The advantages of Cranmerian minimalism in commemoration of saints

The recent TEC steps to remove the commemoration of renowned theologian William Porcher DuBose from the liturgical calendar exemplify the wisdom of a much more minimalist approach to the commemoration of saints.  The Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music has taken the unprecedented step of advising the removal of DuBose from the calendar in light of his post-Civil War defences of the intrinsic evil of slavery and the resistance of the former Confederacy to racial equality:

DuBose offered unapologetic defenses of that system of racial oppression while espousing white supremacy in some of his writings, even praising the early Ku Klux Klan.

DuBose reminds us that acceptance of - indeed, defence of - injustices can easily and routinely become part of ecclesial life.  Anti-Semitism, misogyny, and racism have all taken root at various times and in various places in the life of the Church.  This is one of the reasons, by the way, which might make us think about the usefulness of the classical Prayer Book version of the Nicene Creed omitting 'holy' from its description of the Church.

DuBose is one of more than 150 'lesser feasts' in the TEC calendar.  It is inevitably the case with the commemoration of post-New Testament figures that we encounter aspects of the life and witness within the Church that are profoundly problematic. We might think of the anti-Semitism of Chrysostom, Augustine's defence of the use of imperial force against the Donatists, or Bernard's support for the violence of the Crusades.  Within the Anglican tradition, there is Cranmer's role in the execution of the Arian George van Parris and Taylor's robust support for penal laws against Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and Quakers.  

It is, of course, the case that the witness and writings of each of these figures has deeply enriched the Church's life.  We can articulate a nuanced understanding of our gratitude for their gifts, while also acknowledging how aspects of their witness and teaching fell short of the Kingdom of Christ.  This, after all, is a dynamic known to each Christian: we are simultaneously saint and sinner.  Liturgical commemorations, however, have a tendency to obscure this, providing - understandably - a sole focus on what was good and true in such lives, and not acknowledging the sins and failures of those being commemorated.

What is more, in the post-9/11 context in which religion is routinely portrayed as divisive and undermining of human dignity, and amidst other cultural concerns regarding race and gender, the churches must surely exercise prudence and caution when proposing particular individuals as exemplars of the Faith.  

Related to this is the fact that Anglicanism from the Reformation until the late 20th century did not regard the churches as possessing any authoritative insight into and judgement of the witness and discipleship of individual Christians that would recommend them as exemplars.  There is one exception which proves the rule, the 30th January commemoration of the Royal Martyr.  This was was understood to be more a 'state service' than the celebration of a saint.  30th January was an exercise in national memory and political theology.  The example of Charles gave in his death - forgiving his persecutors - was part of the liturgy, but he was not presented as an exemplar beyond this.  In other words, without the trauma of Civil Wars and Protectorate, if Charles had continued to reign, there would have been no liturgical commemoration of him.

With no claim to authoritative insight into and judgement of the witness and discipleship of individual Christians - and, for this and other significant theological reasons, having nothing akin to the Roman process for canonisation - the processes Anglican provinces use to include figures in the liturgical calendars tends to be a 'mess of pottage'.  We see this in the rather important theological questions which might be asked of the official TEC statement regarding DeBose.  What does the statement mean by "a church-anointed saint"? By "regarded as an Episcopal saint" and "DuBose was granted Episcopal sainthood"? 

The advice provided by the 1958 Lambeth Conference on such commemorations was carefully worded to avoided such confused and misleading phraseology:

the following principles should guide the selection of saints and heroes for commemoration:

(a) In the case of scriptural saints, care should be taken to commemorate men or women in terms

which are in strict accord with the facts made known in Holy Scripture.

(b) In the case of other names, the Kalendar should be limited to those whose historical character

and devotion are beyond doubt.

The language of 'saint' is here held alongside, not applied to, "other names", "heroes" (admittedly this is not the most appropriate of terms).  In other words, Lambeth 1958 quite deliberately avoided the theological confusions and incoherence  involved in extending 'saint' and the associated language to such other commemorations. Of course, a comparison might be made between these 'lesser festivals' and the Black Letter Days which Cranmer included in the 1552 liturgical calendar.  Key to this, however, was the absence of any liturgical commemoration. As the bishops in 1661 stated regarding the retention of Black Letter Days:

[they] are left in the Calendar, not that they should be so kept as holy days, but they are useful for the preservation of their memories and for other reasons, as for leases, law days, etc.

Such national and civic reasoning quite sensibly led to the removal of Black Letter Days from the American 1789 and Irish 1878 revisions of the Prayer Book, giving further emphasis to the rationale of the Cranmerian minimalism in the calendar.  This is not about 'freezing' the 1662 calendar and not permitting additions.  Ireland provided a good example of how to carefully incorporate national saints (Patrick and Columba) into the liturgical calendar in a way which serves the Christological centre, while also adding another Scriptural feast of Our Lord, the Transfiguration (as did PECUSA), and providing propers for Harvest Thanksgiving. The restoration of 1549's Red Letter Day of St Mary Magdalene was also a welcome feature of many early 20th century Prayer Book revisions, while PECUSA inclusion of propers for Independence Day and Thanksgiving Day reflected traditional Anglican concern to gather up civic life in the Church's prayer. Limited, meaningful, and modest additions to the calendar's commemorations can reflect and contribute to the coherence and rationale of 1662.

There are good theological, liturgical, and cultural reasons for returning to a Cranmerian minimalism, ensuring that the focus of the liturgical calendar is robustly Christocentric, while leaving commemorations of other appropriate figures to dioceses, parishes, and institutions with a particular relationship to such figures.  Informal commemorations by particular communities tend to be necessarily more limited in their claims for the person commemorated. Issues which may arise regarding the figures being commemorated can then be addressed in a more flexible local manner.

On the basis of Scripture alone, Cranmer compiled a liturgical calendar which centred the church on God's salvific acts in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  The feasts of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Apostles, celebrate the witnesses of these salvific events.  Their proximity to the Lord's Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection both speaks of the particular significance of their witness while also ensuring that this is how their witness is understood and received, as pointing the church to the Christological centre. It is to this that the Blessed Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist, and the Apostles uniquely witness because of their proximity to those salvific events:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us.

The witness of all other Christians is qualitatively different to that foundational witness. This is reflected in the disparate, compromised, and often contradictory nature of later witnesses.  Cranmerian minimalism recognises this, ensuring that liturgical provision is made only for those foundational witnesses, "the foundation" on which the church is built, with "Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone".  (National saints such as Patrick can be added to the liturgical calendar in order to celebrate how a country came to encounter the foundational witness.) We might hope that the controversy around TEC's commemoration of DuBose will encourage contemporary Anglicanism to recover the wisdom of a Cranmerian minimalism.

(The picture is of the calendar for April, May, and June in the Church of Ireland's 1926 BCP: Cranmerian minimalism.)


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