The clergy have had a lot of questions about this, so let me start by saying: No, the Episcopal church does not have a formal canonization process. In other words, while we have feast days on our calendar that commemorate particular Christians, there’s no committee that grades their holiness as an individual and passes judgment on it. In the Anglican communion, we do not pronounce people saints.
Instead we follow what was the practice in the first 1000 years of Christianity, which was not to grade individuals’ virtue, but instead to pay attention when faithful Christians continued to be inspired by someone after their death. Were Christians continuing to find this person’s witness to the Gospel inspiring, were local traditions growing up to celebrate and remember the person, were Christians naturally asking for the person’s prayers? So in essence, was this a believer whose story and actions were still inspiring many people to love Jesus better even several years after their death? Was this a believer whose story and actions might inspire us to love Jesus better right now? Then let’s remember them.
David Brown from Durham Cathedral, who wrote Through The Eyes of the Saints, comments that this is a more useful way to think than saying “Well, St. So and So was perfectly holy. God bless them. Of course, I could never be like that, so I’m off the hook.” Saints are actually meant to put us on the hook, precisely because they are like us. They are not superhuman or superperfect. But they are people who have been notable in letting the presence and teaching of Jesus reveal itself through them, and specifically, reveal itself in the context of a different culture or time period than first century Judea. And that’s really the Christian life, isn’t it? We’re not here because we’re interested in first century Judea, but because we long to experience and reveal Jesus in our own culture and our own time.
Emmanuel has been running a series of Instagram quiz posts on saints the past couple weeks, and they kind of made an effort to point out the different backgrounds of many of the people Christians commemorate: Egyptian, Syrian, African, Asian. Not because we are aiming at checking boxes, but because the Good News of Jesus is that big. I’ve mentioned before that the historian of Christianity, Andrew Walls, has pointed out that most of the great world religions are centered in the same region of the globe where they began. Buddhism has spread, but the Far East is still where the majority of Buddhists live. Islam has spread, but Mecca is still its center today. Hinduism, born in India, remains a predominantly Indian religion.
Christianity is an exception to that rule. Its center keeps moving. Most of its adherents were first in the Middle East, then in North Africa and the Roman Empire. After that, most Christians were in Europe for awhile, and now the center has moved to the Southern Hemisphere. There are about 685 million Christians in Africa, for example, most of them in locally-based churches that have no equivalent in the West. Jesus is wide enough for all of us, and if we act like Christianity is only good news for one kind of person, we are misrepresenting Jesus and the Gospel. The good news of what Jesus has done is for absolutely everybody.
So when we look at the wide variety of the saints, we are helped to imagine how big and how accessible and inclusive the Gospel is. We are helped to notice that Jesus is enough for everyone, of every race and culture, every era, every gender expression, every generation, every body. When Christians are bearing authentic witness to Jesus, we will look as different from each other as the saints do.
In fact, the genuineness of my and your profession of faith can probably in part be evaluated by how much being Christian has connected us to people we would not ordinarily spend time with. People where the only explanation for our connection is Jesus. If we come to church, but while we’re here we limit our relationships to people who are our own age or our own economic group or our own education level, we are simply importing the sinful patterns of the world into the Kingdom.
After all, we come together at church to have sort of a lab -- to live the Kingdom, to show each other and the world what the Kingdom of God looks like. We’re nourished by the life of the Kingdom when we hear the Word of God, fed by the life of the Kingdom when we receive the Blessed Sacrament. Yet you know as well as I do how easy it is, even here right in the middle of our lab for the Kingdom, to behave in ways that contradict the Kingdom. To import the sinful habits of this age that undermine our own faith and our own witness. Of course there are lots of those habits of this age, and we’ve all seen them imported into the church in discouraging ways. But on All Saints Sunday that habit of churchgoers acting as if the world’s groupings define us even here, is particularly worth renouncing.
This is one reason we’re deliberately inviting everyone to mix it up today – to form scavenger hunt teams that are not just people you already know you enjoy, to rotate among stations with Emmanuelites you wouldn’t naturally get to know. It’s why, especially at the food table, we have discussion topics, so that we won’t stand around and import secular norms for chit-chat that undermine why we came to church in the first place. We don’t want to have a secular gathering that just happens to be taking place at the street address of an Episcopal parish. Our situation in the churches today is far too urgent for that. We don’t have that luxury anymore. We need to learn what Christian belonging means, and we need to learn it now.
And we have the saints to help us. We have the proof in them that any distance we think exists between us and Jesus can be bridged. We have the proof that the Gospel is big enough for everyone. We have the proof, in all these very different human lives, of what is possible when you surrender to God. And we have their prayers, that we, too, would surrender.
All you Holy Apostles and Evangelists, Pray for us.
All you Holy Martyrs, Pray for us.
All you Holy Bishops and Confessors, Pray for us.
All you Holy Priests and Levites, Pray for us.
All you Holy Monks and Hermits, Pray for us.
All ye holy men and women, saints of God, make intercession for us. Amen.