All Saints: making it personal
The Sunday after Pentecost is All Saints Sunday in the Orthodox Church (which means that yesterday was Halloween)
The saints personalise Christianity. There are versions of Christianity around which reduce Church life to a set of doctrines, good in themselves, but because they are not enfleshed in the lives of real people, such Christianity remains, abstract, dry, formal, conceptual. Think back to your time at school. I guess it’s not the lessons you remember directly, rather the teachers who, for you, embodied and made accessible what they taught. So it is with saints. If you want to know who the Holy Spirit is, read the account of Motovilov’s conversation with Fr. Seraphim. If you want to understand the place of monasticism in the life of the Church, read St. Athanasios’ Life of St. Antony the Great. If you value the healing work of God, don’t even read about it, just invoke the prayers of St. Panteleimon, St. Swithun or some other unmercenary healer. The saints make real, vivid and personal what we believe and how we live by those beliefs.
Last week at the Amahoro Conference I met Adriaan Vlok, who had been Minister of Law and Order in the apartheid regime. Truth, reconciliation and smelly feet: Khanya:
When he was Minister, Mr Vlok’s underlings had attempted to poison Frank Chikane, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, and Adriaan Vlok had appeared before the Truth and Reconciliatian Commission and later the Amnesty Committee and had apologised for that and other things. But he said that no one seemed to hear him, and in 2006 several things he read or heard convinced him that he needed to go beyond making a general apology, and apologise to a person, and Frank Chikane seemed to be one of those people. So he had gone to his office and washed his feet.
Adriaan Vlok told this story at the Amahoro Gathering and there was a sequel Truth, reconciliation and smelly feet: Khanya:
the person sitting next to him on the podium, Sean Callaghan, said he had been a member of Koevoet, one of the most vicious units of the apartheid security forces, who were, in effect, hired killers. He and others had had to have psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress, and his counsellor had told him he should not just curse the system, but a person to focus his anger on, thd the person he had chosen to do that was Adriaan Vlok. So he wanted to wask Vlok’s feet, and in the end the both washed each other’s feet, right there on the podium.
I found that quite scary. It was one thing to make repentance personal, as Vlok had done with Frank Chikane. It was quite another, in my mind, to make hatred personal. Sometimes we say “Love the sinner, hate the sin”, but here was a psychotherapist urging someone to hate the sinner, namely Adriaan Vlok.
So I’ve been wondering at my own reaction. Why do I think that it’s OK to personify virtues in the cult of the saints, but that it is not OK to personify vices in the execration of sinners?
My mind also goes back to the apartheid time, long before Adriaan Vlok was minister, under one of his predecessors, B.J. Vorster. Vorster passed a lot of repressive legislation to crush opposition to apartheid. He introduced detention without trial for 90 days (which Tony Blair wanted introduce in Britain, and Gordon Brown still wants to). It became personal when a friend of mine, Stephen Gawe, was detained. A few years later I was banned by another of Vlok’s predecessors, as were several of my friends and acquaintances. I was then an Anglican, and the Anglican Church celebrated St Peter’s Chains on 1 August, also called Lammas (in the Orthodox Church it is celebrated on 16 January). This celebrates the incident in Acts 12:1-11 in which St Peter was arrested, and the church prayed, and he was miraculously freed from prison. I regarded this as the patronal festival of all people who were banned or detained without trial, and was quite shocked when the Anglican Church’s Liturgical Committee announced that they planned to abolish its observance. I regarded this as a slap in the face for all Anglicans who were banned or detained, and wrote to the chairman of the liturgical committee, Bishop Philip Russell, pleading with them to change their minds.
This led to quite a protracted correspondence. In those days, among Western Christians at least, “relevance” was regarded as one of the greatest virtues, and “irrelevance” one the greatest vices. Bishop Russell was one of those who regarded “relevance” as very important and said that the Liturgical Committee regarded the feast of St Peter’s Chains as irrelevant in our modern age. I was astounded that they could not see its relevance to South Africa, where people were being detained without trial regularly and every year more and more repressive legislation was being passed to enable them to be detained for longer periods and with fewer legal safeguards. I prayed that God would preserve the church from relevant priests.
Eventually Bishop Russell offered, as a consolation prize, a commemoration of Martyrs and Confessors of the Twentieth Century, which was introduced in 1975, commemorated on 8 November. The equivalent of the Synaxarion for the day explicitly mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King (neither of whom were Anglicans, though of course, neither was St Peter).
The implication was that I could consider myself among the “countless men and women of our time” who faced “misunderstanding, social ostracism, imprisonment and even death” for the sake of “the changeless truths of God”. And it seemed to miss the point altogether. The commemoration of St Peter’s Chain’s was important to me because it was a concrete example of how the Lord “executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind” as the Psalmist says. The point about St Peter’s Chains is not so much that men imprisoned him as that God set him free, and that it was therefore an image of hope to those in prison. But that was not “relevant” enough for the twentieth century theologians of relevance.
No, it is better to personify good, and to depersonify evil, or to personify it only in the person of the devil. Apartheid made prisoners of us all, even Adriaan Vlok, and it is better to curse the system than to demonify a person, because that makes demons of us all.
And I wonder what the world would have been like today if George Bush and Saddam Hussein had washed one another’s feet, and if Robert Mugabe washed the feet of the Zimbabwean refugees who sleep in doorways in Johannesburg.
But there were saints who did such things and more. They were irrelevant in the eyes of the world, and even in the eyes of some theologians, but not in the eyes of God.
 Colin Morris, a Methodist minister who worked in Zambia, wrote in his book Include me out: confessions of an ecclesiastical coward
(Karl Barth writes ‘Jesus is immanent in the Church only because He transcends it’. In everyday speech this is like saying that something is wet only because it is dry, near only because it is far away, and relevant only because it is irrelevant…
… Ah, breathes the theologian. That is paradox and, therefore, profound.
… Ah, says the man in the pew, it’s beyond me but I’ll take the parson’s word that it means something.
… So what? says the man in the street, it has nothing to do with the price of fish! — a remark calculated to touch a theologian on the raw; say that he’s unintelligible and he will take it as a compliment, but suggest that he is also irrelevant and he will sue you!