I don’t think we’re supposed to have favourites among the Christian festivals – we’re supposed to approach them all with the same anticipation. But, being human, I suspect that we all have our favourites, and All Saints is one of mine.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I was baptised, confirmed and married in churches dedicated to All Saints (or All Hallows in the case of the last two). I know it has something to do with the good hymns we get to sing on the festival, particularly the All Saints hymn, ‘For All The Saints’, with its splendid Vaughan Williams tune, and inspiring words by Bishop How.
But I think that most of my fondness for the festival comes from the fact that this commemoration of all the ‘little’ saints – those not considered important enough to have days, or even in most cases, churches, named after them – does lead me to believe that the name of ‘saint’ could really be applied to all of us, as it was to all members of the congregations of the early church. That somehow, through persistence and through God’s grace, and perhaps because of one particular act, we too could attain that ‘blest communion, fellowship divine’ of which today’s hymns and prayers speak. For the great saints – the giants of the church who wrote gospels or major works of mysticism, or founded religious orders or reform movements – do seem so very distant from the rest of us mere mortals, don’t they? How well Bishop How sums up our feelings when we read about them: “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine”!
The ‘little’ saints we remember today seem much more in our league: achieving sanctity perhaps by one act of courage, one supreme time of witness for their faith, or a lifetime of holy ordinariness. Now remembered only in the small communities in which they lived, and by the wider church on just this one festival.
It is therefore ironic to remind ourselves that the commemoration of saints began, not with the great figures of the early church, but with these little local saints. From the second century onward, the inspired pastors and martyrs of the early Christian communities began to be remembered by services at their tombs on the anniversaries of their deaths. Then churches were built over these tombs and dedicated to them; but these festivals were all local ones. The first patron saints of churches were remembered only by their friends, families and local communities – as most of us will hope to be after we die.
It was only later that the major church figures were allotted their ‘feast days’ and the celebrations extended to involve the whole church. This continued until the church calendar became choked with these feast days, with one or more saints to be remembered on every day of the year.
All these early saints were ‘patron saints’. They served as an example and an inspiration to those who worshipped in the place that bore their name; and if saints have a function in the life of the Church, this task of inspiring and exemplifying would seem to be it.
One of the things the last Pope did on his visit to the UK was to declare Cardinal John Henry Newman ‘blessed’, the first step on the road to sainthood. Since the Reformation, the Church of England has had no machinery for canonising its leaders and heroes.However, the need to designate those who provided a proper example for others to follow continued to be felt. In 1958, a commission reported to the Lambeth Conference on what should be taken into account when choosing those who might be commemorated in the official calendar of the Church. Apart from stating that they ought to be people whose lives and histories were well attested (that’s when we lost St George, who turned out to be largely mythical!) and of whose sanctity there was no doubt, the commission also advised that they should be people whose lives have ‘excited other people to holiness’: people who so manifested the light of Christ in their lives and achievements that the Christian community can learn about it from them. John and Charles Wesley were included in the revision of Festivals and Commemorations in the modern Church of England prayer books on that basis.
Those early church communities had their ‘patron saints’ chosen for them by the fact that he or she lived and sometimes died among them. But how, I wonder, should we go about choosing a patron saint for ourselves today? At one time especially in Roman Catholic countries, a child would be named after the saint on whose feast-day it was born – and that saint would automatically become its patron saint. When a French penfriend gave me a full list of saint’s days, I discovered that under this system, I should have been called ‘Honoré’ – a saint of whom I was not able at that time to discover anything further! I now find (thanks to Google and Wikipedia) that he was a 6th century bishop of Amiens, and patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs. Not really much like me, I have to say!
Using the same system with the ASB and Common Worship calendar, my birthday saint turns out to be George Herbert – priest, poet and pastor, 1633 – again, not a very appropriate role model for a twentieth century working wife and mother!
If you are given a fairly traditional name, you can adopt the saint with the same name as your patron saint – even if, as in my case, it turns out to be someone whose life story is wholly apocryphal. But what of the Tracys, Emmas and Darrens – where are the saints for them to follow?
Another traditional way of choosing a patron saint was through your occupation. All the mediaeval trade guilds had their patron saints, and some of the connections are still remembered today. I attended a school founded by a member of the Haberdashers’ Company, whose patron saint was Catherine of Alexandria, and we were told the story of her martyrdom each year on her feast day, 25th November. Doctors can look to St Luke and carpenters to St Joseph, and tax collectors to St Matthew, musicians to St Cecilia. But what of more recently invented trades and professions?
A review I read of Butler’s ‘Lives of the Saints’ suggests some appropriate choices. St Basillissa martyred in the third century, and patron saint of those with chilblains, might serve for chiropodists; and St Appollonia, an aged deaconess, who had all her teeth pulled out, and who is usually depicted clutching a pair of pincers which hold a tooth, might be appropriate for dentists; and since carpenters are now not so common, perhaps St Joseph, who is also, I’m told, the patron saint of house hunters, might be persuaded to transfer his patronage to estate-agents!
But this rather light-hearted survey of possible patron saints does highlight a serious difficulty for us in making the choice. If the function of saints is that their lives should ‘excite us to sanctity’ then surely there needs to be some real point of contact between their lives and ours. Yet, the problem with most of the saints who we are offered as role-models is that they lived so long ago, and in such a different world from the one we inhabit, that those essential points of contact are lacking.
This is particularly so for women. If you look through the calendar of saints, almost all the women mentioned there were either nuns or virgin martyrs. The ASB improved things a little: its calendar had 10 women out of 76 saints; Common Worship has 47 women out of 238 individuals worthy of being commemorated as examples of sanctity by the church. Are men really that much more saintly than women?
The ASB calendar had only three women who were not either virgin martyrs or celibate religious: Anne the mother of the Virgin Mary (whose life is entirely legendary); Margaret, who was queen of Scotland as well as ‘wife and mother’, so not much of an example to commoners, and the most recently introduced Josephine Butler, social reformer, wife and mother – the only person in that calendar of saints and heroes of the faith whose life style was anything like what modern working wives and mothers might experience. It was no surprise to learn she was the most modern of the ASB women saints – she died in 1907.
Common Worship added more women to the list – but still very few modern married women or mothers: Mary Sumner, founder of the Mothers’ Union and Henrietta Barnett, social reformer alongside her husband Samuel are two of the few who lived in the early 20th century. The commission who completed the list was instructed that no-one should be included who had not been dead for at least 50 years; but this attempt to preserve the list of heroes and heroines of the church from ‘the cult of the passing moment’ has also left it bereft of role models for working mums, employees of multi-national corporations, and all those who try to live the Christian life in an era of mass-communication, the internet, multiracial societies and space travel.
For some, perhaps most Christians, this is not a problem, and they do find man and women whose lives ‘excite them to holiness’ in the official approved lists of saints and heroes of the church. But for others, including me, the official ‘saints’ are almost all too remote to be inspirations for our Christian pilgrimage.
Perhaps we should, then, go back to the example of those second century congregations, whose festivals and dedications began the whole business of ‘saints’ and pick our ‘patron saints’ from among those who live our sort of life in our sort of community, in our own time – with or without the official blessing of the church.
What do you think?