Role Models

Sunday 1st November 2015
Year B, All Saints' Day
St Luke's, Brighton

One of the things that struck me as strange when I arrived at university was the large number of apparently clever people who talked about Winnie the Pooh. Now apart from the fact that it had the word "pooh" in its title, I just couldn't see why adults should harp on about a children's book, just as I currently find it difficult to understand why adults without children go to Disneyland or read Harry Potter. Perhaps, you will think, I'm just too serious; but it has its disadvantages because when somebody says of another: "He's a bit Tiggerish" or "like Eeyore" I haven't a clue what they're talking about.

So what, you may ask, is the cause of this juvenile ignorance? The simple answer is that the nuns, in whose not-so-tender care I was placed, knew nothing of Winnie and his friends and read us stories of the lives of the saints. And whereas we could and did smuggle music into school that the nuns objected to - notably George Formby's window cleaner - braille readers couldn't get their hands on illicit braille books.

But, as often happens with upbringing, the simplified - and frequently totally untrue - lives of the saints had their effect, giving a rich hinterland to my Christian faith which it would otherwise have lacked and so, when I came to the Church of England after a row with the Pope that I knew about but he didn't, one of the features - or lack of features - that immediately struck me was the poverty of sculpture and imagery and references in liturgy to saints, even though many churches, such as this, were named for them.

It all goes back, as you know, to the Reformation when a wave of physical iconoclasm - image breaking - and spiritual sadism swept the Medieval Catholic Church almost away. A few residual embarrassments remained, such as the Apostles and Evangelists, including our own Saint Luke, but most of the massively rich hinterland of everyday faith was destroyed, not least the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, the pure mother of God. That sense of the Communion of Saints, mentioned in the Creed, of the union of the Church Militant - us - the Church Expectant - those who died not in a state of grace - and the Church Triumphant - God surrounded by his angels and saints and flanked by his Blessed mother - had no substance in imagery and liturgy and, therefore, no substance in consciousness.

Perhaps even worse than the religious vandalism of Henry VIII's agents and subsequent Puritan fanatics was the absence in the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 of prayers for the dead. The reason was clear and simple. The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages had built up a whole structure to get people from the Church Expectant to the Church Triumphant: it started with simple prayers for the dead, commending the souls of the faithful departed to the mercy of God but it soon took on a serious financial angle when people began to pay for Masses for the Dead and later on began to pay the Vatican an indulgence fee which would pluck the afflicted out of purgatory and deposit them at the pearly gates. If you go to the National Gallery in London you will see wonderful pictures of ladders from earth to heaven, with a stopping point in purgatory, thronged by souls advancing rung by rung while, at the foot of the ladder, there is a gaping hole filled with fire. People in the Middle Ages were, above all, literally frightened to death of going to hell and wanted a cast iron guarantee of a route to heaven and the financial structure of salvation suited them and, of course, it suited a corrupt priesthood. The Reformers, wanting to rid the Western Church of such corruptions, quite properly said that salvation is a free gift of God in love and suffering and that it does not relate in any way to financial payments, prayers for the dead, or even the way in which we live our lives. Very logical, though spiritually and pastorally idiotic. People want to pray that Auntie Mary will go to heaven in spite of her sharp tongue. Everybody knows that we are all sinners and must rely on God's mercy but the prayers we say are really for ourselves, to comfort us; they make a public statement about our commitment to the late Auntie Mary who, for all her faults, has, we know, already passed through the pearly gates. We are affirming the Communion of Saints set out in the Creed.

By the end of the 18th Century a pinched, dry, spare, formalistic, middle class Church of England was a hollow shell, abandoned by the reformer John Wesley but it underwent a near miraculous revival in the 1840s as the result of the Oxford Movement to which this church owes its tradition of devotion to Our Lady and the Saints and, much more important, its unshakeable Eucharistic tradition with all the proper ceremony that goes with it. The Oxford Movement reached the parts that the old, worn Church could not reach. There was a massive building programme in working class areas which brought faith back to the suffering masses.

So if the reformers were theologically correct, why do we value saints? The answer was given in the Middle ages and it remains true today. We are all encouraged to imitate our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the way that he lived his life but we know that this is, necessarily, beyond us; so instead we try to imitate the Saints who were faithful to Christ in spite of their many faults. The saints for us are an example of Christian life, an encouragement to do better and a bulwark against pessimism. And I want to end by saying two things about them which won't go down well in all quarters:

First of all, the saints are a better guide to Christian life than the Church establishment, particularly those apt to make moral or theological pronouncements; The Church of Christ is, fundamentally, not a doctrinal entity, it is a pastoral enterprise bent on prosecuting Christ's mission of creating the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Secondly, in spite of people who say and do nothing but live quietly being called saints - and of course there are some saints in contemplative religious orders - throughout history saints have wreaked havoc in the established church and no self respecting Churchwarden would let one in here. Saints are embarrassingly committed to Jesus above all other considerations, flouting the conventions, never shutting up, never letting go, even talking about God at dinner parties!

Of course, we will never return to Medieval superstition, we are all far too sophisticated for that, but if we lose our saints again we will end up with much worse attributes than superstition. We might end up believing in money or, even worse, believing in ourselves. Or, to put it into today's language, we can never have enough good role models!