Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 26th February 2012
26 February 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
‘Why are we here?’
It’s the sort of question to which many replies are possible and it all depends on who’s asking.
If it were my colleague, Professor Vernon White, who is the Canon Theologian, you might expect a learned ontological treatise – on the nature of ‘being’. ‘Why am I here?’ Some apposite quotes from Sartre, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard would do us nicely.
If, however, my colleague Canon Jane Hedges asked this question, you would get a different slant altogether. As Canon Steward she is responsible for Pilgrims and Visitors, and she might be interested in the spiritual longing behind your being here.
And, of course, if you have emerged slightly bleary-eyed from an enjoyable night out in London last night, then ‘Why am I here?’ may well be a question you’re asking yourself!
‘Why are we here?’
During the month of February, I have been preaching about ‘Saints and their Churches’. I have spoken about St Clement of Rome, St Macarius in the Egyptian Desert and St Thomas a Becket of Canterbury – each one of whom was not just significant in their own right, but were particularly associated with a physical location or building. These addresses are available on the Abbey website.
What I am trying to draw out is not simply what each of these saints meant in their lifetime or even how they came to be viewed by later Christian tradition, but to reflect on what their significance might be today.
For Clement, I asked questions about continuity in the European Christian tradition; for Macarius it whether his witness in the desert was a challenge or an escape. Last week the ‘troublesome priest’ and Archbishop of Canterbury set a trend for political confrontation which lasts to this day.
But today I want to take you no further than this very Abbey church where you are worshipping. What you see around you is part of the ‘new’ Abbey, the creation of Henry III in 1268, but in reality this is the successor, spiritually and architecturally, to an earlier Romanesque church completed in 1065, and indeed to an even more ancient monastery founded in 960.
The version of the Abbey I am interested in today is that Romanesque or Norman version, built under Edward the Confessor, King of England from 1042 – 1066.When you leave this service by the South Aisle, you’ll see part of his church still standing as you walk through the Cloister. As you go through the door over there, ignore – if you will – the thirteenth-century vaulted cloister, and look directly ahead. At the end of this eastern side, you’ll see what looks like a tunnel, much darker, and rounded with almost no ornamentation or decoration. This is Edward’s 1065 church. If you’re able to visit in the week and go into the Pyx Chapel or the Museum, you’ll see ever more.
Re-telling the life of Edward lies beyond the scope of a short address: suffice it to say that Edward, as the son of Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, was brought up in the maelstrom that saw the waning of Anglo-Saxon England, numerous Viking incursions and the growth of the political and military influence of Normandy.
For much of his life, Edward was an exile in Normandy and when he did eventually return as a bulwark against further Danish rule, he lived with political uncertainty, not knowing whom he could trust.
So ‘Why are we here?’
At a fundamental level, whether you realise it or not, Edward is possibly the main reason that we find ourselves worshipping Jesus Christ on this spot nearly 950 years after he built his church. Arriving back in England in 1041, his own brother murdered by a political rival, Edward was caught between his obligation as a Christian to go on pilgrimage and his desire to see stability established in his kingdom. Put simply: if he left the country to do his spiritual duty, he risked letting the land slip back into anarchy. The solution was given by the Pope: build a church, a magnificent Abbey, and Edward would be released from his obligation to go on pilgrimage.
It was Edward’s commitment to creating an amazing architectural wonder – remember the first Romanesque or Norman building in England, perhaps modelled on the Jumièges Abbey he had known some well from his days in Normandy – that cemented the link between the Abbey and the kings & queens of England. Within a year of his death, the succession was definitively established by the coronation of William the Conqueror right here on Christmas Day 1066. To this day, every monarch has been crowned or re-crowned in his Abbey or the one we see today, right up to Elizabeth II in 1953.
Not only is this an astonishing line of continuity unparalleled in Europe, but such was the veneration for Edward that within a hundred years of his death he was canonised as St Edward the Confessor and in 1269 his body ‘translated’ or transferred into the Shrine which now stands behind the screen behind the high altar. It is the only English Saint’s shrine still extant in our land, where others – Becket, Chad, Cuthbert – all fell to the predations of the Reformation.
And to put this in perspective: more time has elapsed from Edward’s birth at the turn of the First Millennium to the present day, than existed between the birth of Christ himself and that of Edward.
This is a rootedness, a sense of direct connection, which is physically evident in the building, spiritually present in the life of the saint and culturally persistent in the English tradition of monarchy. It perhaps won’t surprise you to know that until St George, a familiar figure to the Crusaders, was championed as the Patron Saint of England by Edward III in the 1340’s, Edward held that place for many.
And here’s an interesting reflection in a world of change. If Saint George has been long associated with a pioneering, if not aggressive spirit (whether in Crusade or Empire), it is the voice of Edward which now may be heard.
A modern echo of this ‘kingdom first’ approach can be heard in our national reticence about seeing ourselves as part of a wider European endeavour. By temperament, this ‘kingdom first’ attitude runs the risk of reinforcing an insularity bequeathed to us in Nature by our island borders, and was perhaps part of the reason why Edward was superseded as Patron Saint by the colourful St George.
So I end this series on ‘Saints and their Churches’ by commending to you the practice of seeking them out, whichever part of the world you come from. Allow them to speak to you not merely of history and tradition, but also of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in our own day.