Rowan Williams: Perfecting the saints


The Archbishop of Canterbury has been in the news this week primarily because of his plea to the English Anglo-Catholics to remain a part of the Church of England rather than taking up Pope Benedict on his extraordinary offer.

Which I suppose is what we ought to expect, given the focus of the typical news story. (Says I as a news blogger…)

But the shame is that in the midst of all the other stories about the new Anglican Rite Apostolic Constitution, the Archbishop gave an extraordinary sermon at All Saints’ Margaret Street in London on the Feast of All Saints. All Saints, Margaret Street is one of the great flagship Anglo-Catholic congregations of the Anglican Communion. But rather than talking about the latest overture from Rome in his sermon, Rowan Williams talked about the Saints.

Specifically he talks about how the Saints are the people who make God credible to the world as the Ambassadors of the Kingdom who speak to the world of the God the world can not comprehend.

However, there’s more. The Saints await their perfection in the our lives.

As Williams puts it, speaking of the roll call of the Saints in Letter to the Hebrews:

“[…] These great figures that the writer to the Hebrews has listed, ‘without us [says the writer] they will not be made perfect’. This is a truly extraordinary claim. We’ve heard about the heroes of the Old Testament, the Judges and the Prophets, those who have suffered atrociously for their faith, those who have performed stunning miracles, ‘And yet [the writer to the Hebrews says baldly] without us they will not be made perfect’. Think of that in our own terms. Without us, Francis of Assisi will not be made perfect, without us St John of the Cross will not be made perfect, without us Mother Theresa will not be made perfect. Surely some mistake? As the editors say. But no, these great witnesses become perfect, they become fully into their life that God purposes for them when we respond, when we enter into a relationship with them. So that the way in which they have made God credible comes alive in us. They’re not perfect as individuals who have scored exceptionally highly in the examination of Christian faith. They are parts of the body of Christ to which we too belong. Our life is bound up with theirs and amazingly and humblingly, their life is bound up with ours, they enter into their glory when we come with them. It’s that extraordinary realization of which we see a glimmer in the Buddhist doctrine: that the great Bodhisattvas do not enter into rest until they have brought everyone they can with them. That’s why they keep coming back, being reincarnated to speak to more and more people. This, I believe is a glimmer of the same insight that the holiest, the most whole of God’s children, reach that wholeness only in communion with us. We might almost say, ‘Heaven help the Saints if they depend on us to get them to their final wholeness’. And yet that is the bold and startling doctrine that the Bible puts before us as a reminder that no-one’s holiness is their property and that the holiness of the Christian life is one given into the lives of others. That is where it becomes fully itself.

So at All Saints’ tide we give thanks that God in Christ has made himself credible; credible in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus; credible in the lives of those in whom Jesus has come alive. And we thank God for that extraordinary promise: that the great Saints of the Communion of Christ’s body depend on us as we depend on them in growing together.”

Read the full sermon here.

That’s an extraordinary point. The Saints are Saints in as much as they have their relationships with God and with us. With us!

Which is true for us too I would imagine. We have our relationship with God perfected in our working out of our relationships of love and service to the people around us.

That’s worth thinking about today as you go about your daily business don’t you think?

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. I found this sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury to be particularly insightful. I’ve never thought about the saints in quite the way he frames the matter. And I love this section:

    “Witnesses establish the truth by giving evidence. It really is as simple as that. When we celebrate the Saints, we celebrate those who have given evidence, who have made God believable by how they have lived and how they have died. The saints are the people who recognise that arguments will finally not win the day. God does not make himself credible by argument. God does not respond to our doubts, our intellectual querying, our uncertainty, by delivering from Heaven a neatly annotated list of logical propositions with which we cannot disagree. (I’m afraid that Professor Dawkins can bang on the doors of Heaven as long as he likes if that is what he expects to happen.) God deals with us by our life and a death, by Jesus. And God continues to deal with us by lives and deaths that make him credible, that make Jesus tangible here and now.”


  2. Thanks Bryan – I was very taken with that section too. But I was blown away by the implications that Rowan draws from the verse of Hebrews he highlights. I guess it’s an obvious point once it’s pointed out, and one that seems totally consistent with the larger philosophical super-structure of Hebrews.
    The idea that we inextricably bound to each other, across all time and space, seems to me to be a perfect theological example of the phenomenon after which I named this blog. Perhaps that verse from Hebrews (or something from Paul about being all part of the same body) should be my personal prooftext as a blogger.

  3. Sounds rather a onerous task fraught with a struggle between the joy of ministry and the compulsion to bring as many to Christ as possible. Is it quality or quantity? How many new Christians does it take to perfect a saint?

  4. Having read your post and the sermon excerpt from the ABC earlier, I later came across this tidbit in Origen from his De Principiis:
    “And since many saints participate in the Holy Spirit, He cannot therefore be understood to be a body, which being divided into corporeal parts is partaken of by each one of the saints; but he is manifestly a sanctifying power, in which all are said to have a share who have deserved to be sanctified by his grace. ”
    I am particularly struck by the idea that the saints “participate” in the Holy Spirit. This “bi-directional” view is one worth a bit of contemplation, I think.

  5. Thanks Jeffrey for that bit of Origen. I think the bi-directional relationship with God is also implied in our incorporation into the body of Christ, and Christ’s full participation in the Godhead.
    God’s willingness to bring our humanity into the divine presence and the divine substance into our person is I think exactly what you’re describing as a bi-directional relationship.

  6. That’s a great question Kristin – my immediate response is that it takes all of us and one of us to perfect a saint. I don’t think it’s our need to bring people to faith so that we get a passing mark, I think it’s more about our desire to participate in the lives of the saints that adds to their credibility.

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