The Communion of Saints

Michael Perham was a bishop in the Church of England whose entire ordained ministry included work outside of his various parochial or diocesan appointments. Notably, with regard to this book, Perham served as secretary of the Church of England’s doctrine committee and on the Archbishop’s Commission on Church Music. He wrote and published regularly during his life, mostly on liturgy and Christian spirituality. He was sometime president of the Alcuin Club, a position he retained after his retirement as Bishop of Gloucester in 2014. Perham died in April 2017.

Perham wrote The Communion of Saints: An examination of the place of the Christian dead in the belief, worship, and calendars of the Church in response to the many liturgical revisions in Anglican churches around the world through the 1960s and 1970s. Published in 1980, there were a number of revisions yet to come, such as the 1985 Canadian Book of Alternative Services. Perham cites his reasons for writing the book when he did as fivefold: No significant examination of the role of saints, sanctity, and the Christian dead in Anglican theology had been undertaken since the early twentieth century; modernity was producing many questions about Christian afterlife and Perham believed that the traditional doctrines around heaven, hell, purgatory, and paradise were being preached without conviction; the influence of œcumenical discussion, disagreements over the role of saints and prayers to and for dead Christians, and the influence of these discussions on the views of the “ordinary” Christian; the current (in 1980) reformation of the Church of England’s calendars; “the conviction that, although the Church of the present cannot simply live in the light of the past or even in any sort of imitation of the past, the Church of today can only profit from a rediscovery of the full meaning of belief in ‘the communion of saints’.”[1]

Perham lays out the book in nine chapters, the first six of which are historical overviews of understandings of sainthood and the afterlife by the Church in different eras. The seventh chapter focuses on problems in Anglicanism around the cult of saints, afterlife, and prayer. The eighth chapter is a description of how saints are generally observed in Anglicanism at the time of publication, and the ninth chapter is a series of new proposals for calendar revision and the commemoration of saints going forward.

The first chapter is a survey of the earliest records of Christian thought on the afterlife, the first experiences of martyrdom, early attempts at organizing calendars, and the appearance of the cult of saints, particularly those who are not martyrs. These saints, many of them ascetics and religious, and the controversy which surrounds their exceptional status, as well as that of Mary Θεοτόκος, are covered. Closing the chapter is a nod to Vigilantius of Calagurris, famous in Christian history for his solitary stance against the cult of saints, and his attacks on their veneration, the collection of their relics, and the building of churches over their gravesites.

The second chapter discusses the “centuries of consolidation” between late antiquity and the high Middle Ages. Within a working theology of sainthood and the afterlife, Perham surveys the continuing tradition of most saints as local figures, spontaneously created by congregations where worthy lives and deaths are recognized, confirmed with miraculous events, and celebrated with feasts and special liturgical observances. The chapter concludes, appropriately for a book written from and for an Anglican context, with a brief focus on the first efforts at liturgical calendars in England.

‘Medieval Certainty,’ the title of the third chapter, refers to the growing tendency to clarify details about the afterlife and sainthood. Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth century articulations of heaven, hell, purgatory, and sainthood along with the writing of Anselm, Julian of Norwich, and events such as the martyrdom of Becket frame the discussion. Perham points out, helpfully, that the increasingly secure position of the Church—not imperial persecution or law to fuss with anymore—gives its writers and thinkers time to explore the finer points of doctrines and ideas that, in earlier times, could only be given strictly necessary treatment.

The fourth chapter examines ‘Destruction and Reform’ by considering both the continental Reformers, but also the with emphasis on the English Reformation. Perham makes quite clear that while the English Reformation and the reforms on the continent take place at the same time, they are not identical processes. Particularly, where the veneration of saints is concerned, Perham points out that in England, “there was perhaps a greater interest in the external signs of such veneration than in the underlying doctrine.”[2] This chapter also includes a fine discussion of the variable status of saints in the prayer book reforms in England. He points out, very astutely, the tension that exists when saints are given almost no mention in the liturgy or the prayers of the Church, but the names of places are riddled with references to saints. In contrast to some of the more extreme continental reformers, the Church of England preserved a sanctoral cycle and even ascribed particular prayers and scripture readings to days of special note.

The fifth and sixth chapters trace the development of the Anglican liturgy and its traditions of observing saints and discussing the afterlife. The fifth chapter picks up around the middle of the seventeenth century and covers the period until the proposed 1928 Church of England prayer book. The sixth chapter begins with the 1928 proposal and continues on until around the time of publication of The Communion of Saints. In particular, Perham analyzes the suggested additions to the sanctoral calendar, including rationale and some of the questions around why certain figures were included and others neglected.

‘All One Body,’ the seventh chapter, examines contemporary theological questions about sainthood, the interaction of the Church present on earth with the Church in heaven, the role of prayers to saints, just how the Church decides on who is and is not a saint, and questions about the Christian afterlife in general, including prayers for the dead who are not saints.

The eighth chapter tackles the difficult question of how to observe festal days in a world where “Sunday only” Christians are the majority. This leaves a great many important days of the church year unobserved, without reasonable alternatives. If the church is to succumb to a Sunday-only worship schedule, then how do we decide who and what is worth commemorating?

Finally, in the ninth chapter, Perham concludes by offering brief summaries of the newly revised Anglican and Roman calendars,[3] with a nod toward other churches engaged in calendar revision (the USA’s recently completed 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the ongoing work of the Canadian church in its 1985 Book of Alternative Services,) as well as the principles behind those revisions. He is highly critical of new calendars which continue to present a communion of saints which appears to be almost entirely male and clerical. He notes that the recent revisions to Anglican calendars have largely brought their observances into line with the Roman calendar, with the prominent exception of certain English saints. Perham also reviews the guidelines of the Church of England around diocesan calendars and provides some suggestions for formulating local calendars, seeking to honour local custom, tradition, and saints, while keeping individual communities in calendrical step with the larger Church.

The Communion of Saints is a dense book, carrying a surprising quantity of information and reflection given its small size of 177 pages. Perham has thoughtfully and carefully laid out historical development, precedent, and rationales, both theological and practical, for the development of calendars in the Church. His interest in an attention to both the hows and whys of the calendrical reforms of the 1960s—1980s would have made for an interesting and informative read in 1985, but seems even more relevant now, in 2017. Many of the Anglican churches around the world are again discussing prayer book revisions, including a critical examination of their calendars, and significant discussion about who ought to be included in those annual observances and why. The Communion of Saints rewards close reading and those interested in the rationale behind ecclesial calendars would do well to take notes. For example, though he has written nearly 200 pages on the observance of saints in the sanctoral cycle of the Church, Perham mentions more than once that this calendar, of saints and their feasts, should not disrupt or impede the annual rhythm and flow of the liturgical seasons.

So often when the Church seeks to revise some part of its common life, we are left to ask historians to reconstruct the rationale of a particular practice based on the documents left behind. Documents whose primary purpose is not to explain a rationale or decision—making process, but to provide direction on how to carry out specific rites or guidelines on what not to do, without necessarily explaining why. Perham’s book provides a useful study of the previous major round of revision. His examination of why the revisions were thought necessary, the questions and issues facing the Church which prompted these changes, and the rationale for why some of the changes were made is relevant and, hopefully, being studied by the various committees in charge of revision today. In addition to those directly involved in planning and revising the calendars of the Church, The Communion of Saints would also be a useful library addition for any cleric who finds themselves planning liturgy. Perham articulates a number of good liturgical principles, such as the prioritization of various calendars and cycles which are layered on top of one another, which may be a source of confusion for many people involved in planning liturgies. While out of print for some time as of 2017, The Communion of Saints is worth looking for in used book repositories and will be a valuable reference for at least a few more generations of Anglicans.


[1]Michael Perham, The Communion of Saints: An Examination of the Place of the Christian Dead in the Belief, Worship, and Calendars of the Church, Alcuin Guides 62 (London: S.P.C.K., 1980), xiii.

[2]Perham, 48.

[3]Newly revised as of 1985, of course.

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