What are we going to do with St Stephen this year?

Originally published by the Rev Gareth Saunders

on his blog “View from the Potting Shed“. Shared with permission.

Scottish Episcopal Church Calendar and Lectionary

Each year I prepare a digital copy of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s calendar and lectionary which I then import into my Google Calendar. It allows me to easily see where we are in the church year, plus bible readings and this year for the first time the collect (prayer) of the day.

This year there has been a bit of a controversy about what we do about the feast of St Stephen (26 December).

Digital calendar

For those who’ve not seen my digital calendar resource, you can find it at www.seccalendar.org.uk.

I offer the calendar in both iCalendar (iCal) and Comma Separated Values (CSV) formats for either subscribing to (and if I update it you automatically receive the updates) or importing into your calendar as a standalone resource with no automatic updates.

This is what today’s entry looks like in my Google Calendar:

I have been doing this now for the last 17 years, since 2004. While I create it primarily for personal use, when I told other clergy and church folks about it they asked if they could get a copy too, so quickly I created a website and made it available for general use.

This has never been an official church publication, although it is based on the calendar and lectionary guide that gets published annually by the General Synod Office. I largely follow the rules that I was taught about the lectionary while I was serving my curacy.

For example, there are a number of feasts that while the rules say should be celebrated by all churches, I know are not. So, on those days I always try to also offer the standard readings and prayers for the day.

I also always try to translate (move to another date) the lesser feasts to the nearest available date.

Ah, lesser feasts, let me explain.

Categories

In our church calendar all feasts (the name we give to special days in the church calendar are given a category (from 1 to 6) depending on how important they are.

Category 1 feasts are the most important. These are the big events in the church calendar, which includes obvious days like Christmas (25 December) and Easter, but also all the Sundays in Advent, Lent and the season of Easter, the Epiphany (6 January), Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Holy Week.

Category 2 feasts include all the Feasts of the Lord (Naming, Presentation, Annunciation and Transfiguration), Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ Day (1 November), Christmas Eve (24 December), and the first Sundays after Christmas and Epiphany.

Category 3 feasts are mostly your standard Sundays, plus the weekdays in Lent.

Category 4 brings us to saints’ days. This is the big guns in terms of the communion of saints: St Mary, St Joseph, Mary Magdalene, the Apostles and Evangelists, St Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and five of the most famous Scottish saints: St Columba, St Kentigern (also called St Mungo), St Margaret of Scotland, St Ninian and St Patrick. We will return to this category shortly.

Category 5 has around five days in the calendar: All Souls’ Day (2 November), the birth of St Mary, Corpus Christi (which gives thanks for the institution of holy communion) and thanksgiving for the harvest.

Category 6 has the most number of feasts. These are commemorations of key figures in the life of both the Scottish Episcopal Church and the wider Christian church, particularly the early church.

The rules

Of course, working with calendars, feast days move each year. An obvious example is that last year Christmas day (which has a fixed date of 25 December) fell on a Friday, while this year it’s a Saturday. Things get even more complicated when you consider moveable feasts, like Easter, which is calculated as the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, which is the first full moon on or after 21 March—the Spring equinox, more or less.

So, we need some rules to decide what to do when these fixed-date and relative-date feasts clash. The church Calendar offers eight such rules:

  1. Epiphany may be kept on the Sunday following 1 January, and the Ascension on the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
  2. Feasts in Category 2, falling on a weekday, may be kept on the nearest Sunday, except Sundays in Categories 1 and 2.
  3. Feasts in Category 4, falling on a day of higher category (other than a weekday in Lent), should be transferred (in chronological order) to the next available weekday.
  4. Where feasts in Category 4 fall on a Sunday (other than a Sunday in Categories 1 and 2), they may, if local circumstances require, be kept on that day.
  5. The weekdays of Advent and Easter may be given special weighting.
  6. When days in Category 6 coincide with a day of higher category, they should be omitted that year.
  7. Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion is particularly associated with the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.
  8. Thanksgiving for the Harvest may take place on any appropriate Sunday.

St Stephen

Which brings me neatly to a question that a number of Episcopalians have been debating on Facebook this year about the Comites Christi—the three feasts that immediately follow Christmas Day—and in particular what we do with the feast of St Stephen. The three feasts are:

  • 26 December—St Stephen, Deacon and Martyr (category 4)
  • 27 December—St John, Apostle and Evangelist (category 4)
  • 28 December—The Holy Innocents (category 4)

This year, Christmas falls on a Saturday, which means that the following day is both the First Sunday after Christmas and the feast of St Stephen.

Let’s visualise that:

Day Date Feast Category
Saturday 25 December Christmas Day 1
Sunday 26 December Christmas 1
St Stephen
2
4
Monday 27 December St John 4
Tuesday 28 December The Holy Innocents 4
Wednesday 29 December Thomas of Canterbury 6
Table A

We have a clash on Sunday 26 December. Simply looking at the categories of each, common sense would suggest that St Stephen needs to move. But to where? And this is where the debate currently lies.

Calendar and Lectionary guide 2021–2022

The Calendar and Lectionary guide 2021–2022, the official publication of the General Synod Office of the Scottish Episcopal Church, moves St Stephen from Sunday 26 December to Monday 27 December, then moves St John from Monday 27 December to Tuesday 28 December, and The Holy Innocents from Tuesday 28 December to Wednesday 29 December.

That looks like this:

Day Date Feast Category
Saturday 25 December Christmas Day 1
Sunday 26 December Christmas 1 2
Monday 27 December St Stephen 4
Tuesday 28 December St John 4
Wednesday 29 December The Holy Innocents 4
Table B

But I think that’s wrong, and this is why…

Reviewing the rules

Let’s see what the rules tell us to do about this. A quick look over the rules show us that rules 2, 3 and 4 all mention feasts in categories 2 and 4.

The first question I have is: is it permissible for St Stephen to still be celebrated on 26 December. Rule 4 mentions category 4 feasts that fall on a Sunday:

“Where feasts in Category 4 fall on a Sunday (other than a Sunday in Categories 1 and 2), they may, if local circumstances require, be kept on that day.”

The answer is therefore no. The First Sunday after Christmas is category 2, so that doesn’t help us here.

Rule 2 talks about feasts in category 2 falling on a weekday. That doesn’t help us either as this is a Sunday. But before we skip over this rule completely, it states that “Feasts in category 2 may be kept on the nearest Sunday, except Sundays in categories 1 and 2.” This seems to set a precedence that a feast of one category cannot overrule another feast of the same category. That might be useful here.

That leaves us with rule 3, which looks promising. I’ll score out the part that doesn’t apply:

“Feasts in Category 4, falling on a day of higher category (other than a weekday in Lent), should be transferred (in chronological order) to the next available weekday.”

St Stephen is a category 4 feast falling on a day of higher category (the First Sunday of Christmas, category 2). So, here is the confirmation that St Stephen’s day needs to move.

It also suggests to me that this is the only feast that needs to move as neither of the other two clash with a day of higher category. And as we’ve seen from rule 2, feasts with the same category don’t bump each other, either.

So, the feast of St Stephen alone needs to move. But to where?

There are two instructions about the transfer:

  1. in chronological order
  2. to the next available weekday

Let me address these in reverse order.

The next available weekday

The official guide moves the feast of St Stephen to the following day, Monday 27 December. But for me and a number of other clergy this feels wrong.

Rule 3 states that the transferred feast should be moved to the next available weekday. Well, 27 December isn’t available. There is already a category 4 feast on that day, St John the Evangelist. And if we take the implication in rule 2 into account that one feast of the same category cannot overrule another feast of the same category, then it needs to skip over the 27th and look for the next available weekday. Which again isn’t the 28th, because there is also another category 4 feast on that day, the Holy Innocents. So, it hops over the 28th to the 29th. There’s a category 6 feast here, Thomas of Canterbury.

Rule 6 covers this case:

“When days in Category 6 coincide with a day of higher category, they should be omitted that year.”

Or looking at it from another direction, if a category 4 feast needs to be translated (transferred) to another day and that day happens to have a category 6 feast on it, the higher category feast takes precedence.

Which looks like this:

Day Date Feast Category
Saturday 25 December Christmas Day 1
Sunday 26 December Christmas 1 2
Monday 27 December St John 4
Tuesday 28 December The Holy Innocents 4
Wednesday 29 December St Stephen (translated from 26 Dec) 4
Table C

And this is the order that I prefer. But what about the “in chronological order” clause?

In chronological order

Let’s remind ourselves of rule 3 again:

“Feasts in Category 4, falling on a day of higher category (other than a weekday in Lent), should be transferred (in chronological order) to the next available weekday.”

In this context my reading of “in chronological order” means that when we do need to move more than one feast because they clash with higher category feasts then we need to move them in the order that they would originally fall.

So, for example,

Feast X [1] clashes with Saint A [4] Sunday Y [3] clashes with Saint B [4]

Day Feast Category
Saturday Feast X
Saint A
1
4
Sunday Sunday Y
Saint B
3
4
Table D

this would mean that we take the clashing category 4 feasts in chronological order (A then B) and move then beyond Feast X [1] and Sunday [3], thus:

Day Feast Category
Saturday Feast X 1
Sunday Sunday Y 2
Monday Saint A 4
Tuesday Saint B 4
Table E

This “in chronological order” rule means that they must be moved in such a way that they retain the order A and B because they both clash with higher category feasts.

You couldn’t, for example, just bump Saint B from the Sunday to Monday and then move Saint A to the Tuesday because, if they both satisfy the condition (Feasts in Category 4, falling on a day of higher category) then they must both be moved in chronological order.

Not liturgical order

This absolutely does not mean that all feasts must retain their liturgical order. In other words, they do not need to keep their positions relative to one another. That is the whole point of translating feasts—if they clash with something higher, they move to the next available day.

There is nothing in the rules that states that feasts need to keep their original order. We manage this combination of fixed-dates and relative-dates by the use of category precedence.

And with all of that taken into account, we end up with the order outline in table C, above, which I will duplicate here:

Day Date Feast Category
Saturday 25 December Christmas Day 1
Sunday 26 December Christmas 1 2
Monday 27 December St John 4
Tuesday 28 December The Holy Innocents 4
Wednesday 29 December St Stephen (translated from 26 Dec) 4
Table C (again)

Digital calendar

And this is the order that I have decided to include in this year’s SEC digital calendar and lectionary 2021–2022

For these three feasts of the Comites Christi, I have included a caveat, similar to the following (which is for St Stephen):

“NOTE: The Calendar and Lectionary Guide 2021–2022 translates this feast to Monday 27 December. If you wish to follow that guidance, simply move this entry in your calendar and update the details. I create this resource annually for my personal use, and share it with the wider church; this is not an official resource.

However, the reason for the order that you find here is as follows: in the SEC Calendar and Lectionary, p.10, note (iii) it says, “Feasts in Category 4, falling on a day of higher category (other than a weekday in Lent), should be transferred (in chronological order) to the next available weekday.” This year, the feast of St Stephen [4] clashes with the First Sunday of Christmas [2], so it must move to “the next available weekday” which is Wednesday 29 December, as Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 are not available, each having their own category 4 feast.”

What do other churches do?

Understanding that each church denomination and branch of the Anglican communion has their own rules, I thought it would be interesting to see what other churches were doing this year, by comparison.

The Church of England

The Church of England appears to offer a choice on Sunday 26 December: St Stephen or the First Sunday after Christmas:

Day Date Feast
Saturday 25 December Christmas Day
Sunday 26 December St Stephen
First Sunday after Christmas
Monday 27 December St John
Tuesday 28 December The Holy Innocents
Wednesday 29 December The Fifth Day of Christmas
The Church of England calendar 2021
Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic calendar this year drops St Stephen completely. They celebrate the Holy Family on the first Sunday after Christmas as usual, then retain the usual order.

Day Date Feast
Saturday 25 December Christmas Day
Sunday 26 December Holy Family
Monday 27 December St John
Tuesday 28 December The Holy Innocents
Wednesday 29 December Thomas Becket
Roman Catholic calendar 2021
Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia / Te Hahi Mihinare ki Aotearoa ki Niu Tireni, ki Nga Moutere o Te Moana Nui a Kiwa

Like the Church of England, the Anglican church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia offers St Stephen as an option for 26 December:

Day Date Feast
Saturday 25 December Christmas Day
Sunday 26 December St Stephen or
First Sunday of Christmas
Monday 27 December St John
Tuesday 28 December The Holy Innocents
Wednesday 29 December Thomas of Canterbury
NZ calendar 2021
The Episcopal Church, USA

TEC follows the same order as the official SEC guide, moving all three Comites Christi as a block:

Day Date Feast
Saturday 25 December Christmas Day
Sunday 26 December First Sunday of Christmas
Monday 27 December St Stephen
Tuesday 28 December St John
Wednesday 29 December The Holy Innocents
TEC, USA calendar 2021

Conclusion

So, how do you read the rules here? Which feast(s) would you move and to where?

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