So Great a Cloud of Witnesses


In the Piers Paul Read’s novel The Death of a Pope a conversation is taking place over dinner in Kampala, Uganda between a young English reporter named Kate and a Catholic aid worker named Uriarte. Uriarte in explaining to Kate Uganda’s tribal and political complexity mentions the forty-five Bagandan Christian martyrs slain by the 19th century King of Baganda, now modern-day Uganda. Of the forty-five martyrs twenty-two were Roman Catholics, and the rest Anglicans. Uriarte says: the Church flourished on the blood of the martyrs …. it was like the early days of the Church. The Twenty-two Catholics were canonized by Pope Paul VI. Kate asks: Aren’t the Anglican martyrs in Heaven? Uriarte smiles: I dare say, but the Church of England doesn’t make saints. They don’t have a pope.

Of Saints and saints

On the pecking order of sainthood the martyrs are the crowning glory. However, as Uriarte hints at, it remains a thorny question as to what we mean when we talk about the saints? Because the word saint has two distinct meanings depending on whether you are using a capital or a lowercase s. Uriarte is correct, Saints can only be made by the Pope, which after the Reformation severely limits Sainthood to members of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a nice question: what is the post-death status of the Anglican martyrs, are they non-official Saints or merely saints?

There are three qualifications for becoming a Saint. The first is quite simple, he or she must be dead! The second qualification is she or he needs to have been an elite Christian, having at least one attested miracle to their name. The third qualification is having the good fortune of being in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

Episcopalians, being Anglicans can’t make Saints anymore.  The feast of All Saints is nevertheless so important a celebration that it is only one of four feasts that the Prayer Book allows to take precedence over the propers for the Sunday nearest November 1st.

Yet, what about the saints, the ordinary Christians who have died without any record of having lived lives of extraordinary holiness, or died the death of a martyr? Traditionally, these we commemorate in more mournful tones on November 2nd with the feast of All Souls.

The Three-Tiered Universemichelangelo-buonarroti-the-last-judgement-1534-41_i-G-66-6636-GRUE100Z

The division between All Saints and All Souls represents the Medieval conception of the three-tiered universe. This vision drew extensively from the Apocalyptic literature of Old Testament in writings like the book of Daniel, Enoch, 1st and 2nd Maccabees. This tradition is carried over in full voice into the New Testament in the book of Revelation.

An apocalyptic theme concerns the fate of the souls of the righteous. These were they who had suffered gruesome martyrdom for the sake of the Nation of Israel. By the time of Jesus, the souls of the righteous were understood to rest in the hand of God where they awaited a full bodily resurrection at the time of the coming of the Messiah.

Drawing upon this apocalyptic theme, Medieval Christianity pictured the Saints occupying the top-tier of the three-tiered universe. They were called the Church Triumphant and it is they that the writer of  1 John pictures in the year A epistle for All Saints. The souls of the ordinary dead, those non-elite Christians in life, occupied the second tier, called the Church Expectant. Their souls did not dwell with God but following death waited in either in a state of suspended rest or writhing in pains of Purgatory, depending on your theology. Here, like the righteous heroes of Israel awaiting the coming of the Messiah, expectant souls must await the Parousia, i.e. the Second Coming of Christ.

At the Second Coming of Christ all the dead, both the souls of the Saints in triumph and the souls of the saints in expectation were to be raised to bodily form again. Resurrection, the return to embodied life, as demonstrated by Jesus was not merely a spiritual life after death, which state the Saints in triumph already enjoyed. Resurrection both in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity meant embodied life . As N.T. Wright calls it: not life after death, but life, after life, after death.

Which brings me to the third or bottom tier of the three-tiered universe. Here the still living remained in the Church Militant, here in earth. The living, those who in the words of the great hymn For all the saints, still vainly struggle in the hope that maybe at the end of time, they too, will in glory shine.

The Communion of Saints

Today, the echo of the three-tiered universe still permeates our imaginations. Yet, it no longer dominates our rational minds. Consequently, the division between All Saints and All Souls is falling away. Today, we tend to run the two together in one great celebration of All Saints, replacing the Medieval tiered universe with the image of the more egalitarian Communion of the Saints. This is an image of that great cloud of witnesses, envisioned by the writer to the Letter to the Hebrews, surrounding us with perpetual prayer and love.

We experience the presence of the saints both with an S and s in our lives through the concept of being in relationship. Relationship ties people together in this life. Relationship continues to unite us with our dead loved ones and all those whose witness in life provides us with hope and courage for our living. This is why in our Anglican Tradition, though we can’t make new Saints we continue to remember exemplary Christians in our calendar of Lesser Feats and Fasts, now rechristened Holy Men and Women in its latest edition. The Saints, those canonized by a pope, and the saints, those we continue to remember are now seen as one, united together with the living within the one Communion of Saints.

For me, the division between All Saints and All Souls, no longer resting on a hierarchical distinction between Saints and saints continues to have some meaning, but only in a psychological and not an eschatological sense. Psychologically, the experience of death carries both the hope life with God and the sadness occasioned by the loss of loved ones. Human Beings need both to celebrate and mourn in the face of death. The different notes struck by All Saints and All Souls do at least honor this dichotomy of need.

Going Back to the New Testament

The writer of I John, states: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. It’s easy to picture being like God as an image of perfection. Yet, in the Beatitudes, Jesus paints a different picture of what it might be to be like God. In the New Testament saint does not refer to the elite Christians whose souls now enjoy immortal life with God. It refers to ordinary Christians engaged in the daily tasks of discipleship on this side of the grave. The hymn I Sing a Song of the Saints of God picks up this idea. Allowing for its rather quaint English schoolboy/girl imagery it hits the nail on the head:


 …the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or on trains, or in shops, or at tea. 

In the New Testament to be a saint you don’t have to be dead. Matthew tells us that Jesus turning to his disciples began to speak:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  (Matthew 5:1-12 NEB) 

Baptism not death

In the New Testament it is through baptism not death that we become saints. Through our baptism we come into relationship together within the community of Christ’s Church. Here we participate in the miraculous at the level of everyday living. On this All Saints Sunday despite not having a pope, we at St Martin’s are making a saint. His name is Benjamin Liam McCloskey. Benjamin, through baptism joins the company of saints, which is the way the New Testament talks about communities of Christians like the one at St Martin’s.


You could see miracles as expressions of the extra-ordinary. However, I find this completly unhelpful, because I do not have any experience of the extra-ordinary. I live amidst the ordinary experiences of everyday life. Therefore, for me this is what the miraculous of the everyday looks like:

  • It is the act of listening bringing the miracle of healing to a brother or sister in pain.
  • It is standing in the place of fear with another, sharing our common humanity with one another, standing together and surviving being afraid.
  • Sharing our joys and being open to the infection of another’s joy and delight.

Through the miracles of everyday life we advance the Kingdom Of God in the here and now with:

  • The smile of acceptance of another’s difference
  • The pledge of solidarity with another’s struggle
  • The generosity and grace in providing material support of money or food to another in need

I call these miracles because through them we participate in God’s regeneration of the world through acts of grateful love and generous service.


I continue to remind all of us at St Martin’s concerning this month of our annual renewal program. Our focus is a challenging one for many of us conditioned by the idea of giving to the budget. The focus I want us to have is on gratitude to God; an experience from which the exercise of tender competence for one another and our world flows.

At the heart of this process is an invitation. God is inviting each one of us to connect with the sources of gratitude in our lives and to become accountable to our calling as God’s saints.  God invites you and me to live up to the nobility of our saintly calling by never missing an opportunity to embrace a generous action. Gratitude, generosity, and service, these are the building blocks in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, like being a saint, is not something for the life hereafter. It is living and active, cutting like a two-edged sword in the here-and-now of our lives together. We have a role to play: be it high and lofty, or down and dirty, for the saints of God are folk like me, and as the hymn quoted above end: and I mean to be one too! 

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