Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Eve of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor 2018
Our response to tough times should not be to turn away from God.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 12th October 2018 at 5.00 PM
Our focus today, as we celebrate the life of St Edward the Confessor, our very own saint, buried behind the high altar of this church, takes us back a thousand years to an age, almost lost in the mists of history, before the Norman Conquest in 1066. But we do know a little of Edward the Confessor. He was the son of king Aethelred the Unready and his Queen Emma of Normandy. Aethelred had been on the throne of England from the age of twelve and died in 1016, when he was fifty, having lost his throne to Viking invaders and then gained it briefly again between invasions. The successful Danish invader Cnut succeeded him and reigned until 1035. Meanwhile Aethelred’s wife and sons, including Edward the Confessor at the age of eleven, went into exile in Normandy, where he grew up and indeed lived for a quarter of a century. Emma was not keen on living in exile and arranged to marry Cnut. So she abandoned her son Edward. Edward’s half-brother, her son Harthacnut, was to reign for two years after his father’s death until 1042. Meanwhile, the eleven year old Edward was left more or less to his own devices. But he took the throne of England when he was 37 in 1042 and reigned until his death on 5th January 1066.
Exile and isolation had probably made Edward independent and courageous, and taking back and holding the throne required precisely this strength of character. We are not told that he was particularly pious, though we do seem to know that he enjoyed hunting and was generally a good king. What we do know is that he built a great palace here in Westminster, replacing a much smaller one that had burnt down. And he rebuilt Westminster Abbey. Twentieth century historians tended to discount and downplay Edward’s religious commitment, as if religion must be the least and poorest motivating factor to good works. But it would be absurd not to take proper account of the king’s commitment of effort and wealth and engagement that led to the building of a great Norman or Romanesque monastery and abbey church, before the Norman Conquest, in place of a more modest monastery and church dating from about AD 960. Imagine if you will, consecrated on 28th December 1065, the largest church building, or indeed the largest building in the entire kingdom, in the Norman style, almost a year before the arrival of William the Conqueror, William Duke of Normandy in October 1066.
This great church, the work of Edward the Confessor, was to house the body of the king from 6th January 1066, buried below ground, in front of the high altar of the church he had built. A century later in 1161, Pope Alexander III canonised Edward and on 13th October 1163 his body was exhumed and laid in a new tomb above ground, so that his body could be venerated by the faithful. In the new church, this church, built by Henry III and consecrated on 13th October 1269, his body was placed in a new tomb more or less where it had been in his own church. There he still is, behind the high altar of this church, where after the service you may go to venerate the saint, as have thousands upon thousands of pilgrims over the past 850 years.
The Confessor lived in difficult times. A few years after his birth, in 1014, at a time of repeated invasion by Vikings from Denmark intent not so much on conquest as on plunder, Wulfstan, archbishop of York, preached a sermon that can still be read today online. He sought to call men and women back to the true faith, believing that far too many had fallen away from the practice of the Christian faith and had come to despise it. He said, ‘And also there are here in the land God's adversaries, degenerate apostates, and hostile persecutors of the Church and entirely too many grim tyrants, and widespread despisers of divine laws and Christian virtues, and foolish deriders everywhere in the nation, most often of those things that the messengers of God command, and especially those things that always belong to God's law by right.’
This may sound familiar to us. The times we face today are difficult for the Church and for our people. Heads of state and government around the world, of countries we thought we could rely on, prove instead at the very least unsteady, at worst positively aggressive. War continues in the Middle East; peoples are persecuted there and in so many parts of the world for their faith or national identity. Huge numbers of refugees desperately seek a better life as they cross border after border at great peril to themselves.
And our own people seem to have fallen away from the practice of the Christian faith. A recent survey suggested that only 14% of the population would describe themselves as Anglican, with a tiny 2% of young people. Now, you may take these statistics with a pinch of salt. A couple of years ago, a well-known, outspoken commentator, Janet Street-Porter, wrote this, ‘I believe in the power of prayer and have done since childhood. These days, people are astonished to discover I believe in God. It’s like admitting you have a huge boil on your bum or you slept with the postman last Christmas.’
But however bad it seems, however the time seems out of joint, this is nothing, I suggest, compared with the suffering occasioned by the world wars of the last century or the suffering of our common histories. Preparations are well advanced for our country and our allies to mark next month the centenary of the Armistice that brought to an end on 11th November 1918 the Great War, known to us as the First World War. Despite the extensive coverage the newspapers and television and radio have given the history of that war over the past four years, it is almost impossible for us to imagine what it must have meant for the people who took part in it and for the people at home awaiting the terrible news that their loved one had been killed in some battle on foreign soil.
If only we had a true sense of the history of our nation and of the Christian faith in our nation, we would not lose heart. Countless times over the past thousand years, between 1014 and 2018, our people in this land have suffered dreadful set-backs and horrors to test faith and potentially extinguish trust in God.
Think for a moment of the arrival of the plague in England, known as the Black Death, in June 1348 from Gascony and originally from China. Between June and December the following year, it has been estimated that almost half the population of England, perhaps as many as 3 million people, died as a result of the plague. Here at Westminster Abbey more than half the monks died. The plague returned from time to time until the year 1665 in London but never as damagingly. Attitudes to faith changed dramatically. The image of Christ was changed from one of awe and wonder to the suffering Christ.
Three hundred years later, the population of England had still not grown to the same level as before the 14th century plague, now at just over 5 million people. During the English Civil War in the 1640s, 200,000 men died of wounds in battle or disease resulting from battle: 4% of the population, perhaps 8% of the men. As a comparison, the population of the United Kingdom during the First World War was about 45 million and almost a million British combatants and civilians lost their lives. At a little over 2% of the population, that seems by comparison with the 14th and 17th century examples a tiny proportion. But every life lost carried its own message of grief and sorrow.
Our response to tough times should not be to turn away from God, to lose our faith and trust in Him, but to turn to God to renew our strength, in order to face our troubles and rise above them.
Wulfstan in 1014 concluded his sermon with these remarks, ‘Let us love God and follow God's laws; and let us order words and deeds justly, and cleanse our thoughts with zeal, and keep oaths and pledges carefully, and have some loyalty between us without evil practice. And let us gain for ourselves the glories and joys that God has prepared for those who work his will in the world.’ Through the mists of time over a thousand years, Wulfstan speaks to us.