Available, but not authorized

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The House of Deputies yesterday signaled that the Episcopal Church is far from settled on a definition of sainthood, and is still debating how best to commemorate holy or particularly inspiring individuals.

The house chose to “make available” rather than “authorize” “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” as a successor to “Holy Women, Holy Men” the church’s current book of liturgical commemorations. The new book would retain the names of the individuals honored in its processor, but would present them in a different fashion.

The amended resolution A056 now returns to the House of Bishops for reconsideration.

Derek Olson of the Diocese of Maryland, who chaired the subcommittee of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music that proposed the new volume describes “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” as a “family history… a listing of people who are both important and significant for how the Episcopal Church understands itself and how we understand the gospel that we are called to proclaim. Local worshipping communities may choose to recognize some, none, or all of these people as saints based on their own understanding of what that term means.”

Olsen emphasizes that the proposed book is “not a sanctoral calendar,” and states clearly that the church’s official calendar consists only of the Holy Days and greater feasts listed in the Book of Common Prayer.

However, the Rev. Melody Shobe of the Diocese of Rhode Island, whose amendment struck the word “authorize” from the resolution, argued that if the house authorized “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” it would “de facto become a sanctoral calendar eventually replacing the one on the pages of our Book of Common Prayer.”

The church has been reconsidering liturgical commemorations for 12 years. In 2003, General Convention passed a resolution to rework the calendar giving particular attention to issues of diversity and local experience. Committees throughout the Episcopal Church provided input on additions to be made, and the result was “Holy Women Holy Men,” a sweeping work approved for trial use in 2009 to supplement the list of those included in the calendar of “Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006.”

In 2012, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music brought “Holy Women, Holy Men” to General Convention for its necessary second approval, but it was sent back to the committee for revision.

While many people appreciated the addition of new names in “Holy Women, Holy Men” and the opportunity to learn about new people, Olsen noted in an interview that the promised diversity did not materialize: 81 percent of the individuals named in the new calendar were men, a shift of just four percentage points from 1985 when General Convention passed a resolution asking for greater gender balance.

In addition, many felt that “Holy Women, Holy Men” included too many commemorations, squeezing out non-feast days from the calendar. And “those with a higher theology of sanctity had real difficulty accepting some of the new additions to the calendar as saints in the classic sense,” Olsen said.

In crafting a new list, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music “wanted to be respectful of the whole range of theologies that exist in the church and also honor the emphasis on the local in the 2003 authorizing resolution,” Olsen said.

Critics of “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” say it, like its predecessor is insufficiently rigorous in defining the attributes the merit inclusion on the calendar. During debate yesterday, the Rev. Jeremiah Williamson, a deputy from the Diocese of Ohio, said the proposed book “fundamentally shifts our understanding of sainthood and baptism” in part because it includes individuals who belonged to other faiths, and included people known for their good works rather than their holiness.

“The issue is difficult and complicated to legislate,” said the Rev. Devon Anderson, chair of the Prayer Book committee and a deputy from the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. “Our church possesses vast and differing understandings about what constitutes a saint and we have no clear process for declaring saints like that of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Anderson noted that the resolution contains criteria for inclusion in the liturgical calendar that were not amended yesterday. It also includes further instructions to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. “We are asking the SCLM to do some more work and come back to next General Convention with clear recommendations on additions and deletions from the calendar and clear explanation as to how each recommendations does or does not adhere to the criteria.

“We have been studying this issue for four conventions,” she said. “But if this resolution is adopted, after this convention we will be well on our way to being finished.”