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Every Tribe: Stories of diverse saints serving a diverse world, edited by Sharon Prentis

07 June 2019

Vasantha Gnanadoss on taking issue with a cultural and visual bias

THIS book consists of 12 mini-biographies of Christian saints, 11 from outside Europe, plus a gypsy from Spain, each written by one of nine writers whose heritages are also outside Europe.

The biographical information is supplemented in various ways by the writers’ personal reflections, and by meditations, prayers, and liturgy. The purpose is to help redress the continuing imbalance in the depiction and envisioning of holy people which misleadingly implies that the ethnicity of Christian history is predominantly white.

Sharon Prentis and her contributors are to be congratulated on a book with a clear purpose which it serves in an accessible and engaging way. Earlier initiatives have addressed the same end: Ivor Smith-Cameron persuaded the Liturgical Commission to add three Indian holy people to the Church of England’s calendar; Rosemarie Mallett led work on a supplementary calendar for Southwark diocese of “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Saints, Martyrs and Heroes of the Faith”. It is good to see another step taken with the publication of this book.

The 12 saints chosen for the present volume span a period from the late third century to the late 20th century. Four — including St George — lived before 800 in the Mediterranean world of Palestine and North Africa. It would have been helpful to have examples from the ancient Churches of India and Ethiopia to challenge the widespread ignorance of the presence of Christianity in those lands from the very earliest days.

Moving on in time, the book includes examples from Mexico and Peru and then, after 1800, from Kerala (twice), Spain, the Solomon Islands, the United States, and Congo. The coverage is certainly diverse. Those of us with affinities to other parts of the world might regret the omissions, but will understand the constraints of such a book and enjoy the choices that have been made.

The Bishop of Chelmsford in his introduction wants to know why all the saints in our stained-glass windows are white. He will be grateful, no doubt, that USPG commissioned windows showing V. S. Azariah and Samuel Crowther for its 250th anniversary in 1951. And there are other images, such as the Stations of the Cross by the Benedictine Sisters of Turvey Abbey, on display at St Edward’s, New Addington, for example, which are powerful in correcting our visualisations of Christ and his disciples.

But Bishop Cottrell’s question does highlight the uphill task faced by a book of this kind. It is very hard for truthful words, however well crafted, to undo the damage done by relentlessly misleading pictures. Might we hope for a second edition with illustrations?

Vasantha Gnanadoss was a member of the General Synod from 1990 to 2015, and is now a member of the Southwark Diocesan Council of Trustees.

Every Tribe: Stories of diverse saints serving a diverse world
Sharon Prentis, editor
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

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