Sermon given at Evensong on the 850th anniversary of the Canonisation of St Edward the Confessor
7 February 2011 at 17:00 pm
The Reverend Canon Michael Brockie, Provost of the Chapter of Westminster Cathedral
Readings: Psalms 99 and 100. ISam 16:1-13a; 1Cor 1: 18 -
As well as having the honour to represent Archbishop Vincent Nichols here this evening and to bring his fraternal good wishes to all here present, I also bring greetings from the Chapter of Westminster Cathedral, to the Dean and Members of the Collegiate Body of Westminster Abbey as we gather to commemorate the 850th anniversary of the canonisation of Edward, King of England, saint and confessor.
The seal of the Chapter of Westminser Cathedral has engraved upon it three canons' stalls. The centre one is occupied by Our Blessed Lady. On her right sits St Peter, and on her left St Edward. After a prayer to the Holy Spirit at the commencement of our chapter meetings we invoke our three 'honorary canons', as it were, and so we share with you, if I may put it this way, both St Peter under whose patronage this Abbey church was dedicated, and St Edward whose earthly remains are enshrined here and whose virtues we re-call once more with thanksgiving.
During this service of evensong the liturgy gives us for reflection the First Book of Samuel which records the history of Israel in the land of Canaan as they move from the rule of judges to be a unified nation under kings. Samuel emerges as the last judge and he anoints the first two kings, Saul and David. We may perhaps be permitted to look beyond these events to the time of Jesus and to his mystical anointing as true King, proclaiming the coming of his own kingdom of justice, love and peace. We may perhaps reflect too, on the kingly role of all the baptised as we play our part in the building up of that kingdom.
Kingships of another kind flourished in lands that had come to accept the Gospel. There were worthy and unworthy holders of this office, but the king we remember this evening was known and revered for possessing endearing qualities of his own. When the pilgrim Pope Benedict XVI spoke here at Westminster last September, at the gracious invitation of the Dean, he described Edward as 'a model of Christian witness, of fidelity, of humility and obedience, grounded in the example of our Saviour'.
Before Edward came to be canonised in 1161 in a formal process not unlike that followed today, it had been the practice of the Popes to recognise the devotion or cult that sprang up amongst the people after the death of one who was considered 'holy', and to give formal approval (or otherwise) to its continuance and deeming his or her life worthy of praise and emulation, and by so doing, giving praise to Almighty God. The saints were revered because it was thought their lives had been touched by God and they were held to be 'holy' . We know, of course, that holiness is properly a unique quality of God. As we say in the Roman liturgy: "...Tu solus es sanctus". "You alone are holy". Or, as the psalms sung this evening put it: "Exalt the Lord your God, and worship at his holy hill; for the Lord our God is holy". (Ps.99: Vs 5). Nevertheless, someone who truly follows the Lord, sometimes to a heroic degree, is regarded by many as reflecting in his or her life something of the holiness of God and down the ages people have felt compelled to be close to such people or even to their relics. But their holiness comes about, by God's grace. It is his pure gift.
It was something in the life of Edward the King that was regarded as out of the ordinary. Here was a man who exercised gentleness and prudence in high office, whose reign between 1042 and 1066 was one of almost unbroken peace. He had a great devotion to the Church which was specifically mentioned in the decree of Pope Alexander. He was humble, and opted for a certain simplicity of life, manifested by his manner of dress we're told, and who was generous, having a special love and care for the poor and afflicted. Miracles are said to have taken place through his intercession. All this we know from the petitions or 'postulations' as they were called, that went to Pope Alexander III from the Abbot and monks of Westminster amongst many others. St Aelred of Rievaux, who preached here on the day of the translation of St Edward's relics, was convinced that he walked in God's grace.
We live at a time when religious convictions are not always understood or appreciated. The quest for the sacred and the search for something to satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts was surely at work in those who lived in St Edward's day as much as our own. Such expressions were not always shared by all and sceptics abounded then as now. This is true not only about the lives of the saints but even about the mystery of God and the life, death and resurrection of Our Saviour. St Paul in his Letter to the Corinthians might help us here. We have just heard it. "For the preaching of the Cross is to them that perish, foolishness; but unto us which are saved, it is the power of God. For it is written I will destroy the wisdom of the wise ......For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God; it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe".
What all who love the Abbey and all the worship that takes place within it might agree about is that this is perhaps the great and lasting achievement of our saint. That he had a love of God and of his people is not in doubt. That love was such that he built a church here that would be at the heart and centre of the life of a monastic community whose members would sanctify the hours of the day by their singing of the Divine Offices, and who would pray for the king, and for his people. The monks are now no longer here, but they came to be succeeded in time by a collegiate chapter which still maintains the canticle of praise, which, to use the opening words of the apostolic constitution promulgating the revised Roman liturgy of the Hours says: "....unceasingly hymned in heaven and brought into this world of ours by our High Priest Jesus Christ, has been faithfully continued by his Church throughout the ages, though in a variety of forms....". Here the bells still ring, the people are summoned to the worship of Almighty God, prayers are offered, the Word of God is proclaimed and sacraments and acts of grace celebrated, people stop and pause awhile and are consoled. And hereabouts we find a busy world, the angry come to make their protests, the great and good make their laws for good or ill. When they have said their piece, and done their work, and gone their way, the worship of this place continues the sanctification of all those who come here, a holiness brought about by our prayer and public celebration together, to quote words of Archbishop Rowan in an address during the Papal visit.
On this day 850 years ago, Pope Alexander III acceded to the request of the monks of this place, and of many others, ascribing the name of Edward in the catalogue of saints, recognising his illustrious merits and virtues. Our faith tells us that Edward is with God. We hope and pray that we will, in our turn come to the peace of our eternal home. Amen.