Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on All Saints' Day 2012

1 November 2012 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Have you ever wondered how many saints there are? This is not a very easy question to answer, so perhaps we should start by defining our terms. St Paul starts almost all his letters with a clear address: who is writing and to whom he is writing. Take the beginning of his epistle to the Colossians:

‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.’

‘The saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ’ could lead to uncertainty. Are ‘the saints’ different people from the ‘faithful brothers and sisters in Christ’ or the same, just another way of putting the same thing?

Perhaps it would help if we looked at another of his letters. Take the beginning of his epistle to the Philippians.

‘Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’

I doubt whether St Paul intends to exclude the bishops and deacons from membership of ‘the saints’, so perhaps we can understand better, with the old Latin tag, the saints as the plebs sancta Dei, the holy ordinary people of God – all God’s people. Nothing wrong with being a pleb.

But I think this great feast of All Saints is dedicated to celebrating the saints in a narrower sense, to mean men, women or children from any stage in the history of Christianity who have been officially recognised as holy and exemplary. That may be reasonably straight-forward, but ‘officially recognised’ opens up a whole series of questions.

We probably all understand something of how the Roman Catholic Church officially recognises people as saints. They have a highly codified system, which used to be contested rather like a judicial process with a prosecution and defence until the time of the previous Pope, who simplified the procedure. Pope John Paul II during his long reign declared over a thousand people Blessed and almost 500 Saints. It has sometimes been said that he canonised more people than all his predecessors put together. But this must be a mistake since there are over 10,000 people officially recognised by the Roman Catholic Church as saints – and incidentally many more by the Holy Orthodox Churches. Many of these were recognised as saints before the sixteenth-century Reformation that divided the Church in the West, and have continued to be recognised since the Reformation.

Recognised as saints. The process always started when a local Church began to venerate one of their number, a martyr or other heroic Christian figure, as a saint. In that place they would naturally be remembered on the anniversary of their death especially if they had been martyred and were buried there. Typically an altar would be erected over the tomb of a martyr and the Holy Eucharist would be celebrated on that tomb. That is the origin of the altar in the early Church. In the western Church even today, altars frequently have placed within them the relics of a saint, in honour of that tradition. The saints whose local cult spread would come to be venerated and remembered more widely.

By a gradual process the universal Church came to recognise particular saints, and each of them on their feast day, on or near the day of their death, their heavenly birthday, would be honoured at every altar within the universal Church. Today, parish churches and the local Church, the diocese, each have their own calendar of local saints whose feast days are observed locally. All Saints’ Day allows us to honour and venerate all the great number of saints not in the Church’s calendar, not remembered on a particular feast day.

After the Church of England broke with Rome in 1534, for some years the liturgical life of the Church was almost unchanged. It was only in 1549 during the reign of Edward VI when Thomas Cranmer was archbishop of Canterbury that a new prayer book was published in English with a new calendar and lectionary for the Church of England. That was followed by a further more drastic revision three years later. In the 1552 prayer book only three non-biblical saints survived: St George, the patron saint of England is one. That’s no surprise. The other two are early saints of the Roman Church: St Clement, the fourth Bishop of Rome, who died in the year 100; and St Laurence, Deacon, martyred in 258.

After the death of Mary Tudor, the 1552 Prayer Book was brought back by Elizabeth I with some significant alterations, the calendar of saints was enlarged to include more Roman saints and others of particular interest to the English, such as St Gregory the Great, St Augustine of Canterbury, St Richard of Chichester and St Alphege, whose millennium of martyrdom at Greenwich has been celebrated this year. Charles II’s prayer book of 1662 retained those saints and remains the official Prayer Book of the Church of England.

For three centuries from that time, the Church of England had no official means of recognising new saints. But in the 1960s, soon after the Second Vatican Council under the influence of Roman Catholic Church’s new vernacular liturgy, a process began in the Church of England of developing a new calendar and liturgy to stand alongside the Book of Common Prayer. The calendar, approved in 1980 and revised in the latest prayer book, Common Worship, published in the year 2000, adds many saints of the post-Reformation era, saints from every part of the western Church. They each have their own liturgical day, their feast day, when we remember and give thanks for them in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Some of these new Anglican saints died only recently. Take for example two of the twentieth-century martyrs who are commemorated on the west front of this Abbey Church: Janani Luwum, archbishop of Uganda, martyred in 1977 by President Idi Amin; and Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, likewise in 1980. The most recent addition to the Church of England’s calendar is a group of seven martyrs, members of the Melanesian Brotherhood, in the Solomon Islands, tortured and murdered just nine years ago by a rebel leader with whom they were trying to negotiate peace. The story of such martyrdom could be re-told tragically often in the Church today, with Christians bitterly persecuted in many parts of the world.

If we follow the Church’s calendar day by day, especially through our attendance at the Eucharist and daily offices, we come to know the stories of those saints whose feast days we observe. They can inspire and encourage us in our own Christian pilgrimage. The saints enable us to become what we are, the saints, the plebs sancta Dei, the holy common people of God.

As the letter to the Hebrews puts it,

‘Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ [Hebrews 12: 1,2]

From today’s Collect, ‘Lord, grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.’