The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 18th June 2017 at 10:00 AM
Last Friday the Church quietly commemorated a notable saint. St Richard of Chichester, a model diocesan bishop, who in medieval times used to travel around his diocese on foot visiting and caring for his clergy and people, being generally accessible to all who needed his ministry. His mortal remains were translated to Chichester on the date of his feast day in 1276.
Here at Westminster Abbey we’re justly proud of our saintly Edward the Confessor. His remains are revered and due to the diligence of the monks here, his shrine survived the Reformation. The shrine remains in its original location, just beyond the high altar and reredos behind me.
However, at the Reformation, things took a more sinister turn at Chichester cathedral. In 1538 the entire Shrine to St Richard was dismantled and ‘razed to the ground’ on the orders of King Henry VIII.
The Saint’s bones were scattered and all the treasures gifted by pilgrims were taken to the Treasury in the Tower of London so that ‘the people may not have any place to worship idolatry’.
Today the modern St Richard's Shrine has been re-instated in the retro-quire of Chichester cathedral; re-established in 1930 by Dean Duncan Jones. Then in 1987 during the restoration of the Abbey of La Lucerne, in Normandy, the lower part of a man's arm was discovered in a reliquary, and the relic was determined to be that of Saint Richard.
After examination, to establish its provenance, the relic was offered and received into Chichester cathedral on 15 June 1990. The following year the relic was buried below the St Richard altar.
In the popular mind St Richard is perhaps most well known for having written the following prayer: Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits Thou hast given me; for all the pains and insults which Thou hast borne for me. O most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may I know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, and follow Thee more nearly. Amen.
This prayer illustrates something of Saint Richard’s pastoral heart and devotion. Tradition has it that he recited this prayer on his deathbed, whilst surrounded by his diocesan clergy.
Later, the words were transcribed, in Latin, by his confessor Ralph Bocking, a Dominican friar, and were eventually published in the Acta Sanctorum, a huge volume, that examined the lives of all recognised Christian saints. Indeed the British Library copy, contains what is believed to be Bockings transcription of the prayer.
We now have a good translation from the Latin into English that celebrates the rhyming triplet, ‘clearly, dearly, nearly’. This triplet, first used in a hymn, within the 1922 Mirfield Mission Hymnbook, was later adapted for the 1971 musical Godspell in the song ‘Day by Day’.
Rather like St Paul, St Richard of Chichester had to suffer many hardships and injustices, and yet we see in his life a real desire to imitate the life of Christ.
Both these men heard a call on their lives which could not be silenced; and as they listened, God’s plan started to unfold, and his vision for them became a reality.
Indeed both men suffered great hardships as a direct consequence of their faith, but in each case there is little evidence that such trials caused overt bitterness in their lives.
Having said all this, Saint Richard of Chichester, just like us, was never perfect. On the surface, he was probably not a particularly likeable character. He was unforgiving of clerical backsliding and unrelenting in his insistence on the Church's property rights.
But crucially he was humble, sympathetic and generous in the face of poverty and need. His humanity appears to come first, and in this respect he appears to closely reflect something of the nature of Christ, indeed he had a gift for sympathising with basic human frailties and communicating well with ordinary people.
He teaches us that its only through a proper emphasis on the person of Christ, and particularly through a deep understanding of the humanity of Christ, that we really come to understand both the transcendence and the immanence of God.
But more than that, we see that St Richard was prepared to use the contemporary systems of his time as a means to change the world. This didn’t mean accepting established systems wholesale, and it certainly didn’t mean seeking power for its own sake.
His protection of church property wasn’t just for secular or venal reasons. He did it because he, like St Paul before him, firmly believed in the church as the body of Christ. All those years ago, he emphasised the fact that the Church is a living reality.
And for us today his point is clear: the Church isn’t a charitable, cultural or political association, but rather a living body, that walks and acts in history. And like any real body, the church has a head in Jesus Christ, who guides, feeds and supports it, and if we are not firmly united to Jesus, then the head, the body dies.
In other words we are commanded always to remain united to Jesus, trusting in him, directing our life according to his Gospel, nourishing ourselves with daily prayer, listening to the Word of God, and participating in the sacraments.
As is often the case, C.S. Lewis has a way of explaining such things in an easily and understandable way. In Mere Christianity he says:
‘Let me make it quite clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean simply something mental or moral. When they speak of being ‘in Christ’ or of Christ being ‘in them’, this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him.
They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts, that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body’.
It was from this very basis that St Richard came to place such a high emphasis upon cultivating a generous and open heart, a heart grounded in individual kindness, a heart that reflects humanity, and a heart that shines out in the person of Jesus Christ.