|Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's Homily at Westminster Abbey
LONDON, 10 OCT. 2005 (ZENIT)
Here is the text of the homily given by
the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, at
Festal Evensong at Westminster Abbey, last Friday, sung by the combined
choirs of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.
The occasion was the festival of the 1,000th-anniversary commemoration
of the birth of the abbey's founder, St. Edward the Confessor.
* * *
We have come to commemorate a king born a thousand years ago and to hear
him speak to our time.
In some ways he's a shadowy figure, the last of the line of Saxon kings
of England before the Norman Conquest. He was the
great-great-great-grandson of Alfred the Great, and the son of Ethelred
the Unready, but he was unlike any of his predecessors. He was certainly
Kings in the Middle Ages knew what was expected of them. They had to
defeat their enemies in war, and they had to beget sons to ensure the
succession of the crown and provide political stability. Edward the
Confessor did neither: He fought no battles, and he fathered no
children. And partly because of that, after him English rule gave way to
foreign conquest. But for more than 20 years Edward ruled as an
effective and peaceable king. He took the taxes raised for war and gave
some of them at least to the poor, he defused international aggression
by negotiation, he tempered harsh laws to human frailty, he made himself
available to his subjects, and he built on this site a great monastery
dedicated to St Peter.
These would be rare virtues in any ruler in any age, and they convinced
his contemporaries that he was a saint. A century after his death he was
formally canonized, and a century after that, King Henry III swept away
Edward's church, and created the great abbey we see today, to be a
worthy shrine for the holy king's relics.
The relics are still here, where Henry put them, behind the high altar.
Uniquely among all the great shrines of medieval England, Edward's bones
were left unmolested at the Reformation. Perhaps the fact that he was a
king outweighed the fact that he had been venerated as a saint.
At any rate, long before the Reformation the desire to be near those
relics, to shelter under their protection and to bask in their reflected
glory, made this building what it is. His successors built tombs for
themselves near Edward's shrine, and the abbey became the symbolic heart
of England's corporate life. This was the place where its rulers were
anointed and crowned, this was the place where many of them chose to lay
In due course, that sacred aura spread beyond the kings and queens, and
the abbey became the place where all the nation's symbolic dead, its
heroes and role-models, were buried or commemorated. From Dr. Johnson to
Charles Darwin, from Oscar Wilde to Winston Churchill, down to the
anonymous grave of the unknown soldier, this is the house of the
illustrious dead, many of them anything but saintly, yet all of them
remembered here, because St. Edward is remembered here.
One could be cynical. In the choice of this place for the coronation
rites, and in the clustering of dead kings around the shrine of the
peaceable saint, you can, if you like, see nothing but a desire to
disguise brute power with the veil of religion, to sprinkle a little
holy water over naked power and privilege.
And of course there's something in that. All regimes look for legitimacy
by invoking the shared values of the societies they rule. All rulers
would like those they rule to think that they speak and act for God, or
for destiny, or for the good of the people. In sanctifying the status
quo, medieval England was no exception. If you are looking for hypocrisy
or for mixed motives, no doubt you can find them here, as you can find
them anywhere else.
But cynicism is too cheap. For in building a church to be the mausoleum
of kings, and the sanctuary where they were crowned, Edward the
Confessor and Henry III and their successors ever since had much more in
mind than pious window-dressing.
They were giving expression in wood and stone and glass and precious
metal to a conviction which they shared with the author of the Book of
Wisdom. Power and privilege are not enough. For rule to be legitimate,
it must be rooted in wisdom and justice.
Elsewhere in the Book of Proverbs the author declares: "Where there is
no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18). The truly human society
is a society governed not by expediency, or self-interest, or political
pragmatism, or economics, but by vision, in accordance with the deep
laws of creation, and responsive to the will of God.
In the verses which follow on immediately from the passage we heard for
our first reading, divine Wisdom declares that:
"Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom:
I am understanding, I have strength.
By me kings reign, and princes decree justice,
By me princes rule, and nobles,
even all the judges of the earth" [Proverbs 8:14-15]
When Edward built the first minster here in the West, London already had
a great minster in the East, its cathedral church of St. Paul's. By
dedicating the new West Minster to St. Peter, Edward poised his capital
and its people between the two great founding apostles of the Church,
and placed the life of London, and of England, under the light of that
Church's teaching and witness and wisdom.
This was to be no secular city, but a community shaped by Christian
faith and hope and love; and the abbey's continued presence at the heart
of our city is a twitch upon London's thread, tugging it always back to
That was why Edward lavished so much wealth on the creation of the
original Westminster Abbey; and it was why Henry III created the
glorious building we worship in tonight. That was why it was important
to successive rulers of England that they began their rule here, near
the resting place of a holy king, and in the context of prayer, and the
offering of the Eucharist, and in attentive listening to the word of
God, the source of all wisdom.
Where there is no vision, the people perish. We find that easier to
believe of the Middle Ages, in a Christian society where everyone
believed in divine wisdom, and where everybody agreed about where such
wisdom might be found; but what about a society in which there is not
just one vision, but many, and where those visions often seem to
contradict and cancel out each other?
Ours is [a] more complicated and pluralist world than Edward the
Confessor's. These days one in four Londoners is born abroad, and into
diverse faiths. Ours is a social melting-pot where people of different
races, different cultures, different religions and people of no religion
at all must build a common life together. Has the vision represented by
the tomb of Edward anything to say to such a world?
You cannot solve the difficulties created by the existence of a
multitude of visions for society by trying to create a society emptied
of vision altogether. An utterly secular society, which turns its back
on transcendent value, and governs itself by sheer pragmatism and the
lowest common denominator, can never be a home for human beings worthy
of that name.
Wisdom is not private; morality is not private; the holiness of life is
not private. We have to find ways to make the public fabric of our
society, our laws, our civic institutions, the texture and quality of
the life we live together, reflect more than just the values of the
global market. They must reflect wisdom and love and justice. They must
defend the God-given dignity of all. They must look out, above all, for
the poorest and most vulnerable, lest the strong be left to walk on
them. These are not pragmatic matters.
It is fashionable among some to talk as if religion was the source of
all that is amiss in our world, to see it as bringing nothing but
violence and hatred and conflict. Love and hate do indeed live close
together in the human heart. Where people's deepest loyalties and
deepest convictions are engaged, then there is always the danger of
But a world without deep loves and deep loyalties would be a desert.
Twisted religion may be used to justify hatred and violence. But true
religion points us towards healing and wholeness, towards whatever is
honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely,
whatever is gracious [Philippians 4:8].
This is what faith agrees on. Recently, at a major interfaith gathering
in Lyon organized in the spirit of the first great meeting in Assisi in
1986, both [Anglican] Archbishop [Rowan] Williams and I called for
religious leaders to unite around what our traditions hold as deeply
true: and to reject the false prophets of violence and hatred, just as
the faith leaders in Britain did after 7 July, in the wake of the
attacks on our city. This common witness is helping to build a spiritual
humanism of peace, a framework for belonging recast for our diversified
I say "spiritual" humanism, because society needs more than abstract
ideals, it must embody and promote decency, dignity, respect for others.
And as long as there have been human beings, they have looked to
religion, to a sense of living in God's world under God's law, for light
on what decency and dignity and respect for others might mean.
The shrines are not redundant: we need holiness and wisdom and love and
peace as much as ever we did, and the ancient wells from which holiness
and wisdom and love and peace have been drawn have not run dry.
To commemorate a thousand years of Christian kingship here, where
England's and Britain's illustrious dead are laid, could easily become a
tribal ritual, a defiant narrowing down or clenching up against the
stranger, against whatever we judge alien to our collective past.
But even here the shrine of Edward points us towards a wider perspective
and a more generous vision. He was no little Englander: His court was
cosmopolitan and he sent English bishops to take part in the
international councils called by the greatest German Pope of the Middle
Ages, St. Leo IX.
And when Henry III built this sanctuary round the tomb of Edward, he too
remembered that England was part of a wider world. He sent to Rome for
craftsmen whose decoration of the shrine evoked both the splendors of
pagan Rome, and the Christian inheritance of papal Rome. Here, in the
heart of a great Christian sanctuary, the builders found room for
everything good in humanity. And so, I fancy, Edward would not have
balked at what the archbishop of Canterbury and I proposed in Lyon, but
would welcome it.
Dear friends, I am delighted to be here, among you, at the beginning of
your period of great celebration, in the presence of our two choirs, to
give thanks for this holy king, and for what he represents: wise and
peaceable government, compassion for the poor, justice for the
oppressed, openness to the wisdom and the word of God, an openness to
Here at the shrine of St. Edward we ask God's blessing on our country
and on all its people, we ask that it may be a place where all its
citizens, whatever their origins or their beliefs, can live together in
dignity and safety, where hatreds are defused by love, where the truth
is spoken and heard, where the stranger, the widow and the orphan are
received with open hand and heart, where our rulers seek wisdom, and our
people peace. Amen.