The Confessor and the Conqueror

The feast of St Edward the Confessor tends to be greeted with a smile by most people, if they think of it at all. According to popular myth, he was a bit of a loser: politically inept, childless, more interested in Churchy things than anything else. We look around Westminster Abbey and are grateful, but he is like all those Anglo-Saxon saints with impossible names who seem so long ago and far away that they do not live for us as people of flesh and blood. He is a royal cypher rather than a distinct personality. Compare and contrast him with William the Conqueror. Now there’s someone we can relate to: a larger-than-life figure, ambitious, ruthless, above all, successful. There’s a touch of Lydia Languish about Edward; more than a whiff of Putin about William. But Edward was considered a saint, even in his own lifetime; more than one person thought of William as the devil incarnate. For us today they are a reminder not only of the potency of what we might call popular history but also of  two very different world-views. How many politicians today would be in the running for a halo? How many would be dismissed for caring about the poor or ridiculed for their personal austerities?

If we leave aside the historical myths for a moment, we are confronted with a very contemporary question. How far can a public figure live his or her life according to the values they hold in private? We have grown so accustomed to the idea of the separation of Church and State, for example, that we tend to view religion as a private matter which should not be allowed to intrude in the public sphere. That would have been nonsense to Edward. There was a consistency about the public and the private man that his contemporaries understood and honoured, even if they would have liked him to have been more obviously a warrior and less obviously a wimp. Today there are lots of questions we are told the Church should have no view on, or take no part in deciding, yet every member of the Church is also a citizen and, as a citizen, has both the right and the duty to speak and act in the public sphere. We talk a great deal about rights today. Edward the Confessor reminds us that we have duties, too. Faithfully performed, they can lead us to holiness. They may also, incidentally, lead us to suffering and persecution on the way.

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Can the Powerful Be Holy?

In Anglo-Saxon times such a question would probably never have occurred to anyone. The long roll-call of saintly kings and queens, bishops, abbots and abbesses (who were themselves usually of royal or noble origin), would have been evidence enough. The royal cults of Anglo-Saxon England are especially interesting, as they include one or two saints whose claim to holiness is — what shall we say — a little on the questionable side by modern standards. Even today’s saint, Edward the Confessor, has had his sanctity questioned by latter-day historians, though more on the grounds of political ineptitude than because of any deliberately ungodly behaviour on his part. It is as though the possession of power marked a man or woman out as blessed by God; and provided the administration of that power was in conformity with Christian ideals and accompanied by manifestations of divine approval (miracles), the holder of it could be thought of as holy. Is that true today?

I daresay anyone looking at the political landscape in Britain today would hesitate to dub any of our chief politicians holy; there have certainly not been any obvious miracles to attest to divine favour recently — or am I being unduly cynical? It makes one ask, is there now a divorce between holiness and power? Does personal goodness in a leader matter? Should our conduct in the public sphere be affected by the ideals we hold in the private sphere? These become important questions when we are talking about legislation on life-death issues such as abortion, euthanasia, or war. They are also important when we are considering the education of our children or the welfare system that supports the sick or unemployed. They matter, too, when we are managing a company or administering a service. In short, anyone who is a leader or holds any kind of power has to make choices that affect others on the basis of what he or she thinks or believes.

For many people — not just politicians — the answer is to be found in compromise. One does what one can, according to one’s lights; and because Britain today is a multi-ethnic, polycultural society, what one can do must be tempered by the knowledge that someone’s susceptibilities are likely to be affected. The only problem I have with that is the fact that we are all called to be holy, something which admits of no compromise. I do not know how to square that with the realpolitik of leadership, but I am sure prayer is an essential element. To some, Edward the Confessor may seem a bit of a loser, but I think myself he makes a very good patron for those in positions of power wanting to do the right thing, but not entirely sure how to set about it. St Edward, pray for us!

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