Protestant Saints and Pilgrimage?

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for Knox folks to ask for their spiritual or religious questions to be addressed in a sermon.

Ask Andrew 2 (2023):

Protestant Saints and Pilgrimage?

Scriptures: Acts7:55-602 Corinthians 9:1-5

What Protestant denominations have saints? 

Are they the same ones as the Catholics?

Are Protestant churches still bestowing sainthoods today?

What is in the scriptures about pilgrimage and what does it mean to the protestant version of Christianity today?

I have combined two sets of questions today because the practice of Pilgrimage in Christianity has often been closely tied to particular saints.

I’m going to answer this collection of questions from the perspective of the Reformed Tradition. “Protestant” encompasses a number of traditions, including Lutherans, Anglicans, Mennonites, Baptists, Pentecostals etc., so I will address this from the direction I know best. Not every denomination will agree with what I say.

The word “saint” means “holy person”. Reformed Theology is based on scripture and as we can see from our 2 Cor. reading today, Paul uses the word “saint” to refer to the Christians at Jerusalem – all the Christians – the whole church, not just the apostles and certainly not the dead ones, like Stephen.

So, in our theology, everyone in this building is a saint. We are all blessed by God, made holy by God. Whether we deserve it or not, God has made us holy and so we are all saints.

Protestant churches don’t name new saints because we don’t believe in that kind of hierarchy. We believe that in Christ we have each been given direct access to God. We can pray straight to God in Jesus’ name and we don’t need some other person to intervene for us whether that be a saint, some admirable dead Christian, or a priest: someone in a church hierarchy with a special status between the people and God.

My ordination does not give me special spiritual status. God doesn’t listen to me more than anyone else. I am given special duties and responsibilities to ensure that the church functions well, like making sure that the sacraments are done properly, but I am not spiritually elevated. We don’t believe in that sort of thing.

It is the same with saints. We believe that we are each equal in the sight of God. We know that there are admirable people out there, people whose lives we take as examples of the best ways to live, but that’s as far as it goes. We resist the idea of putting their relics on display (although there is a Martin Luther museum in Germany) and we NEVER pray to them.

If you wanted to visit the grave of John Knox, you would discover that he is buried at St. Giles’ Presbyterian Church in Edinburgh under spot #23 in the parking lot. There is usually a car sitting on his final resting spot.

Protestant churches that are named after saints tend to fit a handful of categories: some are simply tradition – old ones were were named before the Reformation and later churches named after them; others are named for saints that are recorded in the Bible (and even that is pushing it, theologically but it’s hard to argue with someone whose name is at the top of a gospel); and saints that have political implications.

As a political example: St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland. You should Google how he got that position; it is fascinating, and complicated. He wasn’t the only candidate: St. Columba was popular on Scotland’s west coast where many Irish Celts had settled, while St. Andrew’s support was based in Fife. St. Giles was popular in other areas so there was an internal striving for dominance and St. Andrew won. It was, literally, political back in the days before political parties existed. That sort of thing can create deep loyalty, especially when a saint is associated with nationalism like St. Andrew, St. Patrick, St. George, and of course St. Jean Baptiste.

So there are no new Protestant saints. We don’t have a process to elevate someone to sainthood and we don’t consider it to be an elevation anyway because we are all saints!

In the Roman Catholic tradition there is a complex system to name new saints. It involves years of investigation. The person has to be associated with proven miracles and there is a trial with supporters of the candidate trying to prove that their person is worthy of sainthood facing off against someone called the Devil’s Advocate whose job it is to cast doubt on that worthiness, to disprove the miracles or challenge their mighty deeds.

Some version of this has been going on for centuries and each land was keen to have someone local named to sainthood. Not only was their local pride involved but it was usually a tourism opportunity.

People were encouraged to come on pilgrimages to visit sites considered to be holy, often where relics of the saints were kept, and the hope of miracles only built the anticipation.

These relics were typically bones of the Saint in question – although if you go to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, the relic you will find is the preserved heart of Brother André, now Saint Brother André. That same relic was stolen and held for ransom in 1973 and recovered in 1974.

My very Protestant parents took me so see the Oratory once and had some rather snide things to say about the claims of miracles, mostly to the effect that while they could accept miraculous healings in theory, seeing entire wooden legs hanging on the walls stretched their credulity to the breaking point. But the Oratory is a modern example of a place of pilgrimage.

In principle, a pilgrimage should take a person to a special place for spiritual contemplation. But an awful lot of people go on pilgrimage because they want something: a blessing from God, a healing, a change in their lives; and they believe that going to a special place, a holy place or being near a saint, a holy person, helps that process.

Protestants don’t object to the idea of going somewhere for spiritual reasons. Think of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock. They were Anglican Puritans very much like Congregationalists and Presbyterians. If you believe that all people are equally holy and all places are equally holy it is hard to support the traditional idea of pilgrimage. But THOSE pilgrims wanted to come to the New World and build a New Jerusalem (as in Revelations).

Biblically, there is not much guidance. The Hebrews were told to go to the high places, like Bethel and later to the Temple, for sacrifices. But most worship happened in the home, on the Sabbath. By Jesus’ day a tradition of pilgrimage existed which is why there were such crowds for Passover when he rode into Jerusalem. For Jews who lived in other places, there was a real sense that Judea was the holy land.

Christianity spread the idea that holiness could be found in all lands, that God would embrace every nation and all peoples.

I can give you an example of a Protestant place of pilgrimage: the Iona community in Scotland, formed in 1938 to bring together the Church of Scotland and unemployed workers to rebuild the ruined medieval abbey and develop a spiritual and practical life together.

People who visit today are encouraged to share the daily liturgy and reflect on, as they put it, “issues of importance: the environment, poverty, migration, equality”. It has loosened its ties with the Church of Scotland so it can be ecumenical but that very Reformed emphasis of spirituality combined with practical effort remains: no saints, no holy sites, but a place where spirituality can roll up its sleeves and get something done. They are also prepared to have fun – we use Iona’s musical arrangement for “Halle halle hallelujah” at the end of the service.

In theory, this practical spirituality could, and should, happen at home, or at church, but it is a fact of human nature that sometimes we need a change in order to see things with new eyes.

So while our tradition does not hold with saints and relics, and while it is wise to be aware that communities have commercialized pilgrimages for over a thousand years, there can be value in having our eyes opened by an unfamiliar place or a new experience of spiritual practise.

So if you decide to make a pilgrimage somewhere, that’s fine, but I hope you will be seeking enlightenment rather than miracles. And don’t go looking for saints, because you are already a saint by the grace of God, and God is always ready to show us new things whether we are far away or right at home.


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