Audacious Anglicans reflects on heroes of faith

By on October 1, 2008

According to a young Church School pupil, a saint is “someone the light shines through” – speaking of the figures in stained glass windows that adorn many churches. But the saints described here – so labeled by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself in the foreword – are anything but stylized pictures in glass. They are real people.

Like “traditional” stained glass saints, they are a mixed bunch. Their common attribute is that they didn’t get seasick in a rocking boat. While all were persons who made it possible for light to shine through them, they also generated a fair bit of heat as well: a cover blurb calls them “men and women whose faith and vision challenged the ‘establishments’ of their day.”

This is a fascinating collection of 22 biographies of saints of the past 200 years, which first appeared in the Anglican Communion’s former quarterly magazine Anglican World. The authors, both Canadians, are enthusiasts for church history. It is unfortunate that they seem to have found it necessary to publish privately rather than through a church publishing house somewhere in the Anglican Communion. It deserves better promotion and distribution than is usually possible with private publication.

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Beginning with English parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who brought about abolition of the slave trade throughout the growing empire; Lord Shaftsbury, who fought to introduce laws to limit child labour; and ending with Archbishop Desmond Tutu who led the fight against apartheid in 20th century South Africa, the book introduces a set of interesting characters, some well-known, others less so.

There are indigenous Christians from many lands, including Canada’s Henry Budd, Africans, Afro-Americans, Asians, and a West Indian. One characteristic common to this group seems to have been conflict with their sponsoring bodies “back home” when they tried to embellish the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with indigenous expressions of faith and worship.

[pullquote]Li Tim Oi, first woman to be ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion as a Second World War emergency measure, is here. Under pressure, she agreed to relinquish the exercise of her priesthood, but never repudiated her ordination itself, and later, as the mind of the church changed, resumed the full exercise of her ministry. So is Trevor Huddleston, mission priest and mentor to a young Desmond Tutu, expelled from South Africa for his challenge to the racist government.

There is John Stott, who persuaded the evangelical world that evangelism and social justice must go hand in hand, and Janani Luwum, murdered by Uganda’s brutal dictator Idi Amin. So are the seven members of the Melanesian Brotherhood of missioners, martyred while seeking to broker peace among warring factions in the Solomon Islands.

Choice of whom to include in a collection like this is always subjective. All the people chosen are worthy of inclusion, but I would have wished to see some others (maybe the start of another book?). What about the Wesleys, John and Charles, leading the spiritual revival of the 18th century, both Anglican priests; or John Keble or Edward Pusey, who launched the Catholic revival of Anglicanism in the 19th century?

There is only one disappointing chapter in this otherwise excellent book. It is an add-on about church music, which, except for the obligatory politically correct nod toward Afro -American spirituals, focuses entirely on the traditional, classical Anglican style. A church musician of my acquaintance read the chapter and commented “but it’s so incomplete!” Better not to have included the chapter at all than imply that Ralph Vaughan-Williams offers the last word in Anglican music.

William Portman is a retired priest of the diocese of Qu’Appelle, and a former book review editor for the Anglican Journal.

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