Sermon at Evensong on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity 2019

One Saint in particular fascinated Henry: St Edward, King and Confessor

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence

Sunday, 6th October 2019 at 3.00 PM

This month, we celebrate the 750th anniversary of the dedication of Henry III’s Westminster Abbey. Most of us are currently sitting in that space, East of the Quire Screen, and in the transepts. Henry III was a pious king, not (the chronicles tell us) particularly interested in study or sermons, but rather in the cult of the saints and of their relics. One Saint in particular fascinated Henry, and his new church was to be a shrine for this great paragon of kingly holiness. On 13th October 1269, the body of St Edward, King and Confessor, was carried the on shoulders of Henry III, his brother, and two sons to be placed in a new Shrine, which still stands today at the heart of this holy place. Since then, apart from during a seventeen year period in the course of the English reformation, St Edward has rested here behind the High Altar, a silent witness to Christ at the heart of the earthly kingdom he once ruled.

The main source used by later historians for Edward’s life was the Vita Edwardi, probably written very soon after the Saint’s death. Some seventy years on, a monk of Westminster by the name of Osbert of Clare, wrote a more hagiographical life, discussing miracles and other features of Edward’s virtue. Two decades later, the great St Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a new Life which swiftly became the official account, and from which was drawn inspiration for the scripture readings appointed to be read on and around St Edward’s feast. Aelred’s introduction, gives us several helpful insights into Edward’s character and merits. He stands (we are told) in a succession of holy monarchs, but unlike some of his predecessors, Edward did not gain the crown of martyrdom, nor was he exiled from his own realm for the sake of Christ. Rather, he was the Rex Justus – the righteous king – who “reigned with justice and holiness and strove to be [his] people’s servant more than lord.” Aelred concludes, “…that brilliant luminary the glorious King Edward shone like the morning star in a cloudy sky.”

Superlatives aside, Aelred does go into detail about some specific features of St Edward’s reign: he was known for his generosity, his commitment to and protection of equitable law, his moderation, and his contempt for personal wealth. We are told that he ruled his people with kindness. These virtues speak to us across the centuries, and are urgently needed in our national life today. Whilst it’s important to remember that in some ways the past can appear a “foreign country” (for example we cannot always judge previous periods of history by our own contemporary benchmarks), virtues such as service of others and  truthfulness are universal and timeless in their application. We should not try to flatten out some of the fundamental strangeness of historical periods prior to our own, but we should equally recognise facets of that history from which we learn and in which we recognise the common human experience, and Christ’s universal call to conversion.

The prophet Nehemiah was a central figure in the re-building of Jerusalem at the beginning of the Second Temple period, around 550 BC. In this afternoon’s reading, two of the central themes are oppression and famine, as Jerusalem, the worshipping polis at the heart of God’s covenant , is restored. There is a dangerous and unjust social situation at work: we are told that the poor are being forced to pursue all sorts of degrading strategies, such as selling children into slavery, simply to eat and pay taxes. Nehemiah is furious – but he channels this righteous anger into constructive dialogue with the nobles and city officials, and brings them to repentance. The dignity of the people is restored, and the book goes on to tell us that once Nehemiah had been appointed governor in Judah, he fed the poor, and supported them in the labour. Like St Edward, he appears more the people’s servant than their overlord.

To say that there is a lot of discussion at the moment about the nature of politics is quite an understatement. In the UK, as elsewhere in the world, as competing narratives of populism and the public good appear to steal each others’ clothes, the moral nature of leadership is exposed for scrutiny with a particular kind of urgency. Very few people enter politics out of sheer greed or personal gain. But our party system does encourage the pursuit of ideology. This isn’t always bad – and it certainly isn’t intrinsically wrong. But it can unbalance what is a delicate ecosystem of governance and wise leadership. Instead, the Judaeo-Christian tradition points towards the wise pursuit of truth and justice as key components of leadership. “Mercy and truth are met together”, the psalmist proclaims: these two virtues should be at the heart of leadership. Where there is a lack of justice, truth (and truth-telling) will suffer. When truth is a casualty, justice is threatened. In order to serve the people, justice (mercy) and truth need to flourish, and to animate the common good. When a society begins to view truth as a disposable commodity, or when leaders mistake justice for slavishly following an ideology, we perhaps unknowingly enter very dangerous territory indeed. Being the peoples’ “servant more than their lord” is not to be trusted as a mere catchphrase: it must cash out in the humble pursuit of justice and truth. Therein is wise leadership. Those stories about St Edward – tales of kindness, moderation, commitment to law, and a lack of self-interest – are remedies for our own day.

The fifteenth century screen which faces the Shrine of St Edward tells the story of his life. In one scene blind men are depicted washing in the king's water. In the years following his death, St Edward became particularly renowned for curing blindness. The complex, fascinating and beautiful dialogue in John 9 about the man born blind is a many-layered account of healing from both physical and spiritual blindness. Towards the end of the passage, the Pharisees (representing the religious establishment) return to the scene. Jesus declares that the judgement he brings to the world may lead to blindness for those who think they see, whilst those who are blind receive the gift of sight. In a curious exchange, Jesus remarks that due to what we assume to be the Pharisees’ presumptuous certainty, their sin remains.

This is a cautionary tale for any of us who think we have our own narrative all nicely sown up and sorted out. But it’s perhaps an especial warning to those who have a vocation to leadership. Simplistic, straightforward narratives of ideology which are not tempered by justice and mercy, which are not committed to rigorous truth telling, and to a humble care for the common good, risk becoming abusive and toxic, especially when applied to national life. The complexity of public service, especially in confusing and demanding times, needs to be rooted in straightforward virtues. Humility, patience, truth-telling, justice.

St Edward knew that his own rule had to be shaped by prayerful engagement with the dynamics of holiness, his palace rubbing up against this Church. St Edward’s greatest gift was his will to see Christ and therefore to be seen by him. Before being a king, he was a disciple. It is not too much of a leap to say that because of this discipleship, he perhaps knew governance to be quite simply the privilege of service, for which he would ultimately be judged.

He “reigned with justice and holiness and strove to be [his] people’s servant more than lord.” Holy Edward, pray for us.