Monday, July 20, 2009

Reflections on General Convention: Saints and such-like

Today is the feast day of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth,and Harriet Ross Tubman, "Liberators and Prophets", which is not untrue, but sounds mighty political to me. It annoys me that they are all lumped together, given that they did such different things. It also annoys me that in the collect for today, they are referred to by first name only, which is not the standard for the collects for the saints. I went so far as to write the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music a few years back to point out this discrepancy. I find it a galling oversight, far beyond the slightness of the offense. There's something about the omission of that nicety of courtesy that underscores the need for the work that these women did. It riles me up, it do.

While I was at Convention, while waiting in the House of Deputies for the results of D025 to come back, we got to hear a snippet of the debate over the inclusion of WEB DuBois in the church calendar. In particular over the use of the term "Black Folk" in the collect of the day rather than "African Americans." To be clear, it was two black women (one from the Virgin Islands) who stood up to change the term from African American to Black Folk, and this rather nervous looking white fellow who stood up to say that "Some of the southern bishops thought using the term 'black folk' would cause needless pain." A delegate from, I believe, South Dakota and far more native to it than most stood up to say, "If we want to be a culturally sensitive church, it would be a good idea for us to listen to the people from the cultures to which we wish to be sensitive." The amendment passed.

But there is a larger issue, for me anyway: are we tossing all sorts of people into our calendar--claiming them--in a way that is inappropriate? A friend of mine made a snarky comment about the four women being remembered today when I posted it was their feast day on Facebook, then apologized, saying, "as a Catholic, I just don't get what being put on the calendar means in the Episcopal Church."

He's not alone. And there was a huge revision to that this year at General Convention. I appreciated Dan Martins' thorough examination of the issues here. He says, "I fear we are making utter fools of ourselves, turning the sanctoral calendar into a flatbed truck to carry the freight of our collective neurotic guilt, trying desperately to demonstrate our inclusivity to an ecumenical community that will just chuckle softly as they shake their heads in bemused bewilderment."

I doubt many will pay that much attention. But I will. And I am uncomfortable with what seems to me to be claiming people for our calendar to make us feel better about ourselves.


qoe said...

Might as well lump all those gals in with the Virgin Mary call it a day, eh?

It is all about labels, isn't it? We can label for good or for ill, and scripture addresses that quite a lot, but what the scripture says about labeling isn't really properly addressed by any Christian denomination with which I have ever had contact.

If you toss a bunch of dead people's names together like a salad and call it a feast day, doesn't that sound a bit awkward? Are we revering the people, or conveniently filing them so that we don't have to think about them for 364 days of the year?

And then there is the question of why revere the DEAD over the LIVING? There are a lot of living exemplars walking the streets who serve the message of Christ as well or better than departed persons, whose context we often cannot claim to understand. Does revering dead saints equip us in any particular way to learn from the example of the living? --(And must a person die in order to gain respect?)-- Sometimes I question that, considering that history is a shifting desert sand, constantly being redacted into something more politically appetizing to a constituency.

In view of the Anglican tradition, does this Feast and Fast thing continue the Roman tradition of using these lovely historical exemplars as intermediaries? If so, that is a subtle idolatry, isn't it? It puts someone between you and God, and that seems a bit reckless... Personally, I don't want anyone between me and God.

Could it all be just lip service to, as you suggest, assuage guilt for former tresspasses?

There is so much more to question and say... Obviously, food for an extensive and interesting discussion...

Courtney said...

We are sitting here in New Orleans pondering your blog after just returning from General Convention ourselves. You raise some interesting points. Our consensus is that you could preach one hell of a sermon on the 4 women honored today, but it would obviously take some thought and perhaps training to help folk understand what these women liberators actually have in common. i think of St. Teresa of Avila whose sainthood is in part derived from the extent to which her life and faith displayed the capacity to transcend the cultural norms of her day (even in the face of threats from the Inquisition). I find myself praying today for such faithfulness and courage in our time and context, and strengthened by the women liberators' example. My response to the naysayers would be - if the witness of these additions strengthens the faithful in such ways - there is your answer and rationale. Isn't that the purpose of the feast days of the saints? I don't see this as being about guilt. For me it is about witness, example, and inspiration to lead a transcendent life.

Blessings -
Sacred Citizen

Daniel Stroud said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Stroud said...

I have often had similar questions, though the impetus was different. When I saw the movement to get Thurgood Marshall's name on the calendar I also wondered if in fact we were simply throwing people on the wagon to either acknowledge our collective admiration for those who are civic leaders or assuage our collective guilt for wrongs committed before our time.

My issue is less with claiming them and more with equating social activism and sainthood. Though the two are often intermingled, putting people on the calendar just because they accomplished great things or advanced civil rights seems somehow questionable to me. I personally, for example, am a strong supporter of Pres. Obama who, whatever one's political views, has certainly advanced the cause of racial equality. Does that mean he needs a feast day as soon as he's done being President or as soon as he dies? I don't think so. And like you said, it does seem to both help us claim that which is not necessarily ours, as well as enable us to pat ourselves on the back for supporting social justice. That is not to say these people don't deserve recognition for incredible achievements and service, it's just that I, like your friend, am left wondering what exactly it means to be put on the calendar.

Anonymous said...

Inspired by all these thoughtful posts, I'll add a post of my own. For me, the difference between just admiring a person and also putting them on the calendar is the difference between generally wanting to be like someone and wanting to be like someone because they acted on their Christian faith and that faith took them in marvelous directions.

It was a revelation to me to realize for the first time, on the 2oth anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination, that King had been a pastor and that all his speeches derived their power from the fact that they were also in some sense also sermons. I have no trouble acknowledging him as a prophet in the line of Elijah and Elisha and all the rest of them.

As I have wondered about why I did not know about this aspect of King's call and its appeal until so long after his death, I have provisionally concluded that sometimes our American public school system is shy about integrating the religious aspects of people's lives into its history of their actions and effects - an unfortunate side effect of separation of church and state.

While I would completely agree that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman were four different people who deserve four different days, I was nevertheless fascinated to go to church on their feast day for the first time a few years ago and learn in the sermon that Truth was a powerful preacher as well as a suffragist and an abolitionist.

If the secular understanding of what drives a person's life is inadequate, then I appreciate the church's ability to highlight the place of prayer and prophecy in that same life. Whether or not the calendar of saints is the best place to do this, I am not sure - but until someone can suggest a better one, I do not think it is the worst place to do this either.

LKT said...

So many thoughtful comments! Thank you all. And please know that I hardly think I have a right answer; it is more what this stirs in me as someone who follows our church's calendar of feast days and saints.