Sermon given at the Festival Eucharist in the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor

When in 2007 we came to refurbish the shrine of Hereford’s own saint, Thomas Cantilupe, it was to Westminster Abbey that we chiefly looked.

The Very Reverend Michael Tavinor former Dean of Hereford

Saturday, 16th October 2021 at 11.30 AM

When in 2007 we came to refurbish the shrine of Hereford’s own saint, Thomas Cantilupe, we looked for precedents. St Albans was an obvious choice—the surviving shrine base restored in the 1970s. However, it was, of course, to Westminster Abbey that we chiefly looked, with St Edward the Confessor—the shrine here being one of the few surviving the Reformation and, with its altar and canopy, providing an ideal model for others.

Hereford was fortunate in that it, too, had a shrine base which the Reformers in the 1540s, either forgot or to which they turned a blind eye. It had been taken apart in the 1990s for archaeological inspection and put together beautifully but there it was—a beautiful piece of medieval masonry—but perhaps nothing more. My esteemed predecessor as dean, Robert Willis, now dean of Canterbury, oversaw the project in the 1990s. He was, I think a minimalist in such things, whereas I’m an unashamed maximalist, and so the shrine was given a brightly coloured canopy, lots of bling, gold, red, azure, green, brilliantly coloured icons. Of course, the scheme had to get past the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England. It did, but not without one or two rather sniffy comments about wishing that the design had been more ‘contemporary’. But as the chair of our Fabric Committee said at the time, ‘Michael, the experts will hate it but the people will love it’ and so it proved, and so it has always been.

Governments, church authorities, experts—have never been able to stop popular love and devotion, no matter how many edicts they may put out. In 1579, Elizabeth I instructed the Council of the Marches to put a stop to Papist activities, with people going to St Winifred’s Well in North Wales for healing. Such proclamations had little effect. A letter of 1590 suggests—‘they do still go in heaps to the wonted wells and places of superstition’. [1] And the same happened at Walsingham—if people find God—love- healing—in a place, they will get there, by hook or by crook.

Look at Westminster Abbey itself. We know that St Edward’s Chapel wasn’t abandoned after the Reformation—it continued its uses, not least in Coronations, as a withdrawing area for the monarch during the liturgy and as a place for depositing at the shrine certain pieces of regalia. But, during the post-Reformation period, far from being a neglected area, the shrine continued as a focus for devotion among Roman Catholics. This from the 19th century:

Such great sanctity is still attached to the shrine that a part of the stone basement seat on the east side of the South Transept, has been worn to a deep hollow by the feet of devout Catholics, who occasionally attend here early of a morning; and who, from this point can just obtain a view of the upper division of the shrine. [2]

Bizarrely, there’s even a reference to a return to the excesses of pre-Reformation superstition (if a nineteenth-century observer is to be believed):

It is still, within the recollection of some aged members of this Church, that previously to the French Revolution, the very dust and sweepings of the shrine and Chapel of St Edward were preserved and exported to Spain and Portugal in barrels. [3]

Now there’s a canny marketing opportunity in this day and age…

Yes, the shrine of St Edward never seems to have lost its power, even in times when such things in the Church of England were at a very low ebb. Writing in 1841, Charles Knight enthuses:

If there were a tomb in the world which one would have thought an antiquary would have looked on with aweashes which it were a sacrilege almost to touchwe should have thought it was the tomb and ashes of the Confessor, around which hung all those associations; so solemnly and deeply interesting, however stripped of their superstitious alloy. [4]

Not everyone was of that opinion, however. Perhaps the most dismissive is of 1734, where James Ralph says:

The enclosure behind the altar, commonly known by the name of St Edward’s Chapel has nothing remarkable in it, but certain Gothique antiquities, which are made sacred by tradition only and serve to excite a stupid admiration in the vulgar. [5]

If the shrine of the Confessor felt unique in those post-Reformation years, what it offered by way of tradition and holiness is now recognised in many churches and cathedrals, where the shrines of their saints have been lovingly restored: St Albans, Hereford, Durham, St Davids, Lichfield, Chichester, so the list continues.

There are many reasons for this. In the past fifty years, cathedrals have ‘come of age’—many more visitors—the increase of commercialism and hospitality—shop, café—the embracing of catholic ceremonial and the blurring of denominational boundaries. And so now, even if there is not a shrine in every cathedral, there is not one in the land without its candlestand, ablaze with light and the prayers of visitors:

 For Margaret, who recently died of cancer.

 For Sophie, on her third birthday.

 For help in my examinations.

 For mum and dad—keep them safe in their old age.

These are the prayers found daily on our prayer boards and one of the greatest sadnesses to me was that, at the start of the pandemic, we were not able to open our churches for pilgrims to come and pray and sit and reflect. These places—these shrines—these focuses of prayer—are hugely powerful and people of faith and of none sense it keenly and miss it keenly when it is withdrawn.

In many ways, the shrines of the saints in cathedrals, churches and abbeys today serve much as do the roadside shrines which spring up wherever there has been an accident or tragedy and people instinctively wish to ‘do’ something—to remember, to bring comfort. Tragically, we’ve seen yet another spring up in the past twenty-four hours, with the terrible death of Sir David Amess, in Leigh-on-Sea.

In many ways, the prayers offered at the shrines by our forebears are little different from the prayers offered today, for both then and now, they seek to express feelings of helplessness and ask the question ‘why’? Pilgrims brought—and bring—to our shrines—in churches or at the roadside, their puzzlement at the harshness of life—cruel disease and death—and seek here not only answers to the insoluble questions of life but also some kind of response and comfort.

Few, if any, see shrines in our cathedrals and churches as inappropriate in an Anglican place of worship, although one prayer written at the Hereford shrine, perhaps reacting the colour and drama says: ‘Whatever happened to the Reformation?

Today we hear much about the Church of England needing to reform—its governance, its systems—with an emphasis on ‘discipling’ and the re-organisation of the parish system. I don’t detect a great deal about the place of those ‘on the edge’—the thousands who ‘believe but who may not belong’—those who light candles and pray—and then disappear again. I can understand ambivalent feelings—these are people who may not be committed—they may have no clear faith—they’re probably not disciples - and they certainly won’t be giving regularly—and we need that…

But these are the ones who, as it were, touch the hem of Jesus’ garment and just as Our Lord turned and noticed, so we too need to turn and notice them. It’s about honouring the unexpected—as David was noticed in preference to his more obvious elder brothers.[6] It’s about those of us ‘on the inside’ of Church—of faith—being servants and giving an honoured place to those who may seem ‘on the edge’ of faith. ‘The son of Man came not to be served but to serve’. [7] Far from faith being at an all-time low, prayers at our shrines show that people have a thirst for the spiritual, for being put in touch with their deeper selves—that places like this draw out questions—wonder—yes even prayer.

Perhaps the bigger question is—how do we translate this catering for pilgrims ‘on the edge’ in the parish churches up and down the land? It’s alright for cathedrals and abbeys with their shrines and resources but how do we cater for those ‘on the edge’ in a village of 200 souls? Many of these might well count themselves as having belief—but on Sunday there may be five or six in church. How can the ‘pilgrim phenomenon’ in cathedrals touch our towns and villages? Well, now that I’m retired and living in such small communities, perhaps that’s a question with which I’ll have to grapple…

But for now, as we gather again on this day and remember a saintly and generous king and confessor, we join our prayers with those of pilgrims through the centuries, who have found here the confidence to know that their prayers are heard and answered and that here, indeed, they may glimpse the Lord who loves and cares for them, who understands their deepest needs and aspirations. To that listening God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion and praise now and for ever. Amen.


[1] Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1901, 13, in David, St.Winifrede’s Well, p.11

[2] J. P. Neale and E.W Bayley, 1823, The History and Antiquities of the Abbey Church of St. Peter, Westminster, London, vol. 2, p.69, note.

[3] Neale & Bayley, History and Antiquities, p.69, note.

[4] C. Knight, 1841, London, p.101.

[5] J. Ralph, 1734, Critical Review of the Public Buildings ….of London and Westminster, p.86.

[6] First reading at the Eucharist—1 Samuel 16:1-13a

[7] Gospel reading at the Eucharist—Mark 10:35-45