Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Eve of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor 2012

12 October 2012 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Earlier this year, on 20th April, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, visited Greenwich not for a preview of one of the Olympic sites but to commemorate something that had happened 1000 years ago in that very place. The ceremony recalled the 29th Archbishop of Canterbury St Alfege. In 984 during the reign of King Edgar, Alfege had been appointed Bishop of Winchester, as a result of a vision sent to St Dunstan, who had incidentally founded Westminster Abbey in 960. In 1006 he became the Archbishop of Canterbury, by which time he was known and loved for his gentleness, his knowledge of the scriptures and his courage in going among Norsemen to convert them.

At this time, the Kent coast was subject to raids from Danish pirates, and in 1011 they laid siege to the City of Canterbury. Alfege, betrayed by one of his own monks, was captured and taken by ship round the Kent coast and up the River Thames to Greenwich. There he was held for six months and a ransom of £3,000 was demanded. Knowing that his people would be unable to afford this huge sum, Alfege refused to let them pay, and the captors carried out their threat to kill him. At a feast on Easter Day they bludgeoned him with ox bones and the hafts of their axes until one of the Danes, out of compassion, killed him by a single blow to the head with his axe. Archbishop Rowan earlier this year might well have reflected that although he has often been attacked by fellow Christians and pilloried by the press, he has escaped physical assault. So far. Thank God.

Alfege was not the last archbishop of Canterbury to suffer such a fate. Thomas Becket was murdered in his cathedral in 1170, Thomas Cranmer burnt at the stake in 1556 and William Laud beheaded in 1645.

But Alfege’s martyrdom reminds us today of the lawlessness and violence of these lands in the early eleventh century. In 1015 a member of the Danish royal family, Cnut, invaded England and he and his family were to dominate these lands for almost forty years. He was to be not only king of England but also of Denmark and Norway. The family of the Anglo-Saxon king, the son of King Edgar, Aethelred known as the Unready, who himself died in 1016, went into exile. One of his many children, his son Edward, later to be known as St Edward the Confessor, spent years in exile with his mother’s family in Normandy.

In the meantime, these lands were ruled by a people with tremendous territorial ambitions, bent on conquest, so that they could live high on the hog at others’ expense. The twelfth-century monk St Aelred of Rievaulx, who preached here on this day in 1163, described it like this.

The tempest raged on, its violence unabated; civil strife piled on external threats till no one knew whom to trust, to whom to confide his secret thoughts. The island was crawling with spies, no one’s loyalty beyond doubt, and no one’s words unguarded.

Though the pagan gods of the Norsemen retain an influence on our language through the days of our week, and no doubt in many other ways, Cnut himself became a Christian and the famous story of him commanding the sea to turn back speaks surely more of his wish to demonstrate to his followers the limits of his own power than of a genuine belief that he could turn the tide. But those years of turmoil, conflict and deprivation were truly terrible for the people of this land.

St Aelred describes the moment in 1042 when everything changed.

Cnut was taken beyond human cares; his sons carried off by early deaths, the English liberated from the heel of the Danes like Israel from Egypt, and blessed Edward was chosen as king. The whole island welcomed him to England with the greatest honours and universal rejoicing.

We know little of the details of Edward the Confessor’s reign from 1042 to the first days of 1066. His subjects had seen the effects of the blind and destructive search for self-fulfilment, of the abandonment of constraint and decency. Now a different spirit must reign with a fresh focus: re-building virtues and values, recovering true purpose and character. It seems clear that this new spirit of discipline, of duty, of constraint, of decent austerity, was focused and symbolised by the building at the heart of national life of a new great church here on this site, the great monastic church dedicated to St Peter, beside the king’s new palace here in Westminster. Edward’s rule, his state, was to be linked inextricably to the Christian faith, to the life of the Church, to worship that placed God’s will and God’s way above our own greedy will, our own selfish way.

Edward’s canonisation in 1161 above all recognised the holy example he had set as leader of our national life, of focus on God’s will and God’s way. He was not the ideal king the hagiographers later made out but nor was he a bloodless milksop. He was a good king in difficult times, who exercised real authority in the only way possible at the time and who set an example of an active life powerfully influenced by the search for virtue and true godliness. For St Edward the Confessor the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel reading today were not simply familiar parts of his intellectual landscape – they were surely that – but words to live by.

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

There are no easy or direct parallels to draw with our own age but this story of Viking rule and of St Edward might give us cause for reflection. There is much talk today of a new age of austerity. Clearly by comparison with excess, with wild licence, with living high on the hog – you might say with mortgaging our children’s future – austerity is tough and demands sacrifice. If there is to be austerity it needs to be fairly shared and the weakest need a shield. But we can and must surely say that austerity is not by any means all bad – is indeed a good, linked with a sense of duty and personal discipline.

We have had before us this year powerful examples of the virtues of hard work and application, of discipline and duty, of personal commitment and purposeful austerity. To many of us these virtues seem personified in the life and faithful service of the successor in our own day of St Edward the Confessor, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, whose diamond jubilee on the throne of this land has been such an occasion of celebration this year. But the Olympic and Paralympic Games have driven home the message in powerful and unforgettable style. None of the extraordinary achievement of those athletes would have been possible without determined and demanding hard work and application, discipline and duty, personal commitment and purposeful austerity.

I am reminded of the words of St Paul,

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 3: 13f]

I pray on this great feast of St Edward the Confessor that our lives and the life of our nation and Commonwealth, indeed the life of our world, might be inspired by the Saint’s example, who rebuilt the Church as his centre and foundation and was able to ‘press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’

May his example and prayers be a rich blessing to us all today.