excesses and of a popular piety which placed emphasis on devout observances, saints, relics and pilgrimages to the point that the person and teaching of Jesus took second place. Educated and uneducated people alike were drawn to this popular form of pietism which bordered on superstition. It was against such excesses that the Reformers rebelled.

The popular veneration of saints, and the belief in their miraculous power led to the creation of an industry based around their veneration and belief in their divine intervention. Just as tourism is a vital part of the economy today, so pilgrimages to the shrine of a saint provided a form of income and employment to any place which could claim such an association. This meant that being able to prove that one’s town or village had a relationship with a saint, or that miracles had been performed there led to it being a destination for those looking for a miraculous cure or for a way to demonstrate their personal piety.

As a consequence there was a great trade in Reliques. Bones, pieces of clothing, or other items that had belonged to a Saint were sufficient to draw pilgrims to the place where they were to be found. Even something as small and bizarre as a piece of a fingernail was believed to contain the power of the saint to whom it had belonged and was worth trying to obtain. Perhaps one of the most macabre examples of the practice relates to Catherine of Sienna. Catherine was born in Sienna, but died in Rome. After her death both towns wanted to capitalize on their association with her and a dispute broke out between the two towns. In the end, a compromise was reached – Rome kept Catherine’s body and Sienna was allowed to have her head. If you go to Sienna today, you can see her head displayed in San Domenico the church in which she grew up. A similar conflict arose between San Damiano and Assisi, both of which wanted to capitalize on St Francis’ association with their towns. Francis’ actual burial place was not discovered until 1818. His body had been hidden between two floors of the Basilica because the people of Assisi was so afraid that his body might be plundered by the citizens of San Damiano and his bones sold throughout Europe.

Among other things, the Reformation sought to put an end to such excesses. However, the Anglican Church did not abandon the commemoration of Saints altogether. A glance at our Lectionary will demonstrate that we continue to hold in high regard martyrs, teachers, social reformers and holy men and women. Despite the fact that only Charles the 1st has been canonized since the Reformation, many who have led exemplary and lives are recognised in our calendar – including heroes of the Reformation and missionaries and teachers of the succeeding centuries.

In 1958 the Lambeth Conference clarified the way in which Saints and Heroes of the Church might be commemorated:

• In the case of scriptural saints, care should be taken to commemorate men or women in term which are in accord with Holy Scripture.                                                                                                                                                                                                 • In the case of other names, the Calendar should be limited to those whose historical character and devotion are beyond doubt.                                                                                                                                                                                                             • In the choice of new names economy should be observed and controversial names should not be added until they can be seen in the perspective of history.                                                                                                                                                       • The addition of a new name should normally result from a wide-spread desire expressed in the region concerned over a reasonable period of time.

This means that throughout the Communion, there is a degree of freedom to add to the Calendar people of significance to a particular region. The Calendar which we in Australia use, will differ from that elsewhere, for our pioneer bishops, indigenous clergy and social reformers will mean little to those in other regions.

Saints are exciting, romantic and adventurous like Joan of Arc or George the Dragon Slayer, they are humble and gentle like Francis, compassionate like Margaret of Scotland and Elizabeth of Hungary, intellectual giants like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, poets, musicians and doctors like Hildegard of Bingen. They are great proclaimers of the gospel like Paul and the early Celtic saints – Patrick, Alban, Columba and Cuthbert. They were obedient to their Lord and Saviour, but often disobedient to secular rulers. They were brave and foolish, innocent and wily, comforting and confronting, filled with joy and yet no stranger to suffering.

Holy men and women of every age inspire us to deepen our spiritual lives, to broaden our knowledge of our faith, to stand up for what is right, to fight for justice, to live with integrity, to care for God’s people and to share our faith with the world. May our lives and our faith be challenged by the heroism, commitment, wisdom and spirituality of the saints who have gone before us and may we in our turn, inspire and encourage those who follow after.


%d bloggers like this: