Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor 2014
13 October 2014 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
We have something of a problem over suffering. In fact there are two problems over suffering. Probably many more—but two is enough for now. One is a problem for the Church and the other a problem for Society.
Put succinctly, the problem for the Church is how we can reconcile the fact of suffering with the idea of a creative God who is both almighty and good. If God is good and therefore wants the best for everyone and is also almighty and therefore has the power to achieve anything he wants, why on earth does he let good people suffer? Should God not be able to arrange things better so that no one who is good also has to suffer? And if God cannot do that, does that not then mean that he cannot be almighty and is therefore not really God at all? So, perhaps God is not really good at all, just almighty but a little cruel? happy to see people suffer?
Now this is a problem that people who think a lot about religion have been wrestling with for a long time. We find in the Old Testament how people thought about the question before Christ and, in the years after Christ, there have been many more thoughts. There have been various answers. Some of the best answers acknowledge that we are not well-placed to see things from God's point of view and, although we might dream in theory of a created order without the good suffering, we would be hard put to it to conceive it in practice, since creating the universe is not something of which we have much personal experience.
But, if we were to approach the question a little closer, we might also acknowledge that both the fact and the threat of suffering can have a marvellously inhibitive effect on our human ambitions. To put it simply, if you could reach your hand into the fire to rearrange the coals without feeling any pain, your hand would fairly quickly become useless. Now this example in itself may seem comparatively trivial. But we could easily extend the thought to make more of it.
We could approach the same question from altogether another angle. We might like to hope or believe that, if someone who was generally good was put in a dangerous or threatening situation, where pain or suffering seemed to be the inevitable outcome, God might send an angel to avert the crisis and to remove the person in question from any danger. And that might indeed sometimes happen. I believe it does. But what if it always happened? Surely then, we could see that our power of choice, our independence of action, would gradually by stages be curtailed until we became automata dancing to God's direction, little more than puppets on a string. We would certainly not be human.
Much more could be said, in particular about God's experience and transformation of human suffering through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Although there is a problem for the Church over suffering, there are certainly ways in which people can believe in God and think about suffering positively. But there is also, as I said, a problem for Society. Let me put it this way. Society tends to think that suffering can be averted, and should be averted, by, on the one hand health and safety regulations and good planning and policing, and on the other by decent health care ranging from antibiotics for a snuffle or analgesics for a headache to the cure of cancer and dementia. This extends to the thought that suffering really should not be allowed to happen and can be avoided. That is what leads, for example, to the current practice over abortion and thoughts about euthanasia, that people who are dying should be able to get it over quickly and painlessly at a time of their own choosing.
I am of course approaching the issue from the perspective of a developed Western-style society. We can see from afar the suffering in countries at war or divided by violent and destructive tensions but too easily we avert our gaze and return to our own anxieties or think that someone else will resolve the problem. We want to, or think we can, brush suffering aside. Ten-minute exercises to avert back pain. Three easy steps to weight loss. A crossword a day to avoid dementia. The papers and magazines are full of them.
Is it possible that we could agree that suffering is both inevitable and also good: a necessary part of God's wonderful creation? something to be embraced?
After all, no one supposes that you can learn a foreign language without personal discipline, without therefore a degree of deprivation or suffering. No one imagines that you can win an Olympic gold without training hard, without pushing yourself to and beyond the limits. No one is so thoughtless as to suppose that you can learn to play the violin beautifully without learning to control your body and mind through endless practice. Patience, discipline, even suffering, are all related and all good. I believe we can see this principle at work in the saintly king and confessor we celebrate today, St Edward the Confessor.
His reign over the whole of England lasted almost twenty five years, from 1042 until his death early in 1066, and was noted for its stability and for the development of relative peace and prosperity. His grandfather Edgar had also been an effective king but the reign of his father Aethelred, whom we know as the Unready, had seen only turmoil and destruction, largely through his inability to repel Viking invasions. He was succeeded by the twenty year reign of the Viking Cnut, also king of Denmark and Norway.
We have a description of the turmoil in England towards the end of Aethelred's reign. One thousand years ago this year, the archbishop of York, St Wulfstan, preached a sermon in which he said, 'God's dues have diminished too long in this land, and laws of the people have deteriorated entirely too greatly, since Edgar died. And sanctuaries are too widely violated, and God's houses are entirely stripped of all dues and are stripped within of everything fitting. And widows are widely forced to marry in unjust ways and too many are impoverished and fully humiliated; and poor men are sorely betrayed and cruelly defrauded, and sold widely out of this land into the power of foreigners, though innocent. And in short, the laws of God are hated and his teaching despised.'
After the death of Aethelred, Edward the Confessor's mother Emma, a Norman princess, was married to Cnut. Edward spent many years in painful exile in Normandy for his own protection. When he and his brother Alfred returned to England after Cnut's death, during the reign of Harold I (Harefoot), the king had Alfred's eyes gouged out so roughly that he died soon afterwards and Edward fled again into exile. He returned finally during the brief reign of his half-brother Harthacnut and was ready to accede to the throne on the Danish king's death in 1042.
His early suffering prepared him for a life of piety and devotion and a reign of good and effective governance. So, we give thanks to God for one of his holy ones who triumphed through turmoil.
May his example inspire us to accept the gift of discipline, and indeed of suffering, to help us grow in holiness, after the example of the Son of Man, who came 'not to be served but to serve, and to give his lifea ransom for many.'