Welcome to Saturday Book Review time! On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value. Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.
We’ve gone through the official Common Worship volumes (at least, the ones I own… hopefully there aren’t more out there!) so now we come a companion volume: Saints on Earth: A biographical companion to Common Worship. The book’s tag-line, so to speak, is an excerpt from an excellent hymn by Charles Wesley:
Let saints on earth in concert sing
with those whose work is done
For all the servants of our King
In heaven and earth are one.
This book, quite simply, is a collection of one-page biographies of various saints and famous men and women of Christian memory. It omits the Major Feast (“red-letter”) Day saints on the grounds that their stories are much larger, better-known, and already provided for in plenty of other resources. The aim of this book is to work through the calendar of minor commemorations to help people get to know these lesser feast days. In the USA, the older volumes under the name Lesser Feasts and Fasts also contained brief biographies of the commemorations in the Episcopalian calendar, and I’ve seen those resources used by preachers, sometimes referencing them, sometimes reading from the book outright. Saints on Earth is the same: the biographical material is written to highlight the purpose of their memory in the Church. One could say this is a book of hagiography, minus the traditional embellishments and legendary assertions.
Of course, as this is a companion to Common Worship, it uses the commemorations list according to the Church of England; every province has a slightly different calendar. But the overlap is large, of course, so this book can be useful for any Christian wanting to get a closer look at our predecessors.
The only caution I would voice regarding this book is the choice of who gets commemorated, and how one uses the word “Saint.” As a traditionalist, and with a generally high-church perspective, I am very hesitant to use the word “Saint” with a capital S unless the person in question has been well-vetted by the church regarding his or her holiness of life and purity of doctrine. The Church of England and the Episcopal Church (USA) have a history of throwing together these lists of saints including people who died only a couple decades ago, or including people outside of the Anglican Communion who taught and believed doctrines we would consider erroneous, sometimes even heretical. That is why in my ministry and writings I try to be careful to negotiate the difference between a saints day and a commemoration. There are a few people commemorated in this book whom I would never consider calling a Saint in the traditional sense. So you need to be discerning with this book, and other ones like it; George Fox (for example) may have been a devout Christian, but is the founding of a new denomination (especially one with as spurious a history as the Quakers) something we really should be celebrating?
The ratings in short:
The book is set out in calendar order, making it easiest to use alongside a liturgical text. But like all the Common Worship books it has a comprehensive index, so you can find the blurb for the person you’re looking for if you don’t know their commemoration date.
Devotional Usefulness: 3/5
This is almost a “Not Applicable” category, as this book is not a liturgical text. It can, however, supplement the celebration of minor saints days and commemorations, and in that regard it does a decent job of introducing its subjects. The biographies are told pretty straight, however, so if one wishes to use this in a homily, this only covers the introduction; no homiletic material or scripture references are provided here.
Reference Value: 4/5
Unless you’ve got Lesser Feasts and Fasts on hand, this is one of the best books you could have for the purpose of aiding your preaching or study of the Church’s commemorations. There are lots of biographies out there, but to have the majority of our liturgical calendar in one volume is super handy.
Of course, there are also internet resources that also fulfill this function. The Society of Archbishop Justus has one of the most comprehensive sites along these lines.