Why do Anglicans celebrate “feast days” for various “saints”? After all, aren’t all Christians saints?
If you’re asking these questions, you’ve come to the right place!
Commemoration of saints has its roots in the Bible.
In 1 Cor. 11:1, St. Paul writes: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” From this we learn one of the most powerful means of Christian discipleship: imitating other devout believers. Not for their own sake! Instead, we imitate devout believers because they are themselves imitating Christ by seeking to obey and please the Father.
The author of Hebrews enlarges on the theme. After cataloguing the great heroes of the Faith, he goes on to say in 13:7: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
This past-tense description (…spoke….the outcome…) seems to imply that the leaders are no longer around—either being in exile, prison, or having been put to death.
The Bible itself urges us to keep the holy lives of devout believers before our eyes, in order to learn from them and be encouraged toward Christlikeness.
Commemorations in the Early Church
In our very earliest records of the Church after the New Testament era, we see this principle of imitation in action.
In the Martyrdom of Polycarp (executed for his faith as an 86 year-old man in the year 155 in Smyrna), we have this account from a contemporary eye-witness after Polycarp was burned at the stake:
Later, we collected up his bones, more precious than jewels and better purified than gold, and put them in an appropriate place where, the Lord willing, we shall celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom each year with joy and rejoicing, both to remember those who have run their race and to prepare those yet to walk in their steps. (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 18 [trans. Lightfoot])
A century after the death of the first martyred apostles, many Christians had suffered under various antagonistic emperors. The great cloud of witnesses was beginning to become very great indeed!
And what we see in the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom is that a custom had developed of keeping the anniversary day of a martyrdom as a yearly memorial. In this way, many great heroes of the faith could be remembered individually through the course of the year. Early believers held up the lives of the martyrs as examples of true Christian discipleship and devotion.
Writing just two generations after Polycarp’s death, Tertullian gives us a further glimpse into how the memory of the blessed was kept on their “heavenly birthday”:
As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours. (De Corona Militis, 3 [trans. Thelwall])
In context, it is clear that the “offerings” mentioned are none other than special celebrations of Holy Communion, where God is thanked (Eucharist) for the work he has done—chiefly through Christ’ atoning death for us. But also, in a much smaller and secondary way, for the work that his Holy Spirit accomplished in the life of the saint whose death was remembered on that day.
For many successive centuries, we see this pattern repeated in every corner of the Church: A person lives an exemplary Christian life—perhaps as a nun, or a bishop (like Polycarp was), or a teacher, or a prince. And, whether they suffered martyrdom or not, the excellency of their life was held up as a teaching tool in the local community they were a part of, even after they had died.
Sometimes, the memory of a holy man or woman would be so cherished that their reputation would extend beyond the local community. People would hear about this great saint of God, and would travel to visit the town in which they ministered (and perhaps in which their bones were kept) to see for themselves the effect a sanctified life can have, and to give thanks to God for doing such powerful work.
When a saint became so famous that the whole Church came to know about them, this is how the recognition of “Saints” as we think of them now began. In this sense, “Saints” are holy men and women whom the whole Church knows about, and whose memory is universally cherished.
In the Middle Ages, the devotion (cultus) to the Saints began to balloon.
Combined with false-teachings about the after-life, merit, purgatory and whatnot, the remembered Saints began to be seen as ambassadors to which we on earth could appeal. Commemorations of their death in Holy Communion began to get out of hand, and the life of the Saint became the major theme of the Liturgy, rather than the central, singular offering of Christ on the cross.
Furthermore, as “cultural Christianity” or Christendom was established in Europe, Holy Days of remembrance became holidays from work—excuses for raucous festivals and often ungodliness (think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans!).
Additionally, many relics and legends were fabricated. What had once been an anthology of pious remembrances in the church, became a farrago of tall tales and oddities coupled with the names of the great Saints of old. (For instance, stories of a “St. Christopher” who almost certainly never existed, or of Mary’s childhood home being miraculously recreated in Loreto, etc).
By the 16th century, the good aspects of devotion to the Saints had been eclipsed by the corruptions.
This de-formation of the holy memory of holy men and women was one of the things the Reformers set out to correct.
Although the Swiss school of Reformers wanted to do away with such commemorations entirely, the more moderate Reformation in England didn’t want to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. After all, the practices of the Early Church of following the injunctions of Hebrews 13 were still to be commended, even as the excesses were in sore need of pruning.
And so, they pruned.
The Book of Common Prayer took an axe to the over-elaborate structure and vast number of commemorations. In the Prayer Book tradition, the only required commemorations (called “Red Letter Days,” because the names were originally printed in red) are for Saints who appear in the New Testament (Apostles, Evangelists, etc.). The dates for these commemorations remained the dates inherited from earlier tradition, which purport to be the dates of the Saints’ deaths.
All other commemorations were optional (called “Black Letter Days,” because they were printed in smaller, black type). And these were also pruned back. Whereas the medieval calendar had a Saint for just about every day, the optional Prayer Book commemorations have, on average, only two per week.
Furthermore, all dubious legends were expunged. The mention of Saints’ days during Holy Communion was made much briefer, so that Christ could be rightly restored to the sole place of worship and honor in the midst of the holy feast. After all, Christ himself is the living wellspring of sanctity that makes the Saints exceptional.
The Roman Catholic Church also tried to clean up the mess of devotion to the saints by creating the Sacred Congregation for Rites in 1588. This was intended to organize and clarify the devotional life of the church. However, this body merely created a new peculiar process for formally recognizing (canonizing) Saints which has done little to restrain over-zealous devotion. They continue this work today.
The Anglican Calendar Today
Anglicans seek to embody the purity and the simplicity of the Early Church. (Did you know that the Book of Homilies  refers to the Church of the first 5 centuries in such glowing terms over a dozen times?)
For this reason, we DO remember exemplary Christians of old in our calendars, in keeping with the two-tiered structure (Red Letter and Black Letter, required and optional) set forth by Thomas Cranmer.
In addition, since spending too much time on the Saints clearly leads the Church into error (as we saw in the Middle Ages), the Anglican church has intentionally never fussed over “canonization” like the Roman Catholic Church has.
Local communities still remember the sanctity of the godly men and women who ministered in their midst. And sometimes that fame spreads throughout the communion. But no one living on this side of the Reformation has ever been styled “Saint” the way the Saints of the Early Church are (St. Augustine, etc.). Sometimes the title “Blessed” is applied to those whose lives were glowing with godliness and sacrifice, but this is the most that is done.
Anglicans do not seek out Saints as intercessors in the way that Roman Catholics pray to the dead, since this interferes with the singular mediatorial role of Christ Jesus in heaven. As Article XXII of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion puts it:
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.
How Do We Choose Whom to Commemorate?
When Prayer Book revision has prompted updating the Calendar of Holy Days and Commemorations, there is such an enormous quantity of Christian worthies that could be remembered that one is spoiled for choice.
The principles that guided the formation of the Calendar that appears in the Anglican Church in North America’s Book of Common Prayer (2019) had a lot in common with the principles that were required at the time of the Reformation:
- Only the Saints in the New Testament are on the list of standard Holy Days
- Optional Commemorations should not be too many in number, so that the calendar year does not become overrun with remembrances, eclipsing the central work of Christ as it once did in the Middle Ages. (The Sub-Committee of the Liturgy Task Force was told to shoot for roughly 100 total—about the same as in the 1662 BCP)
- Precedence should be given to optional commemorations that have always been near to the devotional heart of the Anglican tradition. (St. Lucy of Syracuse, Holy Michael the Archangel, St. Hilary of Poitiers, or St. Hugh of Lincoln, etc.)
(As an aside: since the great company of saints are men and women who have all been ransomed by Christ Jesus, one might wonder why Michael the Archangel is commemorated as a “saint,” since, having never fallen, he needed no personal redemption. The logic is clear when we remember that the word “saint” evolved from the Latin word “sancta,” which means simply “holy.” Michael is eminently holy, as one of God’s creatures, and thus he has long been referred to as “Saint Michael.” However, to clear up the occasional confusion this causes, the BCP 2019 has him styled “Holy Michael.”)
There were, however, some considerations that are unique to our own moment in Church history.
First, since there are so many worthy believers to choose from, a somewhat equal representation should be made of those who occupy different stations in life. Not just bishops and monks! This means that more non-monastic women and men are included than had been prior to the 20th century.
Second, since the Calendar of Saints is not a large feature in many Anglican churches today, and because there is a broad churchmanship spectrum, from low-church to high-church, the optional commemorations included two new features.
- A short description of the station in life the holy person had.
- A division into two columns, “Anglican” and “Ecumenical”.
This enables the reader to see who comes from within our Anglican tradition, and also allows for an appreciation for those who are not Anglican. We can therefore remember St. Pachomius, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King, Jr., even though none of them were Anglicans.
Also, since the Anglican Church is not in the business of formally canonizing, it is also worth noting that, just because someone appears in the optional commemoration list, that doesn’t mean EVERY aspect of their life is worthy of imitation.
For instance, St. Jerome did a great service to the Church through his work in translating the Bible, but his famous crankiness is hardly exemplary. Billy Graham is a paragon of love for lost souls, and zeal in preaching, even if his theological convictions were not identical with those of the Thirty-Nine Articles.
The Calendar of Holy Days and Commemorations in the BCP 2019 was created on the basis of these principles, old and new. The Liturgical Task Force discussed and prayed over each entry, making edits along the way to try to create a calendar that represents the devotional emphases of the Church both in the past and in the present.
Ultimately, and most significantly, the goal of the Calendar was to create a list of men and women that we Christians need to hold up and study, so that we can shine forth the light of Christ in OUR generation, by imitating those who imitate Christ.
Ben Jefferies is the rector of The Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Task Force that produced the Book of Common Prayer 2019. He is married with three daughters.