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Erasing the Saints

Image from the Rood Screen of St. Helen’s Church, Ranworth

The Rev’d Stephen Stavrou reflects on the doctrinal implications of the removal of historic saints’ names from some of our rebranded churches and is concerned that this is a departure not just from the historic character of Anglicanism but from a fundamental feature of the Christian faith.

‘ …take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines… pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition, so that there remain no memory of the same…’

From the Elizabethan ‘Injunctions of 1559

In the TV comedy Rev about an inner-city vicar, there is an episode when his church is suddenly ‘taken over’ by a church plant. The pews are replaced by sofas, tea after services is exchanged for a smoothie bar, and traditional worship accompanied on the organ is supplanted by a drum kit and projector screens. Ultimately, Fr Adam himself is also to be replaced by a better-looking and trendy vicar with much more confidence, and much more money at his disposal too.

It is a send-up of a certain kind of evangelical church plant, and unfairly exaggerates some aspects of such projects for comic effect. There are many ways in which Fr Adam is a failure and this is very obvious in his tiny congregation and dilapidated building. At the same time, there are many ways in which Fr Adam is a model priest in his ministry among the poor and marginalised, epitomised by his regular conversations sitting on a bench alongside Colin, the local homeless alcoholic.

The episode raises important and legitimate questions about what success looks like and the nature of parish ministry in the Church of England. These questions are even more urgent today than they were a few years ago when the episode was first broadcast. As congregations continue to decline and coronavirus brings with it a looming financial crisis, a church like Fr Adam’s, with so few people and so clearly unable to support itself financially, can’t go on as it has done before.

Life sometimes imitates art, and recently it was announced that the church featured in the series – St Leonard’s, Shoreditch – is embarking upon a partnership with another church that has the skills, personnel and resources to regenerate and bring new life to a struggling church. There is much in these partnerships to be commended, not least the energy, enthusiasm and the impressive track record that they have in rescuing a church from closure.

There is one feature however that I wish to highlight as a concern, because of its doctrinal aspect and its potential to change the character and nature of the Church of England. It is noticeable that in the information about the project, St Leonard’s is repeatedly referred to as ‘Shoreditch Church’ and the partnering church, properly known as St John at Hackney, as ‘Hackney Church’. This isn’t the only example of a church losing its original designation. ‘Hope Church’ in Islington was originally St Mary Magdalene, and there are many other instances where the name of a church and parish are reduced to an acronym so that the original title is almost never used. Holy Trinity, Brompton, is perhaps the most famous example, with the ubiquitous use of ‘HTB’. I use these merely as illustrations of a trend, without wishing to criticise the leadership or ministry of these particular churches as such.

I also don’t wish to question the excellent regenerative work of church planting and partnering. Nor do I want to cast doubt on the importance of some benefits of branding, which can provide a consistent and attractive look and vocabulary that helps to interest and attract people to a church and ultimately to the Christian faith itself. However I do think that the trend to remove or hide the traditional and proper names of churches is fundamentally a doctrinal one, that has an impact upon the very character of Anglicanism. In the Apostles’ Creed we say ‘I believe in… the communion of saints’. In some of these rebrands of our parish churches, as the names of the saints are removed from common usage, so then is their influence upon the Christian life and the parish communities in which they are set.

I was struck that in the excellent history section of the website for ‘Hackney Church’ there was this sentence: ‘the whitewashed walls attest to the degree of change wrought by the Reformation inside the church’. The Reformation greatly diminished popular piety towards the saints among the English people. The quotation at the beginning of this article from the Elizabethan Injunctions reflects the extent of efforts to remove all reference in churches to the saints ‘so that there remain no memory of the same’. In every church in the land, the statues of the saints were destroyed and their images painted over in accordance with a reforming zeal against what the reformers saw as idolatrous worship. However, one of the ways in which England’s belief in the communion of saints continued was in the dedications of its churches, which remained unchanged in most places, with the names they were given at their foundation centuries before. This has become an important feature of Anglicanism which, unusually among churches influenced by the Reformation, retains a much fuller recognition of the saints. This is evident in the liturgical calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, which largely adopts the pre-Reformation sanctorale.

It is true that today the legal name of these re-branded parishes still remains unchanged. Does that mean the removal of the name is insignificant? My concern is that by eroding the historic dedications of our churches we are also eroding our belief in the communion of saints and the charisms they represent. What does it say about our belief in this essential aspect of our Christian faith when the names of St Leonard, St John and St Mary Magdalene are removed from collective memory? Have the martyrs, apostles and confessors of earlier ages ceased to be important as examples and inspirations today? Do we still truly believe in the communion of saints?

In the 16th century many of the more ardent Protestants were unhappy with the Reformation in England and, despite the near-universal removal of images of the saints, described the Church in England as ‘but halfly reformed’. My view is that this particular rebranding aspect of the church plant and resource church movement is misguided and should be reconsidered. Accidentally or otherwise, it has the appearance and effect of completing the task left unfinished at the Reformation which left intact the ancient dedications of our churches. In these disappearing dedications I fear we have a new attempt to undermine and ‘make utterly extinct’ the saints of God, whose memory and example should be honoured and celebrated not forgotten and ignored.

As the Church of England prepares to make some difficult decisions about church closures, amalgamations and partnering over the coming years, I urge a reconsideration of this trend that risks undermining the character of Anglicanism, and one of the essential tenets of the Christian faith itself.

The Rev’d Stephen Stavrou

6 thoughts on “Erasing the Saints

  1. What do you think about renaming churches of saints who definitely didn’t exist eg St Christopher? If the communion of saints is taken seriously, do you think they should be renamed? Genuine question.


    1. That’s a really interesting question. On the one hand, I don’t mind the legendary and mythical saints as I think they represent something of the wonder and mystery of God, and also symbolise certain charisms. However, I also understand the Vatican II movement to reform the calendar to include saint with a greater historical basis in order to basis is largely commendable in order to make sanctity a human reality. I think though that I would leave historic dedications intact as part of the heritage of faith.


  2. Not all dedications are that old, but of course a great many are – and St Leonard’s is a very ancient foundation. Also, Preb. Paul Turp is in his fortieth year in the parish, which must surely be a record for the London diocese. Naturally the area has changed drastically during his tenure.

    I have attended services at St Leonard’s on a couple of occasions, and on both times the congregations were tiny. Mr Turp and his colleagues have, however, tried to put the building to parallel uses, but it cannot be denied that it often looks forlorn both within and without, and in the past its portico has attracted the attention and use of some pretty unhappy people.

    Whilst I note that there is the scheme pending between Hackney (an HTB plant) and Shoreditch, it should be noted that there is another HTB plant much closer to St Leonard’s: St John’s Hoxton. Not everyone I met at St John’s Hoxton (not Hackney) was overly keen about that plant, though it has evidently been a reasonable success. However, I have wondered whether the success of St John’s (Hoxton) has tended to compromise the ability of St Leonard’s to realise its full potential. Perhaps I am being unfair, and others who are better informed might be able to correct me.


  3. There is another aspect to the renaming of churches which is at odds with inherited tradition and the parish system. When St Thomas, Heigham, in Norwich was taken over by HTB a few years ago, it was rebranded as ‘STN’, standing for ‘St Thomas, Norwich’. Not only is the name of St Thomas lost amidst the initials, but the name of the locality, associated with that church since its foundation in the 1880s, is also lost. The loss of the name connecting the church to the community was felt by many to be a reflection of an attitude on the part of the church’s new leadership which seemed happy to ignore the connections which already existed between the congregation and the wider community.


  4. Sadly, we have some churches in Sydney Diocese changing their names, formally in Synod or informally but I am sorry to hear that this trend is also occurring in England Thus informally my lovely part-Georgian 1822 Parish Church of St Peter here in Campbelltown usually is no longer referred to by the clergy as St Peter’s (although fortunately one of its three church schools bears that name so its use can hardly be forgotten), Instead we read of “Campbelltown Anglican Churches” – referring to separate congregations. People in the town have known it only as St Peter’s and a little link with the community is lost – as so many others have been lost by our congregationalist, indeed sectarian neo-puritans. Similarly my old parish of St John Mark, Chester Hill, one of the very few churches in the world to have that patron saint (celebrated by us on September 27th) has become, informally, Chester Hill Anglican Church. But people in the community don’t recognise new names very quickly. Indeed in the hospital where I have been an hon.chaplain for more than 20 years since retirement, the great majority of patients still identify as “Church of England’ – as I do myself (since attempts to have the name changed to “Church of Australia” have not succeeded_- only a few identify as “Anglican”. I am very grateful to have here set out so clearly the arguments against the silly trend which I hope to forward to others.


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