On the Episcopal Calendar: Selecting the Saints – A Brief History by Derek Olsen

The Episcopal Calendar of Saints has been on the docket the last several General Conventions and will be again this July. It’s worth taking a moment to consider how we got to where we are now. Although most Episcopalians are familiar with the idea of saints, and used to see them in stained glass windows or as statues in churches, the 1979 prayer book was the first American Book of Common Prayerto include any non-biblical saints.

The history of the contents[i]of the Episcopal sanctoral calendar falls into four broad phases: 1) the establishment of a Calendar, 2) the creation of the 1979 BCP, 3) Convention’s Calendar, and 4) the call for expansion in 2003.

The Establishment of the Calendar

 A commission of liturgists and scholars began exploring a sanctoral calendar for the Episcopal Church in 1945. Headed by Bayard Jones and Massey Shepherd, the group did not publish their work until 1957 in Prayer Book Studies IX: The Calendar supplemented by Prayer Book Studies XII: The Propers for the Minor Holy Days.  The recommendations they offered included 26 Holy Days—the Feasts of Our Lord and Biblical Saints—40 commemorations which remembered 38 individuals with proper lessons and a collect, and 54 memorials which included only a collect without proper lessons. The bulk of the commemorations celebrated people from the first half of the church’s history; the bulk of the memorials fell in the 4thand 19thcenturies, celebrating Church Fathers and Anglican missionary bishops (some of whom were martyred). Of the 92 worthies who received commemorations and memorials (thus excluding the Holy Days), only 15 were laity and only 9 were women.

 Further work produced Prayer Book Studies XVI: The Calendar and the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, For the Lesser Feasts and Fastswhich was approved for a trial reading at the 1964 General Convention, and printed as Lesser Feasts & Fasts 1963, the first of a series (henceforth LFF). This edition included 22 additions, 6 of which had been discussed but rejected for the previous volume, and some minor transfers between memorials and commemorations. The additions brought the total number of optional saints to 117 including 20 laity and 15 women.      

This phase of the Calendar features a limited number of obligatory Holy Days, and two levels of optional days, the commemoration and the memorial. The Calendar was understood as a means of teaching church history within the covers of the prayer book (PBS IX, 38) and the central criteron for selection was service: “service of God and one’s fellow men, irrespective of the position, rank or state of the individual concerned” (PBS XII, 10).

The Creation of the 1979 BCP

The 1967 General Convention that brought the second reading, and therefore authorization, of LFF1963, also commissioned what would become its replacement. That convention directed the preparation of a new Book of Common Prayer—causing a reconsideration of the Calendar in light of the emerging character of the new book. Over the next thirteen years, three new works on the Calendar would reshape it in important ways.

Prayer Book Studies 19: The Calendarrepresented a turn towards the sweeping liturgical changes wrought by Vatican II. Six optional commemorations of New Testament figures were promoted to Holy Days—including St. Mary the Virgin and St. Mary Magdalene; a new Holy Day was also added under ecumenical influence: The Confession of St. Peter. A number of celebrations were moved in order to fall in line with ecumenical celebration. The distinction between commemorations and memorials was abolished; all optional days were considered to be of the same liturgical significance. Nine new optional days were added including the Commemoration of All Souls. This material was approved by General Convention and printed as LFF1973.

As work on the new prayer book progressed, a few more individuals were added, but the bulk of the effort put into the Calendar was focused on the selection of the readings and the collects. LLF1980 represented a significant change from the first Calendar in its collects and readings. The structural changes were the increase of Holy Days and the leveling of optional days. By the publication of LFF1980, the Calendar contained 33 Holy Days and 122 individuals, of which 23 were laity and 16 were women.

This phase retains a perspective on the Calendar as history. The leveling of optional days throws the temporal balance of the calendar more towards the present. Looking at numbers across centuries, there are definite peaks in the 4th, 13th, and 19thcenturies. Church Fathers, medieval European bishops and theologians, and Anglican missionary bishops remain the central figures in the calendar.

Convention’s Calendar

The report of the Standing Liturgical Commission to General Convention in 1979 proposes a task for the following triennium:

A detailed study of the criteria for the inclusion of names of persons and commemorations in the Calendar of the Church has barely begun. It involves careful study of basic principles and consultation with other Churches of the Anglican Communion and with other Christian Churches. The Commission already has on file a number of valuable suggestions. All of these call for considerable background of research and study. (Blue Book 1979, AA-155)

Consider what this means: in the previous 35 years of Calendar research and revision, there had been no clear criteria aside from “service” regarding who would or would not be placed on the Calendar. PBS IX had referred to selecting “men and women of outstanding holiness, heroism, and teaching in the cause of Christ, whose lives and deaths have been a continuing, conscious influence upon the on-going life of the Church in notable and well-recognized ways.” (PBS IX, 37) But, the reader gets the sense that Bayard Jones and Massey Shepherd—the liturgical doyens of Sewanee and CDSP respectively—gave the Calendar its shape and character.

In the work leading up to and culminating in the Calendar printed in the 1979 BCP and published with accompanying materials as LFF 1980, the overall balance, composition, and intention of the Calendar had been maintained by the Calendar Subcommittee: small group with strong leaders and, presumably, a consensus on the kind of people to be included. The period that would follow throws open the Calendar to additions General Convention. The significance is that there is no longer a big-picture sense of the Calendar giving balance to the kinds of witness represented on it. Criteria were drafted for the 1982 convention, but despite these not being formalized 7 names were offered for inclusion in 1985. This kicked off a back-and-forth between the House of Deputies and House of Bishops, the deputies bringing names, the bishops vetoing most of them. Criteria were formally adopted in 1988, and then reformulated in 1994. 

But despite initial opposition from the bishops, names were brought forth and approved. By 2003, 156 individuals were on the Calendar (5 of these trials), an increase of 35. The most significant statistic regarding these additions is the centuries in which they lived. Of the 35 individuals added to the Calendar between 1988 and 2003, 25 of them (71%) were from the 19thand 20thcenturies. Now over a third of the optional entries on the Calendar were concentrated in the two centuries closest to us. Through an organic piece-meal process, the character of the Calendar was shifting; it was no longer just a tool for history but had become a battleground for identity politics with regions and interest groups vying to include their people on the Calendar. By this point the Calendar included a whopping 29 laity (19%) and 22 women (14%).

The Call for Expansion in 2003

 In 1985, Resolution 1985-D101requested a process to create a Calendar:

That reflects the true proportion of lay and women “saints” and “saints” of color (of non-European descent) who have conspicuously served Christ throughout the life of the Church, and that is not limited to members of the Anglican Communion. (1985-D101)

The  heavily amended version that passed simply instructed the SLC to “produce a Calendar of the Church Year which will add additional women” (1985-D101 final). Nothing happened. However, this resolution set the stage for a new conception of the Calendar: Calendar as representation of the Church.

 In 2003, longtime member of the Calendar Subcommittee and now Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold championed 2003-A100which called for the SCLM:

To undertake a revision of Lesser Feasts and Fasts2000, to reflect our increasing awareness of the importance of the ministry of all the people of God and of the cultural diversity of The Episcopal Church, of the wider Anglican Communion, of our ecumenical partners, and of our lively experience of sainthood in local communities (2003-A100).

What the 1985 resolution called for explicitly, the 2003 resolution called for implicitly focusing on the notion of Calendar as representative document. By this standard, the Calendar teaches history in a very different way than the original conception, echoing a shift in the discipline of History itself and in the Humanities more broadly. The 1950’s model of history driven by the great (white male ordained) thinkers was replaced by a more socially aware form of history (dubbed “revisionist” by its opponents) that sought to lift up representative yet under-represented voices throughout history, not just the powerful and famous.  

 In 2006, the results of this process were submitted to General Convention as Holy Women, Holy Mencomplete with a new set of criteria and a Calendar containing 318 named individuals across 271 liturgical occasions. Despite the criteria and the stated interest in the inclusion of laity and women, the percentage of laity increased to 30%; women increased to a mere 18%, up 4% from the previous version. New controversies arose concerning the criteria. Some argued that the document ignored its own criteria  regarding local observance, the inclusion of unbaptized people and those who had departed the Church. Others criticized the criteria’s emphasis on the contribution of an individual’s work apart from their personal holiness.

 Holy Women, Holy Men was sent back for more work in 2006, returned again in 2009 where it was passed for trial use, but sent back to the SCLM again in 2012. An attempt at a compromise produced A Great Cloud of Witnessesthat tried to recast the work as a historical teaching tool from which local congregations could discern individuals to celebrate as saints. This approach was rejected, and General Convention resolved that the work be “made available” rather than approved for trial use.

 The Present

This, then, is the history that forms the necessary context for this year’s Calendar resolution to General Convention, 2018-A065. This resolution offers a LFF2018 that seeks to offer a more balanced Calendar. The proportion of women and laity are now much closer to being representative. The individuals are more balanced across time as well. A main calendar and a set of “local commemorations” recall the original distinction between commemorations and memorials. Finally, this proposal recommends that General Convention adopt LFF 2018 for optional use, recognizing the need for on-going work. How it will fare at General Convention is anyone’s guess, but I hope it will move forward the conversation on this contentious yet important issue.

[i]    There is a related history of how appropriate collects and readings were created, but in the present post I can only treat people selected. The others deserve a post of their own!


Dr. Derek Olsen is an Episcopal layman who writes and teaches on liturgical spirituality. He earned a Ph.D. in New Testament from Emory University with a focus on the interpretation of Scripture within the medieval liturgy. Working as a corporate IT professional by day, he blogs at  www.stbedeproductions.com(formerly haligweorc) and programs the St. Bede’s Breviary (http://breviary.stbedeproductions.com/), an automated site for praying the Daily Office. He is the author of several books including Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as Guide to a Spiritual Life. Dr. Olsen spends his spare time driving his two teen-aged daughters around the city of Baltimore, and assisting his wife, a priest in the Diocese of Maryland.