The Bishop of Richborough on the Saint’s legacy of Christian faithfulness
‘When Edward Confessor ruled over the land
The Faverches’ Manor stood here close at hand.’
Some days, especially in the late autumn, the early morning mist lingers in Stiffkey’s fair vale, and at the vicarage in Walsingham you feel as if you are in the
centre of a cloud, the air totally saturated with moisture. It can feel very gloomy, damp and oppressive at times, as if all the prayers and petitions, the needs and the hurts of pilgrims and the Church itself are lingering, waiting to be processed by the hard work of prayer in the Shrine and Holy House.
As some of you know, the vicarage sits at the edge of the Anglo-Saxon settlement where the Faverche Manor would have stood and where Richeldis received her vision. It was a difficult and uncertain time across Europe, even as far as the Holy Land itself with the increasing inaccessibility of Christian sacred sites. And in England increasing worry over the succession to the throne, for who would succeed the childless and aging King Edward? A long, long way from a tiny remote village in Norfolk, with a handful of folk and a few homesteads and farms clustered around a church and a small manor house. But it was here in the reign of Edward the Confessor that Our Lady decided to appear and almost a thousand years later, I imagine most, if not all, of us here are grateful for that appearing. And for the obedience and faith of Richeldis and the faithfulness of countless pilgrims through the ages, of which we are heirs and custodians.
Over the years I got to know and love the East Window of St Mary’s. It is a stained glass window you can gaze and gaze at, and among those depicted is the tall lean figure of Edward, his presence and his prayer a constant in the story of English spirituality. And like Richeldis, he was a builder, although on a much grander scale than in Walsingham! His inspiration and patronage for the Abbey Church of St Peter in Westminster has bequeathed to us a space that speaks unequivocally of the holy and of the sacred. A place where monarchs have been anointed and crowned and where, in times of great rejoicing and sorrow, the nation has knelt in prayer and supplication.
We, as a constituency within the Church, feel very deeply about that continuity. Yes, we are realists, we know our history, we are as aware as anyone of the upheavals and traumas that have inevitably beset the Church since the time of Edward the Confessor, not least the wound of the Reformation, a wound that is still so obviously hurting. But we also have a profound sense and understanding of God’s faithfulness. The upheavals that we experience are not on the scale to those of the sixteenth century where, for those who held the faith, it was as if an impenetrable and permanent cloud had settled on the nation. But, as the glorious doggerel of the Walsingham Pilgrim Hymn so confidently proclaims, even in the darkest of days, a few, the faithful, continued to witness and in their faithfulness, God’s faithfulness was honoured.
‘And so dark night fell on this glorious place
Where of all former glories there hardly was trace.
Yet a thin stream of pilgrims still walked the old way
And hearts longed to see this night turned into day.’
We are here today, we continue in our struggle for the soul of the Church, because we too want no more and no less than to honour God’s faithfulness. He has planted in our hearts a reserve about the present mind of our Church and calls us in humility and gentleness, in whatever way we can, to voice that reserve.
The prophetic voice comes at great cost. We live with the tension of speaking against the flow, against the majority voice that believes the opening of the threefold orders of ministry to men and women will be a renewing of the Church that will eventually be received by the Church Universal. But somehow, the story so far for us, as indeed among the majority of Christians, East and West, does not convince. So we remain in this very difficult and uncomfortable space, seemingly out of step with the majority both in church and in secular society. It is not easy. But it never has been easy.
Our history tells us, again and again, that truth has never been revealed through majorities, but by waiting on God and conforming ourselves to him. And so we continue to be here, because we can do no less than be here, to be faithful to God’s faithfulness. As St Paul says, ‘The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness. For when we cannot choose words … the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words.’ Historians differ in their verdict on Edward the Confessor. He certainly had a temper and an inordinate love of hunting and many of his political decisions are questionable.
What is clear, however, is that he loved God, honoured his Son in worship and his personal and spiritual life and left a legacy of Christian faithfulness and generosity that endures to this day. Can we do less? So in the Lord’s name: Be happy, even when we are misjudged and misquoted. Even when we are ridiculed and marginalized. Even when we are bypassed and caricatured, trying always to discern in all that we do that it is for the love of God and in the service of his Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. And so, confident in the faith revealed and entrusted to us, we joyfully lift our hearts to God and proclaim: Now to God the All Father and Son with due praise. And life giving Spirit, thanksgiving we raise. ND
This Homily was originally preached at the National Assembly Mass in 2012, the Feast of Edward the Confessor