I’ve been a part of an Anglican church my whole life. My friends’ mothers tell me stories about how they changed my diapers in the nursery when I was still too young for Sunday school.
My church is on the evangelical, “low church” end of the spectrum, with a preference for simplicity in worship, scriptural teaching over tradition and very minimal decoration. (A few years ago, there was some debate over whether we were getting too frilly when we put up a simple wooden cross behind the communion table.) One result of that extremely low-church upbringing is that I grew up almost never hearing saints discussed anywhere—except of course for the phrase “communion of saints” in the ubiquitous Apostles’ Creed.
Lately my perspective has broadened. My work for the Journal has had me talking to other Anglicans from around the country, and I’ve discovered that to many, people like St. James and St. Margaret were more than just figures in their New Testament readings and names over their church doors. These encounters have had me thinking again about the communion of saints. Who are all these saints I’m supposed to be communing with? And am I doing it right?
So with All Saints’ Day coming up, I set out to write a feature for all those who, like me, wonder how the other half worships (or, also like me, didn’t know until recently that there was an “other half ” at all). What I found was a different answer for each new person I asked—but also a consensus on at least one point: that the tradition of saints offers important illustrations of the principles that Scripture lays out for living the Christian life.
A Step Into Eternity
I began by speaking with Archdeacon Edward Simonton, vicar general and archdeacon of the diocese of Quebec. A self-described “high churchman” and Anglo-Catholic, Simonton holds a doctorate in ministry and for the past decade has been leading the research on a project to revise the calendar of saints and commemorations that appears in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Book of Alternative Services. (A paper outlining Simonton’s work, including draft revisions to the calendar of saints, is currently available on the church’s website.)
“Well, you’re not unique in that,” he answered, when I told him I knew almost nothing about Anglican teaching on saints. “My worry with this stuff is that people approach it as though saints are an optional extra.”
Simonton believes saints are an essential component of Christian belief as they show the presence of Christ and his transformative power in their lives. “The whole point of discipleship is that Christ works through his church. And if no one ever achieved any kind of sanctity in their life—does any of this even work?” he asks.
At the heart of it, he says, a saint is any person who has received salvation as a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is, every ordinary Christian who receives Christ into their heart, then dies and enters the Kingdom of Heaven is a saint in the literal sense. Therefore, as the introduction to the Anglican Church’s liturgical text For All The Saints says, the church doesn’t make saints; it just picks out ones that can be recognized. The difference between most saints and those having a day of commemoration and the title “St.” in front of their name is in canonization—the formal recognition of sanctity.
And so, Simonton says, the “communion of saints” mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed, like the “company of heaven” to which the Sanctus bids us join our voices, refers to both the canonized saints and the rest of the sanctified Christians both past and present coming together to meet in the presence of God.
This wider category of saints is also the reason for All Saints’ Day, Simonton adds. The day marks remembrance for the multitudes who were saved but not canonized, and therefore left out of history.
Historically, the Anglican Communion has been slow to canonize its own saints. Its provinces recognize many of the saints from the Roman Catholic tradition, but the relatively few saints unique to Anglicanism tend to come from the early days of the Church of England (such as William Tyndale) or just before (John Wycliffe). However, the research project Simonton has been working on includes principles for dioceses and parishes to develop their own calendars with days commemorating local people who have shown special devotion, service or sanctity—sort of a “grow your own saints at home” program, with room for those local heroes to be considered for canonization and commemoration in the broader church. The report containing this proposal is in trial use, and may lead to a finalized proposal to General Synod as soon as 2025.
God is present throughout time and space, Simonton goes on, and is particularly easy to see in the lives of our fellow believers. When we take communion, the presence of God in our own hearts connects us to his presence in members of the Church who came before us and will come after. “We draw back the veil of time, even if it’s only with the will, and step into Eternity,” he says. “We touch a place where ‘He was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.'”
In the footsteps of St. Francis
Canonized saints, as confirmed, historical examples of Christ’s presence in human lives, function as role models or heroes of the faith for modern Christians to look up to. Simonton says he’s intimately familiar with this aspect of them, as he developed a special affinity for St. Francis of Assisi when he joined Little Portion Friary, a Franciscan order in Edinburgh in the early 1990s. There, he and his brethren lived alongside local homeless and HIV-positive people.
“The people who most people don’t see, we knew them all by name,” he says. “We didn’t offer services, we just lived with them. That’s the point, we’re Franciscans. Yes, we had soup kitchens, dinners and such … but if you treat the poor as just other normal people, it’s just part of a community.”
Living out St. Francis’s loving relationship with people in need gave Simonton a desire to follow in the saint’s footsteps. He hopes it also helped him become a little more like the saint.
Though he considers the Anglican take on saints to be quite similar to the Roman Catholic one, he says there is one key difference in their emphasis. Roman Catholics tend to emphasize the supernatural aspect of saints, seeing them as agents of heaven who step in to show help and favour to believers. This tendency really got out of hand in the way they were depicted in the Middle Ages, he says—“flying around healing tumours and getting rid of scurvy, making sure the sheep breed right.” Today, Roman Catholic belief in the saints has pulled back from those extreme depictions, but Simonton says there’s still a difference in the way Anglicans tend to emphasize their humanity and therefore the attainability of following their example.
“When you become holy, you don’t cease to be you,” he says. “St. Jerome was grumpy as hell. He lived as a hermit in the desert outside Bethlehem for much of his life. He was one of the great doctors of the church.” The point is, becoming sanctified doesn’t mean wiping out the parts of you that make you who you are, says Simonton. If anything, sanctification makes people more truthful, idealized versions of themselves.
Simonton says he has no more trouble with the idea of asking a saint to pray for him than he does with asking a friend from his church congregation. After all, he says, Scripture assures us that no one who believes in Christ truly dies. He offers several Biblical citations as support for this belief, including Revelation 6:9, which refers to martyrs calling out before the throne of God.
‘A fond thing vainly invented’
Not all Anglicans agree that saints pass on the prayers of the living. Torrance Kirby is a professor of ecclesiastical history at McGill University. He says the practice of asking for the prayers of saints is mainly present in high church and Anglo-Catholic parishes. But he does not believe it is compatible with the Anglican Church’s Reformation-era roots.
“I like to go to an Anglo-Catholic service of worship, but when it comes to the Angelus, when they turn to a statue of Mary and invoke her prayer on their behalf, that is contrary to the Articles of Religion and it makes me uncomfortable, I have to confess,” he tells me.
He’s referring to the 39 Articles of Religion, a list of doctrinal statements put together during Anglicanism’s early years in the 16th century. The 32nd article states that the invocation of saints “is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”
Simonton acknowledges that the 39 Articles disparage asking for the saints’ prayers, but he doesn’t hold much respect for them as a binding document on modern Anglicans. He argues that the articles were used more as a tool to give the English Crown political power than to outline a coherent set of beliefs for the church.
Still, he says, he and Kirby represent two extremes of belief, with most Anglicans falling somewhere in between.
Whatever their position on actually praying to them, what most Anglicans—even Simonton and Kirby—agree on is the importance of saints as exemplars of a life well-lived. In the theology of reformer Martin Luther, Kirby explains, Christians receive salvation for free as a result of their faith alone. Then, they are obliged to pay that gift forward to their fellow humans. Including references to saints in church provides a regular chance to encounter what that duty looks like.
Both he and Simonton agree that making saints a part of worship is a way to root the reality of the gospel in a world we can experience with our senses. Remembering the work that martyrs, early church fathers or faith leaders in the early Church of England did putting the gospel into practice in their times and places can help us think of ways to apply their courage, wisdom and virtue in our own.
“Martin of Tours famously is depicted as cutting off half his cloak to give it to a beggar,” Kirby says. “That’s a mark of his sanctity, and so when we observe his feast we are reminded of the importance of sharing our substance with those who are less well off.”
As a result of my low-church upbringing, I grew up to think of saints as at best a bonus feature to the Christian experience, and possibly just a holdover of pagan concepts like patron deities and ancestor worship. When I spoke to one of our pastors about it, he explained the source of that might be that our attachment to Protestantism came with a healthy dose of skepticism about anything that felt like old-world Catholicism.
In my research, I discovered that the tradition of sainthood began with members of the early church keeping the bones of martyrs and commemorating them at communion services as a way of affirming Christ’s promise—that those who believe in him do not truly die and that we are still meaningfully connected to them. Both Simonton and Kirby also assured me that Christianity has picked up many traditions from pagan sources, ranging from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia—the December date of which is thought by some to have influenced the Christian religion’s choice of Dec. 25 to mark the birth of Jesus—to explanations of the Holy Trinity that depend on modes of thought from Greek philosophy.
Being heard by saints—and by God
What differentiates the veneration of saints from, say, worshipping Zeus, says Kirby, is the intent behind the tradition. It makes a big difference, he says, whether worship is aimed at glorifying the saints themselves or using them as examples of ways to glorify God.
Nor is the idea of saints interceding in prayer tacked on without some basis in Scripture, Simonton tells me. He gives several examples including a passage in 2 Maccabees 15, which shows Jeremiah praying for the people of Israel 400 years after he died; and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in which Jesus tells a story involving a dead man asking Abraham to intercede on behalf of his living relatives.
These explanations helped me to see how the idea of saints could be compatible with scriptural teaching. But I still had trouble finding a way to convince myself they were as solid a thing to believe in as, say, the existence of the apostle Paul, especially in light of the doubtful historicity of many of the stories surrounding the saints. Think St. George and the dragon.
To work this out, I went looking for someone who came from a background similar to mine, and found the Rev. Seth Enriquez who works, appropriately enough, at the Church of St. George in the Pines, Banff, Alta., as well as at St. Michael’s in nearby Canmore.
Enriquez says he believes in saints enough to refer to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas using the title, but that they typically haven’t been a part of his worship life. He says he’s not convinced departed saints can somehow hear prayers the way God does. “I don’t have any scriptural evidence that when someone dies, they are in this other realm where they can hear our prayers … [though] I can imagine Jesus in heaven being like ‘Augustine, they’re praying to you again, but I heard it. Don’t worry about it brother, I got it.’”
But he surprises me by following that up with some nuance.
“I have to admit I am trapped in a modern secular frame that doesn’t admit of wonder easily … I would find saints uncomfortable,” he says. “Is it a far stretch that—in some way that I find uncomfortable in my modern mind—[those first Christians] had an insight about the saints? I have to admit it’s possible.”
While, he says, that doesn’t mean he’s about to start praying before an icon of Mary, it does give him a respect for those who do—and he’s not about to tell anyone to stop if it’s something that’s been blessing their lives.
He also addresses my doubts about whether the apocryphal nature of some saints’ lives should cast doubt on the rest. For example, he’s not sure he can literally believe the story that St. George, for whom his parish is named, actually slew a dragon. But even if the story is a way of describing some human tyrant who was terrorizing the region’s women, or some other fictionalized legend about a real person, it has something to tell Christians about living the Christian life, he says. Even when Christians ask for prayers from a saint whose actual life is the subject of historical doubt—St. Christopher, for example—Enriquez believes God hears the sincerity of their prayer, whether or not Christopher is there to pass it on.
He concludes that traditions like the veneration of saints shouldn’t be held to be as essential to Christianity as the gospels or the Epistles of Paul, which are non-negotiable. With my upbringing’s focus on the authority of Scripture to determine what is and isn’t true, I still found this concept challenging. So I asked each of my sources how people were supposed to trust that the canonized saints were reliable if some who made the list might not even have been real. Each one gave me a variation on the same answer: that while tradition is fallible—it’s not meant to carry the same authority as Scripture—Christians can put it to use by trusting in what must be true, grappling with what may be true and trusting God to set them straight if they stumble.
As Simonton puts it, a belief in saints might not be necessary to salvation, but that doesn’t mean the saints don’t add anything to the Christian life.
“Do you need it? Absolutely not … Do you need anything? No. You can eat sludge that’s been specially produced to give you all your protein. But why the hell would you want that? [Some Protestants say] ‘All I need is Jesus,’ and it’s like, okay, technically yes. But there’s all this other stuff and it’s all part of him as well.