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A More Pluralist World Than Edward the Confessor's

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's Homily at Westminster Abbey

LONDON, OCT. 11, 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.

* * *

Dear friends,

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 no hero.

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 their bones.

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 ...

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