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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon on the Feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor

13 October 2009 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Seven hundred and forty years ago today, the remains of St Edward, King and Confessor, were moved into a new shrine behind the high altar of this Abbey Church which had been built in his honour by his devoted successor King Henry III. A hundred and six years earlier, in 1163 and in the church he himself had built, the newly canonised saint’s relics had been moved from a grave in front of the high altar to a new more glorious shrine. The universal Church celebrates St Edward the Confessor not on the day of his death, 5th January, his heavenly birthday, as with most saints, but on the day of the removal, the translation, of his remains, his relics. So the universal Church in commemorating St Edward the Confessor focuses its attention on this holy place. The relics of St Edward, though they were removed and hidden in 1540 when the monastery here at Westminster was dissolved by King Henry VIII, were restored to their rightful place in 1556 under Queen Mary I, and remain there to this day. This is the one of the most remarkable survivals of a medieval saint’s tomb in the United Kingdom.

This emphasis on the relics of the saint, his earthly body, his mortal remains, may strike some hearers oddly. Surely, the point of the celebration of St Edward the Confessor today, you might think, as with any other saint, should be to draw inspiration from his life and works and from his presence in heaven, so that we might be encouraged to live a more holy and godly life. There must be some justice here and the inspiration offered us by many of the saints is precisely in their holiness of life, their particular godly response to the problems and opportunities they faced. On the other hand we know little for certain of the earthly life of St Edward, little of his character, except, and this above all, that he re-founded the monastery here with a magnificent Norman building, of which little remains. His relics though remain.

In Liverpool, the great Anglican Cathedral and the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral are linked by a road called Hope Street. A new university in that city, founded jointly by the two churches, is called Liverpool Hope University. Here in Westminster too a road joins two great church buildings, Anglican and Roman Catholic, Victoria Street joining Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, though it has to be admitted that, great Sovereign that she was, Victoria does not immediately strike the universal chord of one of the three theological virtues. In Westminster Cathedral tonight, at the other end of Victoria Street, the Archbishop and his fellow priests and parishioners are like us celebrating the feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor. But also today in Westminster Cathedral is a display of the relics of a late 19th century French Carmelite nun, Therese of Lisieux. These relics are near the end of a month’s travel from place to place in England and will soon return to their normal home in the basilica in Lisieux in Normandy built to honour the young woman known as the Little Flower of Jesus, who died aged 24 in 1897. The relics of St Therese have attracted an extraordinarily high level of attention in this country. Crowds of people, in their many thousands, have turned out to visit the churches where the reliquary has rested. Sceptical commentators have poured cold water and then expressed alarm at the resurgence of a piety they had hoped to be long dead in what they choose to call the secular British culture.

We too may wonder at this extraordinary phenomenon. The relics of saints are not a normal part of Anglican devotion. Since the Second Vatican Council many Roman Catholic churches too have quietly hidden away, or sent away, or even thrown away great quantities of little bones in their elaborate gilt and crystal showcases, despite their having been authenticated by the Holy See as the venerable relics of various saints. We might also think that the veneration of relics attaches too much importance to the physical body, that what really matters is the continuing life of the soul with God. Many of us have had the experience of gazing on the dead body of someone we love, either at the moment of their death or soon afterwards, or when visiting the funeral directors before a funeral. For me, the overwhelming sense on such occasions has been that what I see is the empty shell of the person I love, that the true person has gone. I have found such an experience strangely helpful in the process of grieving and coming to terms with the reality of their death.

And yet, there is another point of view. We instinctively and properly treat the bodies of those we love with respect. We generally want to be assured that mortuary attendants and coroners and undertakers share our sense of reverence, just as the nurses and doctors have done. None of this denies our belief that the soul of the dead person is in the hand of God, that their life beyond death is ‘hidden with Christ in God’, but it is a perfectly understandable human reaction. Moreover we keep mementoes of the ones we love. In the Abbot’s Pew, part of the Deanery where my predecessors and I as Deans have lived over the centuries, there is a picture frame with a lock of hair belonging to the 18th century actor David Garrick, who is buried in Poets Corner. There also is the crucifix of another celebrated actor, who died in 1905, Sir Henry Irving, whose ashes are buried in Poets Corner. On the wall of my study in the Deanery is a framed New Year greeting card sent by Queen Victoria to the Dean’s wife, Lady Augusta Stanley, on her deathbed. With it is a note from Dean Stanley asking that “this Tablet should always remain here as a memorial of the affection of a Gracious Sovereign, and of the devotion of a good and faithful servant even unto death.” It remains in her bedroom, now the Dean’s study, where Queen Victoria twice visited her and where eventually Lady Augusta died. She too is buried in the Abbey. These are only immediate examples of the personal stories we could all tell of mementoes preserved of those we love. It is a natural, human reaction. They make connections for us both to the time in which the one they commemorate lived and also to the state in which they are now.

Moreover there is a certain attractive power about the shrine of St Edward the Confessor. First, several of his medieval successors chose themselves to be buried as close to him as possible. Second, great crowds of people have been and are drawn to his shrine. Pilgrimage to the Abbey, to the shrine, is a 21st century phenomenon, not something lost with the Middle Ages; even the tourism that brings over a million people a year to the Abbey has an element of modern pilgrimage. Third, the shrine is a powerful place of prayer and reconciliation, drawing divided people together. On Friday this week, at Evensong, the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, will, like his two immediate predecessors, Cardinal Basil Hume and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, come to pray at the shrine, this time with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Almost three years ago, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the leader of the Orthodox Churches, visited the Archbishop of Canterbury and prayed with him at the shrine. More recently the Abbots of the Roman Catholic English Benedictine Congregation came to pray in the shrine on what was for them a significant anniversary.

The saint draws us tonight. He is a sign of the kingdom, a sign of reconciliation. He draws us to prayer and he draws us to God.

Holy Edward, pray for us, pray for our Church and for our State, both of which you once served, pray that we and our separated brothers and sisters may be united in devotion to our living Lord. Holy Edward, point us to heaven, and help bring heaven to earth.

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