"O GOD, who among the manifold works of thine almighty power has bestowed even upon the weakness of women strength to win the victory of martyrdom: grant, we beseech thee; that we, who on this day recall the heavenly birth of Saint Agatha thy Virgin and Martyr, may so follow in her footsteps, that we may likewise attain unto thee. Through . . ."
This demeaning language always upsets me. Do I say the words printed on the page or not? I do not. I remember standing at the altar to say Mass, bristling, and firmly amending the language in the Missal: "O GOD, who among the manifold works of thine almighty power has bestowed EQUALLY UPON WOMEN strength to win the victory of martyrdom." I feel like both the Missal and the Breviary force me into a difficult ethical and theological position on which I must take a stand, so I do. In the Episcopal Church, we often celebrate the progress made on the full inclusion of women in the Church, and yet we can forget how much work remains to be done to reform our widely varying liturgical materials and to stand in solidarity with our sisters in other churches and faith communities. This week, Angela Bonavoglia wrote an incisive and challenging letter in the Huffington Post, "For Pope Francis: A To-Do List on Women," that I encourage everyone to read. It's a good reality check.
Now, some folks may quite sensibly say, "well, don't use the Missal or Breviary, then, if the language is so oppressive." I don't use the Missal anymore now that I'm in more mainstream Episcopal parishes--and despite its overall beauty, this is a great relief on days like today--but I do find the Breviary a rich supplement to the Prayer Book for proper antiphons, collects, and office hymns for both feasts and the liturgical seasons. I hate to give it up, and I salute Dr. Derek Olsen's ongoing work to convert the Anglican Breviary to an electronic format, but I am mindful that the only way we can preserve our great liturgical heritage is to purge it of oppressive language and outmoded theology. That's one of the major challenges that progressive Anglo-Catholics in the twenty-first century must face head on.
|Renee Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc, 1928|
With these considerations in mind, I propose a few suggestions moving forward:
|A rather European-looking|
St. Augustine of Hippo
- If we really want people to embrace a relationship with the Great Cloud of Witnesses, then there needs to be more comprehensive exposure to the lives of the saints in our regular pattern of worship. Since most Episcopal congregations do not offer a daily Eucharist, Morning Prayer, or Evening Prayer, we should encourage the restoration of the minor propers and other relevant materials to the Sunday Eucharist, so that the saints make more than just an occasional appearance in a congregation's consciousness. The intent is not to overshadow the Sunday propers, but to integrate the saints into the ongoing narrative of salvation articulated through our weekly Feast of the Resurrection. We and the saints are part of that narrative.
- Not only must we encourage diversity through the inclusion of new saints in the revised sanctoral calendar, but we must strive to represent authentically those who are already included. To venerate a saint is to acknowledge her or his full humanity. This means addressing issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and other attributes. One of my womanist seminary professors rightly pointed out that St. Augustine was most likely African, not Caucasian, despite many Western depictions. And women saints cannot be reduced to passive virgins and conjugally dutiful matrons. And there were same-sex loving saints, too.
- Saints are supposed to be both patrons and companions, models of exemplary holiness, and yet sinners in need of God's mercy, just like us. Hagiography can often be a glowing list of non-threatening virtues, without acknowledgment of moral ambiguity, failings, or--in a more wonderfully prophetic strain--subversiveness. If we are to draw strength and inspiration from the saints, then we need more than just sanitized and domesticated narratives; we need nuanced stories of faith that preserve the tension between human frailty and the human striving for perfection.
- Finally, I would caution all of us to apply a critical eye to the received narratives of the saints. It is important for us as a community to lift up problematic issues, such as institutionalized abuse, humiliation, and inequities of power that the saints' lives raise: to point out who has agency and who has none; who has a voice and who is silent; who enjoys the dignity of a name and who is unnamed.
On this feast of St. Agatha, let us therefore pray for an end to violence against women, and against all people, and for a fulfillment of our baptismal vows to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. If we can use this framework for a commemoration of the saints, then we will be making a very positive contribution to the life of the Church.