The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
On 7th February 1161, Pope Alexander III wrote a letter addressed here at Westminster Abbey. The Pope's letter began, 'Alexander, bishop, servant of the servants of God, to our beloved sons Laurence, abbot, and the entire chapter of Westminster, greetings and apostolic blessing.' The purpose ofthe letter was to respond to those addressed to him by King Henry II, the archbishop of York and sundry other bishops as well as the abbot and chapter of Westminster, asking him to enrol Henry's predecessor and kinsman Edward, king of England from 1042 until his death on 5th January 1066, amongst thelist of saints recognised by the holy Catholic Church.
No doubt many of us are properly ambitious, striving for success by some measure or another. For each of us the mark of success will be different: it may be a more fulfilling job, or a happy marriage, or the blessing of children, or more leisuretime, or a comfortable retirement. If we seek earthly glory, that may be hard to come by. Heavenly glory? Is that within our reach? Heavenly glory is the glory of God himself, of the seraphim and cherubim, the archangels and angels, the glory of the saints. So, can we become saints, and, a linked butseparate question, how could we be recognised as such?
Pope Alexander III's letter might give us a clue as to the latter query. The Pope recognised the constant devotion and firmness of faith of the abbot and chapter of Westminster. He explained that he had conferred with the cardinals, inspectedthe book listing the miracles Edward had worked before and after his death, referred to the consideration given to the matter by his predecessor Alexander II, and received the various letters testimonial. He went on to say that normally such sublime and difficult business should be conducted in a solemncouncil, but, with the common counsel of the cardinals, he would grant that Edward should be numbered among the holy confessors, that is not amongst the apostles, martyrs, bishops, virgins or pastors. The Abbey should promote the cult of the new saint. They did.
Two years later, on 13th October1163, the body of the saint was lifted from its grave below ground in front of the high altar of the Church he had caused to be built here a hundred years earlier. The body of the saint was uncorrupt. Still clad in cloth of gold, it was wrapped in a silk cloth and placed in a wooden coffin. The coffinwas then carried around the cloisters and placed in a new shrine above ground by the high altar of the Abbey church. The king, Henry II, came to the service. Also here were the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, and all but one of the bishops of the southern Province, four abbots and eight earls,representing the nobility of England, and three bishops from Normandy, from Evreux, Avranches and Lisieux.
The evidence so far suggests that one of the conditions for recognition as a saint is the 'constant devotion and firmness of faith' of those making the proposal. It is perhaps not quite soeasy.
A modern example. Since 1998, displayed on the west front of the Abbey have been ten martyrs who gave their lives for the Christian faith during the 20th century. Of these one, archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who was assassinated at the altar on 24th March 1980, had become recognisedby the Church of England and here at the Abbey, well before his own church had come to see him as a saint. Although a local cult had developed for this good man who had taken up the cause of the poor and oppressed in a corrupt and repressive state and been killed to silence his opposition, the RomanCatholic Church as a whole had so far neglected his cause. I was pleased to draw the attention of Pope Benedict XVI to the statue, when he visited the Abbey on 17th September 2010. In no way on account of my intervention, he promoted the cause, which was then encouraged by Pope Francis. Happily, on 23rdMay this year, at a ceremony in his city, Oscar Romero was beatified and will surely soon be recognised as a saint.
There may be political reasons why a saint is not recognised as such – or indeed why he or she is so recognised. Pope Alexander III was not the undisputed pope in 1161. He hadsucceeded in 1159 the only English pope so far, Adrian IV. But the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa had his own preferred alternative candidate, who was backed by a minority of the cardinals. Victor IV, the emperor's choice, continued as antipope until his death in 1164.
So, Alexander III'shold on the papacy in 1161 was tenuous. He needed political support. Alexander's claim was to succeed. He was to reign until his death at the age of 76 in 1181. One of the reasons for his achievement was that he enjoyed the powerful support of King Henry II of England, together with that of other kings.And the canonisation of Henry II's kinsman and predecessor on the throne of England was in the interests of the king. To have a saint as a kinsman inevitably strengthened him in his disputes with Thomas Becket. Everyone seemed to win.
>Perhaps this is shocking, alarming even. The warning lesson aroundthis apparently brilliant piece of diplomatic footwork is that both archbishop and king were eventually to suffer loss through their dispute: loss of life for one and of face for the other. After Thomas Becket's assassination by four knights, his martyrdom, in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170,Henry was to do public penance.
We should not expect the Church to be perfect. The Church lives in the world and is subject to all kinds of influences, good and bad. Good and bad wrestle in the souls, minds and hearts of all of us who seek to follow in the way of Christ, to be faithful disciples.Certainly the decisions the Church takes about whom to recognise as a saint are inevitably affected by attitudes and events in the world. For the first millennium, saints were recognised locally by acclaim. Such was the case with St Edward the Confessor's uncle, St Edward king and martyr, murdered atCorfe Castle in 978, some suggest on the instructions of his half-brother, Edward the Confessor's father, Aethelred the Unready. Now at the beginning of the third millennium, careful assessments are made and the case argued back and forth. Even so, the influences behind the choices are above all to dowith promoting the cause of the Christian faith. And inevitably they are subjective.
But the saints should be our heroes; they should inspire us with their example; they should encourage us to be more faithful Christians. Their impact is in the world. The example of St Edward the Confessor may feelremote, but the decisions he took about building his palace here and rebuilding the Abbey continue as a powerful influence on the mission of this holy place to this day. He was in addition a pious Christian and a good ruler. He was authoritatively recognised amongst the saints. We should and do reverehim.
We cannot in any way aim for recognition as saints; if we did we should fall far short. But we can and should hope and strive to be saints and by God's grace to enjoy in due time heavenly glory. Against that prospect any ambition we might harbour for earthly glory pales into insignificance,fades into nothingness.
Our Lord's instruction to his disciples about how they might come to reign with him in glory was clear and direct. We heard it in the gospel reading this evening. 'Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must beyour slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.'
And the hymn we shall sing in a few minutes takes us to the heart of the matter. 'Hark the sound of holy voices chanting at the crystal sea alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, Lord, to thee!'And what have they done to join the heavenly host? 'They have come from tribulation, and have washed their robes in blood, washed them in the blood of Jesus; they have conquered death and Satan by the might of Christ the Lord.'
So, as we approach the holy mysteries to be fed by the body and to drinkthe blood of the Lord, we may pray and hope that by God's grace we shall come in his good time to see him as we are seen and to enjoy all the glory of heaven.