Sermon at Festival Eucharist on the Octave of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor

17 October 2009 at 11:00 am

The Right Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Richard Chartres, Bishop of London

October 13th 1163, the relics of King Edward the Confessor were deposited in a sumptuous shrine in this Abbey Church. Abbot Laurence was there who had campaigned so successfully to secure the canonisation of the king two years before. His success was to assure the independence of the Abbey from external ecclesiastical control. 

Both, the King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket were present although they had both very recently begun the bitter quarrel which to end in the Archbishop’s martyrdom. Norman bishops were there, summoned probably to advise on the dispute with the Archbishop. Ailred of Rievaulx the great Cistercian demonstrated the patriotic spirituality of his order by preaching the sermon on the text, “The glorious lantern was put on a candlestick in the house of the Lord so that all who come in may see the light and be illuminated by it.”

Edward’s cult had a part to play in the reconciliation of races, Saxon, Danish and Norman and the assertion of the continuity of the new Anglo-French kingdom with its English past. King Edward was a figure from the good old times and indeed in his reign from 1042-1066 the King had given the kingdom an increase of organic unity. Scandinavian settlers had been assimilated and the machinery of local government had been developed. The polity of the realm was mature enough to survive virtually intact the Norman invasion of 1066.

There had been crises. There was for example chaos in 1051 in which the king’s unhappy selection of a new Bishop of London was just one incident. The lot fell on the Abbot of Abingdon, a monk with the unpromising name of Spearhavoc who was also the royal goldsmith. Edward entrusted to him a substantial quantity of gold in order to fashion an “imperial crown”. The appointment was challenged however and Spearhavoc decamped with the portable wealth of the See of London; the gold destined for the imperial crown, and was never heard of again.

Edward was a political saint and every one of the participants in the ceremonies of 1163 had a good reason to be there.

But what of us? You have not come here for gossip from the muniment room but as Pilgrims.

Pilgrims are those who set out leaving day to day reality behind them in order to journey towards some visionary gleam of the heavenly city where some aspect of the eternal realm is revealed. Pilgrims hope to gain there the healing of old hurts, a new orientation towards the light and a fresh energy for the struggles to come.

Pilgrimage involves physical exertion, a displacement, a bending in prayer or even prostration and a prayer which arises from our needs but which if we are wise is not too prescriptive about the answers that will do. There is wisdom in the body as well as in the mind.

There is also a place for stories; for the historical narratives by which the children of Israel steered. In our own day we are tempted to define what it is to be a part of our country by reference to abstract concepts; by synonyms for fairness and tolerance – abstractions which belong to all countries but which do not have the power to evoke one iota of those mysterious energies which transform lives. Transformation comes from relationships with those we admire whether living or departed and participation in their story. We urgently need in our school to equip students with at least the rudiments of the narrative of our country and its place in the wider world.

Shrines are places where we wait upon God glimpsed through his saints with a receptivity enhanced by our removal from the hurley- burley and the habitual responses of every day.

The Westminster village just across the road is understandably pre-occupied with debates about the issues of the day; about political tactics in which is often easier to see the moat in my brother’s garden than the mortgage in my own. It is only too easy to lose the plot.

But here we are recalled to a sense of the importance and the blessings of good government and a political culture capable of surviving crises because of a firm anchorhold on the fundamentals and a profound respect for law. I am speaking of course this year on the day after the opening by our present sovereign of the Supreme Court, our new neighbour.

Cynicism about public life and those who devote themselves to it is a deadly disease which unchecked can create havoc in the realm to the detriment of all. We take too much for granted in this country. Political stability and relative freedom from corruption and respect for laws which apply to most powerful as well as to the least are huge achievements which history suggests can be all too easily undone.
There are very few documents that authentically date from Edward’s own reign but we do have a charter of 1063, precisely a hundred years before the scene which I have described. “I, Edward …appointed king and defender of the English bounds invoke God with unsleeping mind….. Often indeed my mind is troubled by the vicissitudes of the world for lo everywhere there is the threat that law and justice will be overthrown….But it is our duty courageously to oppose the wicked and to take good persons as models…and by judging equitably between the powerful and the humble [ensure] all things which are pleasing to God.”

We are pilgrims to this unclouded vision of the ground note of our life together.    

This is also a shrine to the role played in our national life by the monarchy.

Our Constitution has matured and developed to a point where the politics and partisanship which is proper to those who participate in the business of government has been disentangled from the institution of monarchy, part of whose vocation is to identify, embody and celebrate the values and truths which endure.

There are values and truths which lie beyond politics, and which indeed make fruitful politics possible. These are the truths and values which are essential if our global economy is to become a global civilization.

The scriptures teach us the qualities which are the foundation of any enduring civilization. Our gospel this morning particularly underlines the theme of a commitment to the ideal of service. 

Self sacrificing service is of course very hard to sustain without faith which does not mean a mere assent to ideas about God. Pilgrims should not be trying to elaborate their notions about God but to come simply to reach that place beyond where tourists come with their guidebooks; the place where we may simply kneel in God’s presence. Faith is not the opposite of doubt rather it is the opposite of the risk averse life; it is a life committed to living oriented to the best and the highest.
The lack of public clarity about what is truly admirable creates a vacuum in which the cult of celebrity flourishes. The American historian Daniel Boorstin defined a celebrity as “a person merely well known for their well known-ness.”

There is a preoccupation with image and makeovers at the expense of character formed by steady commitment to principle and the common good. If such obvious truths are not articulated they will become invisible.

Monarchy has come to be one of the ways in which we as a country do articulate these truths and make them visible without vulgarity and hype.

This vocation is a great burden for anyone to bear and this is a place where we also come to pray regularly for those who carry that burden. Lord remember David: all the hardships he endured.

God our redeemer who inspired Edward, may we be fired by your Spirit to proclaim the gospel in our daily living and never to rest content until your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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