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Cardinal praises 'cosmopolitan' Confessor

posted on 10 October 2005
Preaches at Westminster Abbey on 1,000th anniversary of its founder’s birth

Edward the Confessor would not have been surprised by the “spiritual humanism” proposed recently by the Archbishops of Westminster and Canterbury, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor told a gathering at Westminster Abbey last Friday evening.

He was preaching at a Festal Evensong for the Octave of the Feast of St Edward the Confessor, the English king (1042-1066) who re-founded the Abbey on the site of a monastery. The Evensong was held as part of the Abbey’s celebration of the thousand-year anniversary of the birth of the Confessor, whose tomb lies in the Abbey. The Evensong was sung jointly by the choirs of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.

The Cardinal told a packed Abbey that they had “come to commemorate a king born a thousand years ago and to hear him speak to our time”. He said Edward’s shrine had made the Abbey “the symbolic heart of England’s corporate life”, in which the mausoleum of kings made clear that “power and privilege are not enough”.

The truly human society is a society governed not by expediency, or self –interest, the Cardinal added, “but by vision, in accordance with the deep laws of creation, and responsive to the will of God.”

The Abbey’s continued presence was a reminder of that vision. It “is a twitch upon London’s thread, tugging it always back to its heart,” the Cardinal said.

Modern Britain was far more diversified, culturally and religiously, than in Edward’s time, and so needed a “spiritual humanism” that drew on the tenets of true religion, the Cardinal went on, referring to the speeches he and the Archbishop of Canterbury made recently at an interfaith gathering in Lyon.

Edward the Confessor, who had a “wider perspective and a generous vision” would not have baulked at what the two archbishops proposed, the Cardinal added.

FULL TEXT FOLLOWS:

Homily given by the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, at at Festal Evensong at Westminster Abbey, at 5pm on 7 October 2005, sung by the combined choirs of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, on the occasion of the festival of the commemoration of the birth of the Abbey’s founder, St Edward the Confessor.

Dear friends,

We have come to commemorate a king born a thousand years ago and to hear him speak to our time.

In some ways he’s a shadowy figure, the last of the line of Saxon kings of England before the Norman Conquest. He was the great great great grandson of Alfred the Great, and the son of Ethelred the Unready, but he was unlike any of his predecessors. He was certainly no hero.

Kings in the Middle Ages knew what was expected of them. They had to defeat their enemies in war, and they had to beget sons to ensure the succession of the crown and provide political stability. Edward the Confessor did neither: he fought no battles, and he fathered no children. And partly because of that, after him English rule gave way to foreign conquest. But for more than twenty years Edward ruled as an effective and peaceable king. He took the taxes raised for war and gave some of them at least to the poor, he defused international aggression by negotiation, he tempered harsh laws to human frailty, he made himself available to his subjects, and he built on this site a great monastery dedicated to St Peter.

These would be rare virtues in any ruler in any age, and they convinced his contemporaries that he was a saint. A century after his death he was formally canonised, and a century after that, King Henry III swept away Edward’s church, and created the great Abbey we see today, to be a worthy shrine for the holy king’s relics.

The relics are still here, where Henry put them, behind the high altar. Uniquely among all the great shrines of medieval England, Edward’s bones were left unmolested at the Reformation. Perhaps the fact that he was a king outweighed the fact that he had been venerated as a saint.

At any rate, long before the Reformation the desire to be near those relics, to shelter under their protection and to bask in their reflected glory, made this building what it is. His successors built tombs for themselves near Edward’s shrine, and the Abbey became the symbolic heart of England’s corporate life. This was the place where its rulers were anointed and crowned, this was the place where many of them chose to lay their bones.

In due course, that sacred aura spread beyond the kings and queens, and the Abbey became the place where all the nation’s symbolic dead, its heroes and role-models, were buried or commemorated. From Dr Johnson to Charles Darwin, from Oscar Wilde to Winston Churchill, down to the anonymous grave of the unknown soldier, this is the house of the illustrious dead, many of them anything but saintly, yet all of them remembered here, because St Edward is remembered here.

One could be cynical. In the choice of this place for the coronation rites, and in the clustering of dead kings around the shrine of the peaceable saint, you can, if you like, see nothing but a desire to disguise brute power with the veil of religion, to sprinkle a little holy water over naked power and privilege.

And of course there’s something in that. All regimes look for legitimacy by invoking the shared values of the societies they rule. All rulers would like those they rule to think that they speak and act for God, or for Destiny, or for the Good of the people. In sanctifying the status quo, medieval England was no exception. If you are looking for hypocrisy or for mixed motives, no doubt you can find them here, as you can find them anywhere else.

But cynicism is too cheap. For in building a church to be the mausoleum of kings, and the sanctuary where they were crowned, Edward the Confessor and Henry III and their successors ever since had much more in mind than pious window-dressing. They were giving expression in wood and stone and glass and precious metal to a conviction which they shared with the author of the Book of Wisdom. Power and privilege are not enough. For rule to be legitimate, it must be rooted in wisdom and justice. Elsewhere in the Book of Proverbs the author declares: “Where there is no vision, the People perish” (Proverbs 29/18). The truly human society is a society governed not by expediency, or self-interest, or political pragmatism, or economics, but by vision, in accordance with the deep laws of creation, and responsive to the will of God. In the verses which follow on immediately from the passage we heard for our first reading, divine Wisdom declares that:

“Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom:
I am understanding, I have strength.
By me kings reign, and princes decree justice,
By me princes rule, and nobles,
even all the judges of the earth”. [Proverbs 8/14-15]

When Edward built the first minster here in the West, London already had a great minster in the East, its cathedral church of St Paul’s. By dedicating the new West Minster to St Peter, Edward poised his capital and its people between the two great founding Apostles of the Church, and placed the life of London, and of England, under the light of that church’s teaching and witness and wisdom. This was to be no secular city, but a community shaped by Christian faith and hope and love; and the Abbey’s continued presence at the heart of our city is a twitch upon London’s thread, tugging it always back to its heart.

That was why Edward lavished so much wealth on the creation of the original Westminster Abbey; and it was why Henry III created the glorious building we worship in tonight. That was why it was important to successive rulers of England that they began their rule here, near the resting place of a holy king, and in the context of prayer, and the offering of the Eucharist, and in attent
Notes:
1. Information on Edward the Confessor festival at www.westminster-abbey.org

2. Edward the Confessor was declared a saint in 1161. The veneration of his relics led to Westminster becoming the coronation church and burial place of English kings and queens.

3. Evensong is an Anglican prayer based on one of the ‘offices’ sung by the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey. Evensong conflates the monastic evening offices of Vespers and Compline.

4. The psalms (146, 72) and scripture extracts (Proverbs 8:1-11; John 15:1-8) last Friday are specific to the feast of Edward the Confessor.

5. For a number of years the commmunities and choirs of the Abbey and Cathedral have joined together at this feast in an ecumenical Festal Evensong. The service last Friday juxtaposed liturgical music from the traditions of both places: the Cathedral choir sang a Latin psalm to plainsong, the Abbey choir a psalm in English to an Anglican chant.
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posted on 10 October 2005

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