A More Pluralist World Than Edward the Confessor's

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s Homily at Westminster Abbey

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LONDON, OCT. 10, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of the homily given by the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, at Festal Evensong at Westminster Abbey, last Friday, sung by the combined choirs of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.

The occasion was the festival of the 1,000th-anniversary 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 20 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 canonized, 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 attentive listening to the word of God, the source of all wisdom.

Where there is no vision, the people perish. We find that easier to believe of the Middle Ages, in a Christian society where everyone believed in divine wisdom, and where everybody agreed about where such wisdom might be found; but what about a society in which there is not just one vision, but many, and where those visions often seem to contradict and cancel out each other?

Ours is [a] more complicated and pluralist world than Edward the Confessor’s. These days one in four Londoners is born abroad, and into diverse faiths. Ours is a social melting-pot where people of different races, different cultures, different religions and people of no religion at all must build a common life together. Has the vision represented by the tomb of Edward anything to say to such a world?

You cannot solve the difficulties created by the existence of a multitude of visions for society by trying to create a society emptied of vision altogether. An utterly secular society, which turns its back on transcendent value, and governs itself by sheer pragmatism and the lowest common denominator, can never be a home for human beings worthy of that name.

Wisdom is not private; morality is not private; the holiness of life is not private. We have to find ways to make the public fabric of our society, our laws, our civic institutions, the texture and quality of the life we live together, reflect more than just the values of the global market. They must reflect wisdom and love and justice. They must defend the God-given dignity of all. They must look out, above all, for the poorest and most vulnerable, lest the strong be left to walk on them. These are not pragmatic matters.

It is fashionable among some to talk as if religion was the source of all that is amiss in our world, to see it as bringing nothing but violence and hatred and conflict. Love and hate do indeed l
ive close together in the human heart. Where people’s deepest loyalties and deepest convictions are engaged, then there is always the danger of perversion.

But a world without deep loves and deep loyalties would be a desert. Twisted religion may be used to justify hatred and violence. But true religion points us towards healing and wholeness, towards whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious [Philippians 4:8].

This is what faith agrees on. Recently, at a major interfaith gathering in Lyon organized in the spirit of the first great meeting in Assisi in 1986, both [Anglican] Archbishop [Rowan] Williams and I called for religious leaders to unite around what our traditions hold as deeply true: and to reject the false prophets of violence and hatred, just as the faith leaders in Britain did after 7 July, in the wake of the attacks on our city. This common witness is helping to build a spiritual humanism of peace, a framework for belonging recast for our diversified world.

I say «spiritual» humanism, because society needs more than abstract ideals, it must embody and promote decency, dignity, respect for others. And as long as there have been human beings, they have looked to religion, to a sense of living in God’s world under God’s law, for light on what decency and dignity and respect for others might mean.

The shrines are not redundant: we need holiness and wisdom and love and peace as much as ever we did, and the ancient wells from which holiness and wisdom and love and peace have been drawn have not run dry.

To commemorate a thousand years of Christian kingship here, where England’s and Britain’s illustrious dead are laid, could easily become a tribal ritual, a defiant narrowing down or clenching up against the stranger, against whatever we judge alien to our collective past.

But even here the shrine of Edward points us towards a wider perspective and a more generous vision. He was no little Englander: His court was cosmopolitan and he sent English bishops to take part in the international councils called by the greatest German Pope of the Middle Ages, St. Leo IX.

And when Henry III built this sanctuary round the tomb of Edward, he too remembered that England was part of a wider world. He sent to Rome for craftsmen whose decoration of the shrine evoked both the splendors of pagan Rome, and the Christian inheritance of papal Rome. Here, in the heart of a great Christian sanctuary, the builders found room for everything good in humanity. And so, I fancy, Edward would not have balked at what the archbishop of Canterbury and I proposed in Lyon, but would welcome it.

Dear friends, I am delighted to be here, among you, at the beginning of your period of great celebration, in the presence of our two choirs, to give thanks for this holy king, and for what he represents: wise and peaceable government, compassion for the poor, justice for the oppressed, openness to the wisdom and the word of God, an openness to all humanity.

Here at the shrine of St. Edward we ask God’s blessing on our country and on all its people, we ask that it may be a place where all its citizens, whatever their origins or their beliefs, can live together in dignity and safety, where hatreds are defused by love, where the truth is spoken and heard, where the stranger, the widow and the orphan are received with open hand and heart, where our rulers seek wisdom, and our people peace. Amen.

* * *

See www.westminster-abbey.org.

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