2009-10 Conferences: Saints and Sanctity

Theme for 2009-10: Saints and Sanctity

University of Durham, 22-25 July 2009

London, 9 January 2010

Holy Men (and Women) are a feature of most religions, but the contours of the Christian notion of Sainthood have been historically determined in a particular way, and the very idea of Saints has been the subject of controversy.  The Christian notion of sainthood began with the veneration of the martyrs, both as those who witnessed to their faith in an exemplary way and as those who are now in the immediate presence of God and thus able to act as intercessors for Christians still on earth.  It gradually spread to include confessors and quickly spread to include ascetics and bishops. The claim to sainthood by hierarchs underlines the fact that a claim to sainthood was a claim to power. Peter Brown long ago argued that in the West bishops very quickly established control of the cult of saints, limiting it to dead (usually) men, approved by bishops, in contrast to the East, where living holy men retained genuine power. This is a theme that might be revisited. A distinctive cult of saints developed, focusing on relics and images (icons), and involving pilgrimage. Qualifications for sainthood developed: some of these qualifications invite comparison with Shamanism. For about a thousand years, an immense degree of religious effort was invested in the cult of the saints; there emerges what has been called a ‘vast thaumaturgy of the dead’. A critique of the cult of the saints was central to the Reformation, but though the place of the saint in the religious landscape was displaced among Protestants, the notion of sanctity remained to be engaged with. There emerged diverging models in the western Church, with Catholicism almost withdrawing from saint-making for much of the 17th-19th centuries (before rediscovering it with a vengeance), while Protestants were unable to keep much hierarchical control over the process; in Protestantism the phenomenon of saints and saint-making arguably tells one more about popular devotion. Forms and expressions of piety provide another angle on the notion of sanctity.  In England, the seventeenth century saw publications such as Isaak Walton’s Lives, Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Livingand Holy Dying, the Eikon Basilike, Richard Baxter’s The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which in different ways engage with the issue of sanctity. Similar concerns are found in continental Pietism. The next century saw William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, and Law’s later works display contact with an emerging mystical strand in Protestantism (Boehme, etc.) that perhaps witnesses to a recovery of some of the more miraculous aspects of traditional sanctity. Throughout Christian history, and with renewed energy in the early modern period, sanctity and missionary activity went hand in hand. New religious orders proposed new models of saintliness. Something similar occurred in Eastern Christianity with the revival of monasticism emanating from Mount Athos in the eighteenth century, with a renewed emphasis on lay piety and the place of the spiritual father (the starets). The modern period has seen a renewed martyrological tradition, sometimes taking a very traditional form (the New Martyrs in Greece, the martyrs in the Soviet Union), sometimes less so, e.g., 20th-century martyrs such as Bonhoeffer and Romero, who aren’t killed explicitly for confessing their faith. Modern mass media and marketing has created saints as celebrities. Both East and West have seen the promotion of ideals of sainthood that are deeply committed to the world and society, such as the Zoe movement in Greece and Opus Dei and the New Catechumenate in the Catholic Church. Once again, claims to sanctity are not detached from claims to power, and the modern world has seen new means for the dissemination of saintly ideals and practices associated with the cult of saints: the place of printing is evident in the above summary, and the role of the railway (and more recently air travel) in enabling pilgrimage adds further dimensions to historical study of saints and sanctity.

Main speakers at the Summer Conference and Winter Meeting will include Andrew Louth, Mark MacIntosh,Richard Price, Clare Stancliffe, Alan Thacker and Michael Walsh.

Andrew Louth

President-elect for 2009-10

For the programme of the Summer Conference, click here.

For the programme of the Winter Meeting, click here.

The resulting volume was published as Peter Clarke and Tony Claydon, eds, Saints and Sanctity, SCH47 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011).