Sermon preached by Rt. Revd. Jonathan Clark, Bishop of Croydon, Diocese of Southwark on the 11th October 2020 on the occasion of St. Edwards Patronal Festival and licensing of Revd Deborah as Assistant Priest
Edward the Confessor lived in and age of violence and uncertainty. He and his family went into exile because of the Danish invasion of England, and his own reign of course was followed by a war between the two main claimants to the throne, Harold and William. William’s nicknamed the conqueror tells you who won! But what about Edward’s nickname ‘the confessor’? The website of Westminster Abbey, which he founded says this:
He had not been a particularly successful king, but his personal character and piety endeared him to his people. He was regarded as a saint long before he was officially canonised as Saint and Confessor by Pope Alexander III in February 1161. A Confessor is a saint who suffered for their faith and demonstrated their sanctity in the face of worldly temptations, but who was not a martyr.
So essentially Edward was remembered and venerated as someone whose love of God shone through, despite the difficulties and suffering of his life. That’s probably about as far as it’s safe to go – because there’s plenty of debate about how holy he really was, and whether he became a saint it was goo advertising for Westminster Abbey to have been founded by one. That is to say, if Edward was holy, he was also very human. No-one would claim that he was perfect.
Personally, I think its quite encouraging to have a patron saint like Edward. He was a king, certainly – but he wasn’t the sort of saint you look at and think ‘I could never be like that’. Admittedly none of us are likely to be founding any abbeys any time soon – but with the resources that are ours, we too can build signs of the kingdom of God.
In the middle of a pandemic, it’s been both all the more important, and all the more difficult. Even though we are now able to meet in church for worship, so much of what makes for congregational life is denied us – we can’t sing, we can’t touch, we can’t enjoy that all important cup of tea after the service. The coronavirus has stripped away many of the things we think make up ‘church’; perhaps through all of that it has been used by God to help us understand more deeply what is the real heart of our faith.
Of course, we all know that singing hymns is not the heart of Christian faith, nor even drinking cups of tea. But the things we enjoy, and have done all our lives, can end up taking pride of place in practice, even if we know they’re not the most important in theory. So let us remind ourselves: that we are as Christian people is a family formed by baptism, nourished by word and sacrament, and sent out to proclaim in word and deed the good news of Jesus Christ. The rest is footnotes.
The pandemic has made all churches think again about what it means to live the Christian life, and virtually all the churches in our diocese have responded with creativity and compassion in doing all they can to support the life of prayer and worship, and to serve the communities in which they are set. The ways in which you here have made worship available online, and have cared for one another during lockdown, are one great example among many others.
We are a people of hope, because we know that the future of the church is not based on any one way of doing things. Our foundation is on the God who is love, and who in love came to gather us up into eternal life through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing that this is thee God whom we worship, we know that he will not allow the good news to fail to be proclaimed. But as to how it may be proclaimed, that is another matter. It is our task to discern that, and to walk with God into God’s future. In the eleventh century, in an England only recently Christian, Edward helped to promote the kingdom by the establishment of the Abbey at Westminster, promoting and supporting the monastic tradition which was at the heart of the faith until the Reformation. That is almost completely unlike anything we’re called to do now –but the same question faces us, in our own contexts: what can we do now, in the situation we’re in, to build the kingdom?
It is in the light of that hope and of that challenge that today I am delighted to license Deborah as assistant priest in this parish. Deborah has of course been fully involved in the life of St. Edward’s since she and Prem arrived, and it is a great joy (after quite a lot of bureaucratic tangles) that she will be able to exercise her priestly ministry here. She along with Prem bring to you their gifts, their wisdom and experience, to share with you in discerning the future. You who are part of the community of faith bring your own wisdom too, and your understanding and knowledge of this community and its needs. It is together that the movement of the Spirit is discerned, as you listen to and learn from one another.
We are all called to be confessors. The task of witnessing to our faith is given to each Christian believer, in our own way and in our own place. As we celebrate Edward today, and as we rejoice with Deborah in this next stage in her ministry, let us also rejoice in the gift of God given to us as God’s people, and look forward in hope.