The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 12th October 2007
2 Samuel 23: 1-5; I John 4: 13-16; Matthew 21: 12-17
Thorney Island already had a monastery, founded in 960 by St Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but King Edward was true to his word and rebuilt the Abbey Church and domestic buildings in the grand Romanesque style familiar to his Norman mother.
Thus began the long association between kings and queens of England and Westminster Abbey. Edward died in January 1066 and was buried in the Abbey Church before the high altar. On Christmas Day that year, his cousin William Duke of Normandy, claiming his right to the English throne, which he had won by conquest, was the first Monarch to be anointed king and crowned before the high altar of Westminster Abbey, where almost every succeeding King or Queen of the English has been crowned ever since. Edward the Confessor was canonised in 1161 and two years later on 13 October 1163 his body was translated into a new shrine. Since that date, the Abbey has observed 13 October as the feast of St Edward the Confessor, as does the Church of England more generally. To complete the story, his successor Henry III, with great devotion to Edward the Confessor, rebuilt the Abbey in the 13th century and on this feast in 1269 translated again the body of the saint into the shrine behind the high altar where it remains to this day. Five kings, including Henry III himself, and four queens are buried in St Edward’s chapel.
An encounter with a young Christian in the great cloister the other day stays with me. He said he had been disturbed by the focus on royalty in the Abbey: so many kings and queens buried and memorialised. Was this, he asked, consistent with the Christian faith? It reminded me of a conversation with Tony Benn, who answered my question what he thought these days about Christianity by saying that he had never been able to cope with the idea of Jesus as Lord and King. All that language, he implied, is demeaning to human beings.
I suggested to the young Christian that he might look at it another way. The close association between British monarchs and the Church was a sign that the kingdom had the Christian faith and religion at its very heart, and that our national life was shot through with Christian practice, belief and values. It should be a cause of celebration of the fact that ours is no secular state, dominated only by temporal concerns such as the exercise of power and dominion, getting and spending, but a kingdom founded on the fundamental Christian virtues of love for God and love for neighbour, a kingdom passionate about the eternal, striving for the coming of the kingdom of God.
The young Christian didn’t go on to ask me whether it was the same today. Of course there is much that is different. We see our society as diverse, made up of many cultures and many faith communities. Perhaps in doing so, we mistake the fact that the populations of England and Wales have always been many-faceted. In St Edward’s day, the English were recovering from Danish dominance and about to be overtaken by the Norman invasion. Christianity itself was far from secure throughout the land. But Edward chose to celebrate the Christian religious tradition and heritage and base his society firmly on the Church.
We are heirs of that tradition. For many centuries between Edward and our own day the Church was in an entirely dominant position in national life, with people required to attend church, with academics in the universities required to subscribe the 39 articles of religion, with high office closed to non-Anglicans. Those days of an exclusive place for the Church and for Anglicans are long gone. However there remain many positive echoes. It is for example inconceivable in Britain, though entirely accepted in France, that remembrance of those who died in the wars of the 20th century and since should take place without religious ceremony.
However the place of the Church within our national life is conceived, it cannot mean nowadays the occupying of an armed fortress on a hill repelling all potential challengers. Rather the fact that the Christian religion as understood by the Church of England has so long been established at the heart of our national life creates space for the faiths as well as the faith. The Establishment of the Church should be generous.
That is how the Church must be if it is to be true to its Lord and to work for the Kingdom of justice and truth, the Kingdom of God. And there is the answer to Tony Benn. The terms Lord and King as used of Jesus Christ are redolent with meaning. The Lord and King we worship is one who “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). No use of the terms since his day can fail to be affected by his interpretation. Jesus said, “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.” (Matthew 20: 25-28)
May the prayers of St Edward the Confessor, whom today, around his shrine, we honour, enable all those who exercise rule and leadership in our own day to follow his example who lived in the loving power of the servant King, our Lord Jesus Christ.