Sermon at the Festival Eucharist on the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor
Holiness is not an idea, or an aspiration. Holiness is bones and flesh, a life lived and died.
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Saturday, 17th October 2020 at 11.30 AM
‘…full of years and of glory, he surrendered his pure spirit to heaven and was buried on the day of the Epiphany
That is a dignified and noble exit—full of years and of glory. Edward the Confessor died, on 5th January 1066 and was indeed buried at Epiphany, the Chronicler has that right. In other respects, I fear, he is less accurate. The Bayeux Tapestry gives us Edward’s body being carried into the Abbey, just a day after his death, a man on the roof fixes the weathervane in place. It is hasty, imagine the paint still drying on the walls. The problem here is that one story -Edward’s life and work is bundled aside as we turn to what comes next. It is 1066, the memorable date. Harold is proclaimed king in a tearing hurry and eyes turn to Duke William, to Hastings and the Conquest. It is not dignified at all. Saxon Kings come with epithets—Alfred The Great, Æthelred the Unready, Edward is the Confessor. He could so easily have been, Edward the Unfinished. In life, as King, he set his own destiny, in death, however, the last of his line and blood we lose him, as a very different future bustles in.
Our saint is not an easy man to know. He gets defined by what happened next. We look back through battle and invasion, the story changes and goes on changing. At school, I wrote an essay ‘Did Edward promise the throne to Duke William, or Earl Harold?’ He gets defined by those around him. His first biographer said he was a good man surrounded by the wicked. It was their fault those Normans came. William of Malmesbury, made Edward meek and trapped amongst great destinies. He becomes Edward the Simple—a man without deceit. It was meant to be flattering, but Malmesbury could not help wondering if Edward was really up to the job… ‘when the going gets tough and all that’. Little by little, the idea that Edward was as innocent as a dove, takes hold. That is why Alfred Duggan called his novel The Cunning of the Dove. By 1138, Osbert of Clare has made him truly holy—Edward the Confessor, and then Aelred of Rievaulx told us that he was just not like the rest of us—‘he lived’ he said ‘among men like an angel’. Can you see what is happening? Holy, certainly, but somehow not quite real, not quite here. So, when E A Freeman wrote about the Confessor in the nineteenth century, he was never going to measure up in that most muscular age. Freeman made Earl Godwin ‘the stout Englishman…’. And Edward was ‘the timid devotee … utterly lacking in all kingly qualities’. Charles Dickens admired ‘brave Harold’ but not the ‘dreary old Confessor’.
I am a historian, I am interested in the history, but there are questions here about who Edward was and also about what we think sanctity looks like. Is it real? Is it here?
Edward is made pale and powerless by those armies fighting on Senlac Hill and a grim Conqueror riding on to London. Edward becomes the Simple, the dove, the dreary. And interestingly we can be sure that Edward himself would not protest at any of this. He always knew that he was going to struggle. He knew that he would fail. He knew his bible, knew the story we heard tonight, the one that began,
The LORD said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel.’ 1 Samuel 16: 1
I have rejected him from being king over Israel. The first Book of Samuel: it is a history book, or at least it wants you to think it is a history book. It is the story of Saul, Samuel, David and Solomon. It is the story of the people of Israel choosing a first king and then watching him fail. It is this story that Edward learnt. He knew about pride, sin and judgement. He knew that kings are judged. He had heard the voice of the prophet Samuel lifted in protest at the very idea that there could be such a thing as a king.
He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots… He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers… And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.’ 1 Samuel 8: 10–18
The Confessor lived his life under judgement, he would not be surprised that he is judged still.
All the records tell us that Edward was holy, a man of real piety. He was committed to this place and to many other monasteries. He sought out holiness of life, the deep, different holiness of monks and hermits. We know others noticed that, his own wife thought it possible he might be a saint. He was never simple, nor was he a dove. He fought for his throne, and kept it, a last Saxon flourish winning the crown from Danes before it was lost to Normans. He was admired; he was, in fact, a little feared. He knew how to be king, how to govern and how to manage majesty. There was nothing simple about the way he wore the crown—made it live and breathe.
This king, Edward our saint, was a man of majesty and calculated royal style, but he never let his story run away with him. He did not manage his own myth, he knew the judgement was not his. I have said before I worry about the claims we make for leadership now, the way we make the task so simple with straplines and targets so easy for the taking. Preening leadership absolved of any responsibility to tell the truth, face facts, own up, or apologise. That is poor leadership intent on what it can get away with. Edward our saint is holy because he knew himself accountable, under judgement. Judged. Our shrine is God’s judgement, history’s judgement, judgement made present in our midst.
The Abbey is built around a shrine because we are clear, absolutely clear that holiness is not an idea, or an aspiration. Holiness is not mindfulness or decency, a practice or a programme. Holiness is bones and flesh, a life lived and died. It is real, as Edward’s life was real, not Simple, or unworldly and certainly never dreary, but the hard graft of government in hard times and the pursuit of real holiness. His holiness is awkward, stubborn, clumsy, and suddenly graceful just as bodies are awkward and stubborn, clumsy and graceful. Our Edward asks us day by day what will we be in life and death. Asks us to remember that we are not the judge of that. He lies amongst us as holiness, as the hope of redemption and the daily, serious reminder that we are under judgement.