A Land of Saints Again
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen. This is the feast of all the Saints of Great Britain and Ireland. We may summarise this as the feast of the Saints of the Isles. Now, it is a bit of a revelation to many people that the Orthodox Church venerates the Saints of the west. Well we do, in fact we venerate the vast majority of them and I will explain why this is the case in a moment.
There is a great Greek saint of the island of Paros, St Arsenios, who lived in the 19th century. He said this, “when the church of the British Isles begins to venerate her own saints, then the Church will grow”. But can the Isles ever again become a land of saints in the same way that she once was? Well of course she can. Indeed, looking back over the second millennium, not all the people that might be recognised by the Orthodox Church, by canonisation, by glorification, are actually listed. They are known to God. We need to look into the history of this a little, so bear with me.
Thousands, yes thousands, not just a few of the friends of God, the saints, sanctified these isles. Bardsey Island in Wales itself hosted many hundred although popular lore calls this remote place the land of 20,000 saints! So we are not talking here about an isolated phenomenon. The calendar of the Saints of the Isles is so huge that few, if any churches celebrate them all … and yes, they are all Orthodox …. Western Orthodox! Strikingly, however, in the 2nd millennium barely a handful made it into Rome’s calendar. In fact before the Reformation, when Christians started killing Christians, the number of British saints in the 500 year period since the Norman Conquest was precisely thirteen; thirteen in 500 years! Actually all of these were in the first 250 years, none in the second 250 years and only two after the Third Crusade. We can list them:-
Margaret of Scotland (1093)
Anselm of Canterbury (1109)
Stephen Harding (1134)
William of York (1154)
Robert of Newminster (1159)
Thomas Becket (1170)
Edmund of Abingdon (1170)
Gilbert Sempringham (1189)
Hugh of Lincoln (1250)
Richard of Chichester (1253)
If you contrast this paltry few with the thousands of saints glorified before the Norman Conquest in 1066 then any observant historian, not just a woman or man of faith, would have to ask – why this big change from so many thousands to a number little more than that spanned by two hands? One of the reasons is that it became just so expensive to present a case to Rome for the making of a Saint in the 2nd millennium, a process that became more and more centralised and removed from the local churches of the west. There are many other reasons but I don’t have time to go into these now. For now we just need to be aware of this development.
It may have taken a long time but, increasingly in the west, concerned Christians became much more vocal. For 150 years before the reformation there were stirrings of dissatisfaction in England. Prominent amongst those who felt this way was a man called John Wycliff and he made the following observation which I think is highly significant. Now remember, when he talks about: “the pride of the Pope” he was not being anti-Catholic. He himself was a Catholic Christian who did not desire to leave the Church but he was facing active persecution from Rome based on his alleged involvement with sectarians. That aside, I want you to concentrate on the second part of what he said not particularly the first in these good ‘ole ecumenical days’! This is what he said in 1383 in his work on ‘Christ and his Adversary’.
“The pride of the Pope is the reason why the Greeks are divided from the so-called faithful. It is we westerners, too fanatical by far, who have been divided from the faithful Greeks and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now John Wycliff is commonly taken to be a great Protestant hero, but remember he was a pre-Reformation Catholic Christian. As such he led the way in having the sense that the problems arose from the west being out of sync with the Church of the East. “The Greeks” was a common reference by folk at the time to “that lot who broke away from us in 1054” – the so called Great Schism. Of course, we Orthodox say that it was the west that broke away from us in 1054 albeit that the growing estrangement spanned several hundred years. Notice that the Norman invasion took place just 12 years after the Great Schism and in many ways the Normans were complicit in the split as we shall see.
We now have an historical context for the apparent drying up of the saints in the Isles in the 2nd Millennium. This certainly does not, however, imply the absence of sanctity itself on British soil in the 2nd millennium. As I have said, God has billions of friends and is not limited by our sinful situations. Who makes it into the list of saints after 1066 is another matter entirely. This had more to do with the way with which the Latin Church handled and nurtured sanctity. The way in which this happened lies beyond the scope of this little homily, but we might say that Christianity, in some sense, went underground. The accounting for this lay not so much with Rome initially but rather with the Franks, because the Frankish agenda, shared fully by the Normans, was to re-establish the power of a western imperium. The existence of a ‘Greek church’ or more accurately Constantinople as New Rome was frankly an embarrassment and a frustration of that end. You may recall that in the controversy over the filioque, the Pope at the time resisted this unilateral change to the Creed and had the original version inscribed on silver tablets and installed in the Church of St Peter in Rome. However, it was the Franks who pressurised Rome subsequently to accept it. It was the Franks who pushed forward the agenda of removing the holy icons from western churches in favour of statuary. In all of this the Franks and their Norman Plantagenet cousins wanted to put clear blue water between east and west in what became known as the Carolingian Renaissance. This then is what Wycliff was referring to; the tragic pushing away of the western Latin church from its fellowship with the Greeks. With that developed an increasing fanaticism in the west. That’s the history.
If we look again at the Lollards and Wycliff, the Hussites and other reformers in Europe at the time and try to gauge what they are wanting, we discover that they are not so much looking for a new break away church, at least to begin with, but rather a reformed western Catholic Church and thereby to remain as Catholics within it. The tragedy is that such movements of renewal starting well before the Reformation proved incapable of regenerating British Christianity along Orthodox lines and the reason for this lay in their compromised spiritual foundations. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting by quoting Wycliff that somehow the Orthodox Church has a common cause with Protestant Christians; far from it. The so called cure proved in many ways to be worse than the disease in the endless schisms generated by the Reformation and its aftermath. It has rightly been observed by Orthodox commentators that the Reformation did not go far enough, that is in the right direction. In fact it went twice as far in the wrong direction! Wycliff’s perception that the whole of Christianity in the west had departed from its spiritual roots held in common with the Christian east was, however, fundamentally correct. But even he, like so many others, failed to achieve the reforms that he embraced by trying to apply broken tools to mend broken machinery. As you know, if you want to repair a car engine you don’t use dodgy tools, but rather the right tools. In a deep sense this ‘broken mending’ continues to be pursued in the west by all those reform movements, both Catholic and Protestant, that have tried vainly to put things right. So, more positively, where do we go from here?
We live in an age in which Christians are seeking a unity which is Christ’s will for His church. How do we go beyond this western ‘broken mending’ into a deeper ecumenism that truly seeks the unity of all Christian people? How is this to be achieved without timid or reductionist compromise, without selling our Tradition down the river? How can we hold firm to that which we have received while at the same time remaining open to others as we explore together the range of Tradition?
Here I first want to say something by way of a warning to us Orthodox; it may prove uncomfortable to hear and act upon. Brace yourselves!
We are too narrow minded. We (or perhaps I should same “some”) tend to think that anything that appeared in the Christian west after 1054 is of the devil, devoid of all grace. This is total and absolute nonsense. To say this is virtually to commit blasphemy. It is to say that God is not active in His world and that He has not raised up witnesses for Himself in all places where He is praised, worshipped and followed in holiness of life. To claim this is dangerous and wicked nonsense. We need to move out of what I call “fortress Orthodoxy”, this idea that we can build up the walls and man the battlements, repel those nasty Latins and Protestants and then we will all be safe and happy. If Orthodoxy is to contribute the re-evangelisation of these Isles it will only succeed if it listens as well as speaks, if it affirms what is good before it leaps to correct what is bad. It, we, must reach out to all in and with the love of God. Orthodox Christianity is not a language forgotten here even after a thousand years!
This Sunday reminds us that the west was also Orthodox once and that it can be again. This reorientation will require a new ecumenism which is faithful to the Tradition of the Church, which upholds the standards set for us by the Fathers in the interpretation of Scriptures, which allows us to be creative in searching for new solutions to old problems and not to be prisoners of the past. This is the seeding of a new movement towards Christian unity which will put right the manifold ecumenical deficiencies of the last hundred years. Ecumenism has largely failed hitherto because it has become hostage to the strange idea exemplified by: “well I won’t trouble you with the saints so long as you don’t keep banging on about justification by faith”. This kind of false trade-off between Catholic and Protestant Christians, which goes right over our heads because it is not our debate anyway, has to end. We actually have to agree a new basis on which to pursue union and that, not just for the Orthodox, has to be the Scriptures, Holy Tradition and the Fathers … nothing less, nothing more. Now this, of course, is setting out a stall for moving forward together but it is to be distinguished from the call to practical holiness. This must grow alongside ecumenism as the people of God respond within the right environment, which is within the Church, to the call of God to a holy life. There are signs that this is now happening in the east and the west in a more Orthodox manner – but we have some way to go yet.
Finally I want to say something briefly about monasticism. Monasticism is vital for the integrity and health of the Church. Without the vocation of some to pursue the evangelical life in total dedication, in the renunciation of wealth, self-will and of course sexual licence; without that our society has only a weakened testimony of the power of Christ to transform the world. Therefore, we Orthodox have a lot to do. We have one functioning monastery in this country together with a few sketes. Priests and people need to be teaching and preaching in parishes about the necessity of listening to God for a monastic call, of inviting monks and nuns of Orthodox countries to come here to speak of the monastic life, of making sure that within each diocese there are good links between parishes and monasteries.
Coming back now to the feast today that we are celebrating we also need in addition to the monastic life a recovered veneration of the saints of these islands, both their relics and pilgrimages to their shrines and also a fervent invocation of their holy prayers. Mindful of what St Arsenios said, when we do this, when we recognise Orthodoxy in them, then Britain will again become the dowry of Our Lady (for this is what England was called in the Middle Ages, the special espousal gift of the Ever-Virgin Mary). But if we try to evangelise by the pursuit of fancy ideas, initiatives, plans, programmes and committees and all manner of western secular models of church life, then we will also fail and that is for sure. Unless and until we embrace afresh the Orthodox Catholic life with fervour and with love and spend ourselves in the following of the same, then all our efforts will fall away in a cloud of dust and disappointment. Moreover, in that case, we shall not see a wider Christian unity in our time. Only by the gospel, that is, only by Christ, only by the power of the Holy Spirit and only according to the mind of the Church will these things be achieved. But, when they are achieved, what a great and wondrous day that will be – the Isles, a Land of Saints again.
© Fr Gregory Hallam, 7th July 2013