Irrelevant to Today?

Last year, I penned a kind of shortened Cambridge Shorter History account of St Wulstan, whose feast we keep today, (see here). An earlier account of his role in ending the slave trade between Bristol and Ireland drew derision from some whose focus is Black Slavery, while more serious attempts to assess his character and activity appear to have bored my readers more than somewhat. So, is St Wulstan, who died in 1095, irrelevant to today — one of those musty old medieval male saints who belong in stained glass windows and are not part of the living faith of anyone nowadays? That depends.

We can make a case for considering Wulstan to be very modern indeed, principally by ignoring his historical context and seizing on aspects of his life that appeal to us. Take that interest in the slave trade, for example. It resonates with all who are concerned about the evils of human trafficking and exploitation. Or take his extraordinary ability to maintain his position under William the Conqueror. That surely provides food for thought among those who do not see their national identity being crushed out of existence by association with others. It even has something to say about our current preoccupations with Christian unity and liturgical observance, for Wulstan found a way of adopting and advancing Lanfranc’s reforms while making Worcester a centre of Old English culture and piety.

The difficulty only really comes when we have to take seriously the intellectual and spiritual world Wulstan inhabited and the way in which that affected his thoughts and actions. Even if we would describe ourselves as religious, those long unseen hours of prayer, those daily distributions of alms to the poor, those foot-washings, they are a world away from our usual experience. I don’t mean that we do not pray, or that we do not give alms; but the way in which we do those things has changed. The way in which we live has changed. More and more things clamour for our attention. Even in a monastery, we have to spend time on matters that would never have troubled Wulstan or his contemporaries. The world we inhabit is larger, noisier and apparently much more complex. So, where does that leave us?

I think it leaves us confronting something we may find uncongenial: the reality of a sanctity that, at one level, baffles and bewilders yet, at another, rings true. Wulstan was a saint and it is as such that he has a claim on us today. It is in his holiness, in his closeness to God, and in his activity as intercessor on our behalf that we find his relevance. It doesn’t matter that he comes from a different age or context from the one with which we are familiar. He is part of that great Communion of Saints that embraces the whole of creation. As such, he is very close to us even now. We can rejoice in his closeness and learn from him. St Wulstan, pray for us!

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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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail