Who is a Saint? What is a Christian martyr? Different ecclesial communities have developed different processes for recognizing and naming saints which vary from a universal centralized decision, to a local reality that spreads around the world, to a fixed provincial process, to a more informal committee, or even to a local congregation’s opinion. While some might suggest that the whole sanctoral business is adiaphora, the commonality of recognition and temporal observance is an important part of ecumenical communion, communion in the communion of saints.
The topic is particularly timely, not least because one ecclesial community in the US is in the throes of redoing its sanctoral calendar, the Episcopal Church (the American branch of the Anglican Communion), and the conversations in official circles and on social media have revealed rather heated differences of opinion. Are the saints of scripture and tradition as important as local and recent saints? What makes a saint – is it nice thoughts, acts of social justice, successful church plants, miracles wrought after death? Is the sanctoral calendar populated by those who give evidence of particular sanctity or is it about political correctness, making sure that all groups are represented? Is it an icon of body of Christ in the communion of saints, or a mirror of our own desires for inclusivity? And, are those always different motivations?
I want to take the broad questions and make them particular and local for a minute, turning to a ‘local-to-me-in-Ontario-Canada’ situation to exemplify that the process is even more complex that the above suggested dualism. In the Anglican Church of Canada, the sanctoral cycle is found in the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Alternative Services (an official supplement), as well as online to represent official additions in recent years. We start with the question, what is a Christian martyr? Often this is an easier question to answer than the broader category of ‘saint’ because there is a more specific answer – a martyr is someone who has died for Christ. But what does that mean exactly? Distinguishing between Christians who have died because they were Christian, because they professed Christ, and Christians who have been killed because of other issues, important social issues, has become a bit blurry in some ecclesial conversations. But, there are other issues too. What happens when a martyr is used as a civic hero rather than a Christian martyr?
Let me tell you a story to put this in context…Walter Brown graduated from Huron University College in 1938, and was ordained an Anglican priest, then enlisted in the Canadian military chaplaincy service, landing on Normandy Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Two days later Rev. Brown and a group of Canadian soldiers were captured by SS Panzer soldiers after a battle and executed shortly thereafter. The difference between the chaplain and the other soldiers (many of whom were Christians), however, was that Walter was not there as a fighting soldier, but as a priest, ministering to those on the battlefield. He was killed as a faithful disciple, “he laid down his life for the sheep” (quoting a letter of The Rev. R.C. Warder, written in April 1946) Here is a Christian martyr, and one with a direct connection to the College at which I teach. In addition, the College Chapel came into possession of what are quite literally secondary relics with the gift of Walter’s communion kit, which was on his back in a kit when he died.
So, martyr, relics, date, story – but, rather than named as such in the sanctoral calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada, and commemorated on 8 June, Walter Brown is remembered by his community only on Remembrance Day (11 November, a day taken very seriously in the Canadian secular calendar). He stands as a national and local example of pride and sorrow, of Canadian memory and military bravery. Is Brown not a Christian martyr? Why the “wrong” date? This use of a Christian martyr as a national or military hero is not new in Christian history, nor is it unique. But it raises another set of questions about what is a martyr. What does it mean when a martyr, whose blood is the “seed of the church”, is not remembered by the Church but by civic and secular remembrances of the horrific losses of war? How does the story of this particular Canadian martyr clarify or complicate the recognition of those we designate as saints and martyrs? Does his story (and our connection to it) help in shaping a renewed understanding of Christian martyrs, as the martyrs of Libya in 2015 have done, and how do these new stories help our ecumenical discernment of extraordinary sanctity through which we engage by remembrance, honour, and imitation?