Nicholas Sagovsky

What Makes A Saint?

(A Review by Wendy Lloyd)

I went to Nicholas Sagovsky’s lecture expecting to hear of rare personal qualities which make a few special people holier than the rest of us. He mentioned the monastic virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience to the doctrine of the church, an exemplary life and if martyred a forgiving death, ‘Father forgive them…’ and then went on to explain the drawn out process of making a saint. Before the reformation, the Western church was not divided and beatification was available to all who qualified. Those with special virtues were recognised by the church and, if after their death miracles occurred, the church looked into the life posthumously to see if that person is close to Christ and can affect life on earth. If so they were declared saints. St Hugh was one of these saints.

Professor Sagovsky gave a wonderful thumb-nail sketch of Hugh of Avalon, a monk from the Grand Chartreuse who accepted the discipline and hardship of the Carthusians and even asked the permission of his monastic superiors before accepting the post of Bishop of Lincoln. He was an immigrant, plucked from the mountains of France, and placed in the largest diocese in England yet he spoke little English. He protected the poor by refusing to move peasants from their land and questioned the authority of three kings but survived perhaps because of his gentle ways, sense of humour and prayer (despite his busy life he spent a month each year on retreat). He was deeply loved by his people and the devotion of his swan is still noted. He died in London and there are reports of healing as his body passed on its way back to Lincoln in the year 1200.

Little Hugh died in Lincoln in 1255. He was nine years old and perhaps because of the writings of Matthew Paris, the chronicler, the Jews of Lincoln were accused of the ritual murder of a Christian child. 110 were arrested, nineteen hanged in London and the rest were ransomed for vast amounts. Little Hugh was buried in Lincoln cathedral and there were stories of miracles but forty years later the Jews were expelled and canonisation abandoned. Professor Sagovsky believes that this persecution of seven hundred years ago was part of the fabric of antisemitism that led to the holocaust. This blood libel started in an England looking for holiness and martyrdom but they got it wrong.

This thought led on to a question about the Ugandan Saints, forty five converts to Christianity who between 1885 and 1887 were killed by King Mwanga for refusing to take part in homosexual activity. They were elevated to the sainthood by pope Paul VI in 1964, and their tomb has become a shrine which attracts thousands of pilgrims. Has the church in Uganda in the twenty first century made the same mistake that England made in the thirteenth century? Were they looking to honour these martyrs and in the light of modern thinking, have they got it wrong?

Professor Sagovsky concentrated on the western church and looked closely at three people with Lincoln connections who at different times have been referred to as saints. The first two, Saint Hugh and little Hugh, lived in an age of Christian fervor when hope of heaven was beginning to replace fear of hell. The third person was Edward King, an Anglican Bishop in Lincoln from 1885 to his death in 1910. Edward King was regarded by those who knew him (and knew of him) as saintly. He was not interested in the trappings of office and even moved from his palace three miles north of Lincoln into the city so that the poor could have access to him. He visited the sick and dying, day or night; he spent many hours with those condemned to death and took the hard walk to the scaffold with them. Poverty and chastity came easily to him but he was not obedient to church doctrine. He used candles on the altar, he faced east as his congregation did when he celebrated the Eucharist and he wore a cope. He had to answer for these practices and was tried in an ecclesiastical court for ritualism. He was found not guilty but despite this and despite his undoubted holiness he is not a formal Saint. His holy life and his suffering for his beliefs were, and are, irrelevant because he was a bishop in the Anglican church. It is interesting to note that in the fairly recent new ‘Common Worship’ prayer book in the Church of England there is a wide range of formal recognised saints during the year as well as a comprehensive and generous list of other saintly people from a range of Christian traditions.

The short and cynical answer to Professor Sagovsky’s question, ‘What makes a (formal) Saint’? is the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

Wendy Lloyd