Church of England

Welby: "Christians are not saints"; Cranmer: "O yes we are"


“Christians are not saints,” tweeted Lambeth Palace, apparently quoting from a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. “They are sinners calling other sinners to know and love Jesus Christ.”

Well, yes and no. Christians are indeed sinners, as is all mankind, which has been so since the Fall. And Christians do (or should) call other sinners to repentance and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, without whom there is no redemption, and by whose name we may find salvation. But “Christians are not saints”?

It depends, of course, on one’s ecclesial tradition. But biblical theology is quite clear on the matter: all believers are saints.

And it came to pass, as Peter passed throughout all quarters, he came down also to the saints which dwelt at Lydda (Acts 9:32).

Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests.. (Acts 26:10).

For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ (Eph 4:12).

Salute every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren which are with me greet you (Phil 4:21).

And each All Saints’ Day we remember and honour all those Christians – known and unknown; visible and invisible – who have gone before us and now dwell in Glory in the presence of the Lord. It is a communion of the living with the dead; a day preserved in the Book of Common Prayer, now classed as a Principal Feast, along with Easter Day, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Christmas Day, and the Epiphany.

In the New Testament, the saints are all believers – the whole Church – past, present and future. The term has, however, through ecclesial history and man-made tradition, come to be applied to persons of heroic sanctity, especially those who have given their lives for the sake of the gospel – those who have been martyred for the Faith. The distinction is sustained in some churches in the remembrance of All Saints followed by All Souls.

The the Book of Common Prayer is as clear as Scripture on the matter. The Collect for All Saints’ Day reads:

O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Church of England has not traditionally declared unilaterally its own saints, though it does honour its own martyrs and heroes of the Faith. But now that the Roman Catholic Church has finally conceded that something good came out of Anglicanism – namely, (parts of) the Book of Common Prayer – is it not time for the beatification of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer? Or, at the very least, for him to be declared a Doctor of the Church?

Surely he can be forgiven his commitment to the doctrine of the Royal Supremacy, though he believes it to be a fundamental datum of biblical revelation. Surely he can be forgiven for his vacillations as royal policy veered from one side to another under the rule of King Henry VIII. Surely he can be forgiven for seeing in King Edward VI a second Josiah, anointed to cleanse and purify the Church of corruption. Surely he can be forgiven for presenting as both a papalist and a conciliarist, confusing if not compromising generations of Anglicans who were to follow.

The Church of England, since the Reformation, holds implicitly, in purpose of heart, all which the ancient Church ever held. The Reformation was the work of God, through which the Church in Europe was purified and by which the Church in England continued. Thomas Cranmer, though not remarkable for genius or fame, enjoyed the surpassing glory of martyrdom, in vindication of the truths of the gospel of salvation. His testimony brought fame; his genius is now acknowledged even by the Church of Rome in the Ordinariate Use. He stands with the congregation of the faithful; the sainthood of all believers.

If the father of Anglican spirituality and defender of the English Church may not be a saint, then who can be? Perhaps some kind ecumenically-minded soul in the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham might plead his cause? Not that he needs that, of course – unless one inclines toward the Roman understanding of beatification.