In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Recently I’ve tried to disentangle myself from some of the Anglican Facebook groups, at least the ones that are hotbeds of controversy, discord, and acrimony, which is to say most of them. Still, occasionally for reasons I don’t understand, a post from one of those discontinued groups pops up and catches my attention. Recently, it happened; someone posted this question:
What is the most disappointing aspect of Anglicanism?
You see what I mean? This question treats a hornets’ nest like a piñata; it is absolutely designed to be incendiary. So, I just scrolled on by without reading any more, without engaging at all. But, weak willed and weak minded as I am, I obviously did engage, because here I am talking about it. And clearly I’ve been thinking about it.
There are so many possible answers to that question. Don’t get me wrong: Anglicanism is my home — the place where God has prepared me a room — and I love it. But, the old home place does need some repair: walls need painting, the garden could stand weeding, the roof leaks here and there, and crazy Uncle Ed needs a good talking to. So it is in every part of God’s kingdom here on earth. Still, the question hangs in the air:
What is the most disappointing aspect of Anglicanism?
I don’t know; there are so many possible answers. A strange one came to my mind, and I’d like to offer it, not as the most disappointing aspect of Anglicanism, but as — well I think — a serious deficiency of piety nonetheless. Now, I will acknowledge that many of the great minds of Anglicanism would disagree with what I am about to say: Cranmer, Jewell, Law, Lewis, Wright. Nevertheless, I think this is a deficiency of Anglicanism: its refusal to make saints. I don’t mean that Anglicanism lacks the power to form people into saints: hardly. Anglicanism has produced saints aplenty, and not a few right here among us. I mean the refusal to recognize the saints it has produced. Anglicanism lacks a process for canonizing saints. Have you noticed that the saints we recognize at our Noon Eucharists are all pre-Reformation saints, which means they come from the time before the Great Schism (AD 1054) or else they are Roman Catholic or Orthodox saints: not a single uniquely Anglican saint among the group. We honor many modern Anglicans, but we do not call them saints. Why not? And, why do I think this is a deficiency?
The Why not? is pretty straightforward, I think. Anglicanism formed in opposition to the accretions to the faith and abuses of the faith in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, not least the undue emphasis on the saints marked by pilgrimages, relics, and prayers to the saints. Fair enough. But surely the baby doesn’t have to be thrown out with the bath, though it often was. Surely, there is a valid place for saints in the life of the Church.
Here’s why I think that’s important. Saints bear witness to the truth and power of the Gospel. The life of a saint is so countercultural — to all cultures of all times — so unexpected and unusual, that it makes no sense unless the person is mad or the Gospel is true. And even the greatest critics of the Church can’t argue that all our saints are mad. You’ve heard the old saying, I’m sure: Truth is stranger than fiction. Or, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” That is the essence of the life of a saint: it is a stranger than fiction; it makes no sense — unless the Gospel is true.
I thought of this as I reflected on the life of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky (6 May 1831- 15 October 1906). Here’s a man that few have ever heard of — of whom I had never heard until recently — who should be acknowledged as an Anglican saint simply because nothing but the truth of the Gospel can explain his life.
Our story starts in Russian Lithuania on 6 May 1831 where a son was born into a pious Jewish family, a son they named Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. Joseph was orphaned at a young age and raised by an elder half-brother. This brother recognized Joseph’s promise as a student and provided him with a good education, preparing Joseph to become a rabbi. While Joseph was in rabbinical school someone — God knows his name — gave Joseph a copy of the New Testament in Hebrew from the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. Why Joseph even read it only God knows, but as he read it, gradually his certainty grew that this Jesus he met on its pages was the fulfillment of the hope of Israel, that this Jesus he met on its pages was the Messiah for whom he longed.
After further study in Frankfurt, Germany — where he added German to the Yiddish, Polish, and Russian he already spoke — and after two more years of study at the University of Breslau, Joseph emigrated to the United States in 1854. A year later he was baptized and began to worship with a Baptist congregation. He then continued his studies for a time at the Western Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania before joining the Episcopal Church and transferring to the General Theological Seminary. His planned two years of study in the seminary didn’t materialize. Instead, he volunteered for missionary work in China and, upon his ordination to the diaconate in 1859 he shipped out for Shanghai. Do you begin to see why this story is too strange to be fiction: a Lithuanian Jew studying for the rabbinate, is converted to Christianity by reading a Hebrew New Testament, travels to the United States for further study, becomes an Anglican, and interrupts his study to travel to China for missionary work? You can’t make this stuff up; no one would believe it.
Joseph was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in China, transferred to Peking, and in 1861 began translating the Bible into Chinese. Can you see why he might do that? It was a New Testament in his own language — Hebrew — through which the Spirit worked for his conversion. He started his translation with the Psalms, a good Anglican thing to do, and later translated The Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin.
In 1875, Joseph returned to the States for health reasons. After two years there, Joseph was consecrated as Anglican Bishop of Shanghai (though he had frequently refused consecration) on the condition that the Episcopal House of Bishops would support him in the building of a college in Shanghai. Two years after his return to Shanghai he founded St. John’s College. He served as Bishop of Shanghai for six years until he felt compelled to resign for health reason; he had suffered a stoke in 1881. He returned to the United States with the understanding that, when his health permitted, he would return to China to complete his translation of the Bible.
His health never recovered, but he returned to China regardless in 1895. Now, get this: following his stroke he was almost completely paralyzed and his power of speech was all but gone. Yet, for twenty years — in the States, in China, and in Japan — he continued and completed his work of translating the Old Testament into Mandarin, typing out some two thousand pages with the middle finger of one crippled hand. Not satisfied with this, he also translated the whole Bible into another traditional Chinese dialect, wenli. Four years before his death, Joseph said of these efforts, “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.” This doesn’t make sense to me, unless the Gospel is true.
In 1897 Schereschewsky relocated to Tokyo where he died on 15 October 1906.
I think, just maybe, Anglicanism needs a way to canonize such a man. His life, like the lives of all saints, bears unimpeachable witness to the truth of the Gospel, because there is no other reasonable explanation for his life. Schereschewsky’s life, in many ways, parallels the life of another great saint: Saul of Tarsus. Both were trained rabbis. Both were struck down and changed by the word of God: Paul by the spoken word of Jesus and Joseph by the written word of the New Testament. Both gave themselves unreservedly to a people not their own for the sake of the Gospel. Both suffered physical hardships and both recognized God’s providential care in and through what they suffered. Both served the written word of God: Paul by writing it and Joseph by translating it. If Paul is a saint, then why not Joseph? And, if these men can be, then why not us?
Let us pray.
O God, in your providence you called Joseph Schereschewsky from his home in Eastern Europe to the ministry of this Church, and sent him as a missionary to China, upholding him in his infirmity, that he might translate the Holy Scriptures into languages of that land. Lead us, we pray, to commit our lives and talents to you, in the confidence that when you give your servants any work to do, you also supply the strength to do it; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
(Information taken from Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2000 and from Wikipedia,
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Isaac_Joseph_Schereschewsky, accessed 10 October 2020.)