Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor 2021
Where do you think you belong?
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Wednesday, 13th October 2021 at 5.00 PM
I met Simon Jenkins this week, the former Editor of the Times and now famous for those books some of us use to plan a church crawl, England’s Thousand Best Churches, or England’s Cathedrals. He told me about a neighbour who invited him round for a drink. They talked about the book on Cathedrals. Suddenly, the neighbour’s son approached, aged about nine or ten but bearing down on him like a tank. He said, without any introduction, ‘Westminster or St Pauls?’ Simon noticed that the boy’s father had taken a step back, out of the firing line. This was clearly a question with a right and a wrong answer. ‘Westminster or St Pauls?’ He took a deep breath. ‘well, I rather think that, in the end, Westminster, is the more interesting…’ He got no further. There was a thumb’s up from the boy who instantly lost interest and wandered off. It was explained, in the silence that followed, that this young man was home on holiday, from Westminster Abbey’s Choir School.
We make lists and they matter. I have a daughter who keeps asking me what is my favourite book, or film, or meal. Occasionally, when her humour loses its way, she will ask me which is my favourite child. It is a test of self-disclosure and a test of loyalty. Can I name the things that matter? Do I know?
So, it interests me that, on a visit to St Albans in 1257, Henry of Winchester, better known as Henry III, King of England, who was of course, the builder of this Abbey church, proved he could name the Saxon kings of England. Not a list with his grandfather Henry II in it, or his great, great, great grandfather William the Conqueror; but Alfred, Athelstan, Edmund. He numbered himself in that list.
What matters Westminster or St Paul’s? Where do you belong, what defines you? Are you a Norman, or are you English? What world do you live in?
Where do you belong? That was what the gospel passage asked. The mother of the sons of Zebedee bears down on Jesus, swinging her handbag.
He said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ Matthew 20: 20–21
Notice the choice of words. Let them be on your right and on your left. We know the gospel story. We know what it means to be on the right and left of Jesus. That was the improbable dignity and the eternal fame of the two thieves, crucified on his right and left. To be with Jesus in his kingdom, to share his glory, is to go down that road and die that death. Do you know where you belong? Do you even know what it means to find your place? The gospel passage we heard was, in truth, a devastating critique of people who know their place. The mother of the sons of Zebedee imagines thrones. She has heard of a kingdom and conjures up the trappings of power and prestige that her sons might have. That is where they belong. She imagines the state, the giving of orders, the way things must be. She does not know that that is precisely what will kill Jesus and set the dying thieves either side of him. Jesus asks her sons if they can drink the cup that he drinks. It is such a startling question and they do not even notice. ‘Yes, we can do that’ they say with no thought for what it might mean.
You see, the gospel begs us to see past people who know their place, the familiar assumptions, the way things are. The gospel is about another Kingdom, a different life. It is precisely not more of the same. It is not just the sons of Zebedee who struggle. All the disciples are wedded to what they know. They protest when they hear that these two have been petitioning for special treatment. It is not a theological objection they have, it is selfishness. If there is special treatment to be had they want it for themselves. Jesus has to correct them:
The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants. Matthew 20: 25
Where do you think you belong? Amongst people who know their place, or in the radical company of lover and loved?
This Abbey, this feast, the translation of Edward the Confessor, is a sustained commentary on where we think we belong, what story we tell of our identity. Any half decent historian will tell you that it is a very complicated story indeed. Henry III was indeed devoted to the Confessor. He really did sleep under an image of the Confessor’s coronation. He really did spend huge sums on worship on this day. He did believe in a holy, just kind of kingship. He even tried, a little, to shake off politics as usual. Yet, this great building, a building where the royal council was convened and where parliament started to meet, a building where parts of the royal wardrobe was stored was also always a monument to the old familiar forms of power and prestige. It is a very complicated story we tell here. The Abbey is a glimpse of God’s glory and then a glimpse of something more familiar. We are in this world looking to another. The Abbey is the now and the not yet. There will always be traces of two realities here.
That is why the idea of translation is so important. For us today it means the translation of relics. It is all about the body of a saint, Edward the Confessor, moved—translated—to a new shrine on 13th October 1163 and translated again on October 13th 1269, by Henry III, his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and his two sons carrying the coffin to the new shrine in the half completed Abbey that we know. It is that movement, the small steps carrying a weight of history towards the coming kingdom. Translation is so much more than that, however. Here we attempt the translation of this reality into that. That is the great act of translation. It is not knowing your place, it is reading afresh. Not this world, but that kingdom of God. The underestimated art of translation that makes the words sing and finds glory where we thought there was only something stale and tired. Translation, finding the language to better communicate the truth, finding, indeed, the better truth.
Jesus called the disciples to him and 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.’ Matthew 20: 25–26
It is that act of translation.