You’d think that in almost a year of doing this, more than 125 posts, I would have already answered this one. But I haven’t. It was in response to my recent musing on Martin Luther King Jr. that someone finally brought it to my attention.
It appears that the legacies of the heroic faithful have been observed by the worshiping public since at least the 4th century. The stories of greater- and lesser-known saints have been a part of our lives for many years. But, how do we decide? The process has changed over the years. And, the practices, both ancient and modern may surprise you.
In the earliest church, when things were much more diverse and dispersed than they are even now, celebrations of saintly lives and saintly living were largely local. If you town or region or village or guild knew of someone worth remembering, you remembered them. As word of your celebrations spread, then perhaps observance of your saints’ days might spread to, adding people to the sense of community.
As the church and its hierarchies grew, so did the formalization of the process of becoming a saint. When what was at stake was more than just a local celebration, but an edit for an increasingly universal church, then more scrutiny needed to be leveled at particular candidates and more interest needed to be taken in their value to the common life of faith. This gave rise to many of the practices that we tend to consider as the “Roman Catholic Way” of becoming a saint. The route that contains the examination of pious acts, of miracles done after death. It is also the system that speaks of concepts like “the devil’s advocate” and formal canonization. Its a very thorough process and, truthfully, continues to raise up many who, were “lights in their generations.”
In the Episcopal Church, though, the situation is a little different. It is kind of a hybrid of the ancient and more modern models that, at the end of the day, brings us a methodology for raising up Saints that feels very appropriate for a contemporary church in the U.S..
As with the ancient church, saint days in the Episcopal Church begin with local celebrations. Congregations and local bishops consider the lives of noteworthy people of faith for remembrance in their own communities. Celebrations like these grow and spread within cities and regions and diocese. Later, the local church can petition the General Convention (national governing body) of our denomination to have a local celebration listed in the official calendar of the church. This proposal is then put forth for a vote of the denominational legislative body and, if approved, we have ourselves a new saint.
There are a few more steps, having to do with trial usage and the like, but this is less about vetting or testing than it is about arriving in a place that creates the most meaning and the best legacy for the broadest part of the church. Likewise, there is also a process for removing a saint from the official list that looks very similar. Again, this is not so much about un-sainting someone (although occasionally it is), but more about tidying up the list a bit to make sure that it still serves the needs of the church. For example, few years ago we removed a couple of pre-normal English kings from the list not because we discovered that they were actually evil or anything, but because very few could actually remember what they did or even how to pronounce their names. This made room for some additional and more contemporary folks who hailed from and ministered to places to witch the Church of England spread since pre-Norman times. We still regard theses ancient kings as saintly. They simply don’t have a specific date on the calendar anymore.
So, there you have it. A mostly democratic process for a mostly democratic church in a mostly democratic country. Is it a sure bet that everything we do and everyone we honor is exactly who God wants us to, probably not. But, it helps ensure that the saints continue to serve their function as memorials of and mentors for the gospel work of God’s people in God’s church.