Saints Alive: The Tensions in Sanctoral Cycle Reforms

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?


  1. First of all, thank you for telling us the story of Walter Brown, of whom I hadn’t previously heard.

    I can see that he is a “national martyr”.

    In reading up a bit on Maximilian Kolbe, I learned that the Catholic Church, and perhaps other branches of Christianity, make a distinction between a “Martyr of the faith” (Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus et al) and “Martyrs of Charity”, such as St. Maximilian. It seems that Fr. Brown is, or could be, a martyr of charity – someone who was killed in the course of practicing his ministry.

    1. Thank you Jim, for the martyr of faith and martyr of charity distinction – it give another dimension to what is best (for me) thought of as a spectrum of interpretation. I worry that charity is not faith…but have to also now ponder how martyrdom throughout our tradition is an act of response to God, or an encounter of action that is both divine and human action, hmmm…

  2. It is indeed sad that each of our ecclesial communities cannot agree on a sanctoral calendar. What happens when a Roman Catholic, and Anglican and a Lutheran are all martyred in the same incident? Do each of us only regard “our” saint and ignore the others? Sad, indeed

    1. Pastor Dave – I believe that, at the grass-roots level, Catholics are more than willing to acknowledge sanctity in persons of other denominations. Of course, most of us don’t know many stories of such persons, so it’s helpful to get them out there!

    2. right – there is a communion in the commonality of saints, just like there is communion in common scripture readings – perhaps that is a lens through which to view sanctoral calendar reform – the universal ecumenical saints, and the particular (local or specific to a tradition). In some ways that does happen now, but I wonder if more intentionality was applied how it might develop?

    3. Paul VI handled it like tthis when he canonized the martyrs of Uganda in 1964:

      “Who could have foreseen that to the great historical figures of the holy African martyrs and confessors, such as Cyprian, Felicity and Perpetua and the great Augustine, we would one day have associated the names of Carlo Lwanga and Mattia Mulumba Kalemba, along with their twenty companions? Nor, indeed, do we wish to forget the others who, belonging to the Anglican confession, confronted death in the name of Christ.”

  3. I read blog post on the same day that I came across a curious entry on Corpus Christi Watershed, about whether or not Roman rite canonizations are infallible:

    My “why?” about the infallibility question was answered at the end of the article, where the “guest author” seems to imply that there are people leaving the Roman rite over the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II.

    Paired with this post about the reforms and revisions of sanctoral calendars, it got me to wondering about the duty to be individually faithful to or observant of the sanctoral calendar. If I’m unhappy that a particular individual was canonized, is this an exercise of individual conscience? Am I allowed to dis- (or un-)believe that individual is a saint who is due the honorific of the official title? Much food for thought between now and November!

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