St Wulstan of Worcester

When I lived in Worcester St Wulstan was not only a local saint, he was a very approachable one. Much that we saw when we looked out of the monastery windows would have been familiar to him. As Benedictines, we lived by the same Rule and ordered our days by a similar horarium. It helped that he was one of the bridges between the old Anglo-Saxon world and the new world of the Norman Conquest, keeping his see when the other Anglo-Saxon bishops lost theirs. We admired his work to end the slave trade (see this post for a reflection on the same), chuckled over his habit of repeating lines of the Office that he particularly enjoyed (very trying to his companions, no doubt) and were moved by Colman’s stories of his washing the feet of the poor and his generosity towards those in need. Even allowing for the hagiographer’s touch of rose, Wulstan was the kind of saint we could actually like; and we didn’t think much of Emma Mason’s debunking account of 1990.

It would be a mistake to conclude that Wulstan was a holy fool, a man who spent all his time in prayer, devotion and works of mercy and was not taken seriously by his contemporaries. Wulstan was socially well-connected and made the most of his connections. His personal humility did not extend to ignoring or playing down the rights of his see, nor did his zeal for reform or his extensive building plans suggest a weak character. He is thus a much more challenging figure than many will admit. What has always struck me about Wulstan is that, for all his very considerable charm, he was a man of iron will. Even the often-repeated anecdote about his being distracted at prayer by the smell of a goose roasting and vowing that he would never eat meat again if he could be freed of the temptation is evidence of his determination not to be deflected from what he thought was right.

I wonder how many of us have thought about the kind of sanctity that Wulstan demonstrates, the very capable sanctity of a man who fulfilled his office with care but did not limit himself to the immediate concerns of his own diocese? For most of us there is a difficult balance to be maintained between the obvious duties of our life and the wider concerns of the society in which we live. Wulstan’s holiness as both monk and bishop reminds us that achieving that balance, resolving some of its implicit contradictions, is both possible and worthwhile. Today let us ask his prayers for all who feel pulled in many directions but who recognize the pull of our Lord Jesus Christ as the most important of all.


The Slave Trade and the Church

St Wulstan of Worcester (died 1095) is one of those saints who seem at once remote yet very close. A well-connected cleric of the late Anglo-Saxon period whose ecclesiastical career suffered barely a hiccup at the Norman Conquest, he was nevertheless a conventionally devout man who insisted on praying the monastic office as he travelled round his diocese, often annoying his staff by repeating lines he found especially attractive. William of Malmesbury turned Colman’s original account of him into Latin and so gave it widespread currency. His pages show us a man of singular sweetness of character whose involvement in all the usual activities of a churchman of his day and neat navigation of some of the more choppy political waters was accompanied by a deeply personal love of Christ. Although not a scholarly man himself, Wulstan was a friend of Robert of Losinga, bishop of Hereford, who was well-known as a mathematician and astronomer. For us today Wulstan’s life has a further element worth pondering. He worked tirelessly to end the slave trade and was credited, along with Lanfranc, with putting a stop to the transport of slaves from Bristol.

That sounds a very modern note, doesn’t it? Pope Francis reminded us recently that the Church is committed to ending the evil of trafficking and modern varieties of slavery, calling it ‘an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ’. No one can be ignorant of the many forms of slavery that exist in society today, although we do not always see how we ourselves may be involved in them. From the young people trafficked as prostitutes the world over to the bonded labourers of overseas factories and the illegal immigrants working long hours for next to nothing in Britain, slavery is a terrible reality. On this second day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian unity, let us ask ourselves how we can work together to put an end to this evil in our midst. The Anglo-Saxon Wulstan and the Italo-Norman Lanfranc overcame their differences to put an end to the Bristol slave trade in the eleventh century. Oughtn’t we, in the twenty-first, to be able to do the same?