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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