Sermon preached on the feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor, 2023
This is an astonishing place, and today we honour the Saint whose gift it is.
The Reverend Mark Birch MVO Precentor
Friday, 13th October 2023 at 5.00 PM
On this day, 860 years ago, the body of Edward, King of England 1042–66, having been removed from his grave before the high altar, was placed into a shrine; elevated, as befits a newly-acknowledged Saint; a Confessor of the Faith. Already very much Edward’s place, Westminster and its Abbey now had a saint of the universal church at its heart.
Of course, his body wasn’t left in peace for that long. Just over a century later, he was translated into a more splendid Shrine in an upgraded Abbey Church—the one we see around us today.
His mortal remains were again disturbed at the Reformation, until it was deemed, possibly by Queen Elizabeth herself, that he should be left in his hastily-dismantled and hastily-reassembled Shrine, not so much because he was a saint, but because he was a king.
And, apart from an unfortunate incident with a scaffolding pole, during preparations for the coronation of James II, he has been pretty much untouched since—settled deep inside the structure just behind the altar screen, with many of his successors buried around him. A more-or-less settled place.
Edward takes us back into a history that is misty, to say the least. We know some details of his life, his long exile in France, his chaste marriage to Edith, which Aelred of Rievaulx would describe as heroic virginity (is there any other kind?)! Aelred had already written a ‘life’ of St Edward, and presented him as the holy king who aligned England with the purposes of God and the gospel—English history folded into salvation history—and thus made Edward an exemplar for Henry II, and any monarch who might follow.
The miracles Aelred attributed to Edward are, of course, a standard for any hagiography, but Aelred wasn’t just making an impressive list. The miracles, especially the giving or restoring of sight, specifically point to Edward as the bringer of Gospel light and truth to his kingdom. Modern historians may be a bit sniffy about hagiography, but for Aelred, all history finds it meaning in Christ and the Gospel—and as Christians, we shouldn’t find that such a strange idea. Aelred is, of course, interested in what Edward did, in life and posthumously, but he is more interested still in what Edward means. He is clear that what Edward means is a country brought to Christ in a decisive way; and Westminster Abbey is the place that proclaims it.
While many details of Edward’s life must necessarily elude us, what Edward means, and what he has undoubtedly bequeathed to us, is a place—this place.
Though he was translated—his body was moved—it wasn’t ever moved very far. The current Shrine is but a few feet east of where we think his original grave would have been. His body, despite Henry III, despite the Reformers, despite clumsy scaffolders, has been a pretty stable marker of a very specific place—the place where William of Normandy was determined to be crowned, and where all English monarchs (bar a few) have also come for coronation, including last May. The Cosmati pavement, with its design focussed on the central onyx, the place where the Coronation Chair was positioned, emphasises the sense that this is a place of great, even cosmic significance—a location that matters; a serious, holy place. But not a place in isolation.
Edward’s decision to build Westminster Abbey, and its importance to him, seems to hinge on a particular devotion to St Peter. Having been released, by the Pope no less, from his vow to make a pilgrimage to Rome in thanksgiving for his accession, Edward willingly agreed to build an Abbey that would have Peter as its patron; an Abbey which enjoyed, until the reformation, the distinction of being a Papal peculiar—binding the Abbey not just to St Peter, but to Peter’s successors; this holy place permanently connected (so Edward would have it), drawing sanctity like electrical charge, from Rome.
Henry III seems to have understood and valued this. When it came to the decoration of the Sacrarium, the Coronation theatre, in his new Abbey Church, he turned instinctively to the Roman Cosmati workshop. I love the idea that when we crown monarchs on this pavement we are, as it were, plugging them in, not just to the heart of this nation, but into the heart of the whole church, catholic and apostolic; through St Peter, Prince of the Apostles—plugging them into Rome.
So, this was never meant to be a place in isolation, but a profoundly connected place, with a deep spiritual infrastructure—a high speed line, if you like, between the heart of the nation, and the heart of the church. I wonder if Henry the Eighth allowed himself a moment’s hesitation when he severed that connection; when he made this place no longer a papal, but a royal peculiar, cancelling that direct connection to Rome, so cherished by his forebears, not least Edward.
Of course, history has given the Abbey other lines of connection—through Empire and then Commonwealth, through the cultural and scientific contribution of those remembered in poets corner, or around Newton on the other side of the screen—links which we try to honour, and which make Edward’s church a place of significance for an extraordinary range of people the world over.
The Abbey has become a significant place for ecumenical connections too—in my time we have hosted Patriarchs and leaders of many denominations—seated together in the Sacrarium; more often than not saying prayers together at Edward’s Shrine.
The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Abbey in 2010, though it was before my time here, feels especially significant; a reminder of those old, original lines of connection; a hope that all the subsequent connections that have been made with this place, that all the new lines we might build, not least through the opportunities of digital media, that they might all ultimately be folded back into a renewed and unified church—into that deep spiritual infrastructure, anchored in the bedrock of St Peter; that connects every place and time to the one who created and redeemed them; to Christ.
This is an astonishing place, and today we honour the Saint whose gift it is, and who rests at its heart. May we honour him in making the Abbey a place of profound and renewed connection today, part of a deep spiritual infrastructure, branching out with boundless scope and ambition; a northern powerhouse (by which I mean north of the Alps) to convene, to inspire, and to seek that unity which is Christ’s prayer and Christ’s gift.
For this, and for all our best endeavours, in this his place; Holy Edward, pray for us.