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.