16th November 2021
A sermon for the Feast for Edmund of Abingdon
A sermon preached for the Feast of Edmund of Abingdon
Tuesday 16 November 2021, 17.30
Readings: Acts 20: 28-35; Gradual Psalm 119: 1-8; Matthew 5: 1-12
“Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock,
of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,
to shepherd the church of God”
Edmund of Abingdon is hardly the most romantic sounding saint in the calendar. He certainly hasn’t got the cachet of St. Francis of Assisi, or Catherine of Siena or even Saint Margaret of Scotland whose day Edmund shares. What after all is Abingdon known for?
Motor car enthusiast who are attending this service in person, watching of line, or reading my sermon via the website, will be aware that it is not just the town where Edmund was born, Abingdon was the town where the MG used to be manufacture. Many a classic marque was assembled in the factories there, until British Leyland closed down production.
Music fans might be aware that the influential band Radiohead were formed in Abingdon, but I digress, as we are not here to enthuse about motor cars or music, but to learn something of Edmund, who not only had a connection with Abingdon, as it was the place of his birth, but also with this Cathedral where for a time he was Canon Treasurer and where there was church dedicated to him, before it became an Arts Centre.
Edmund was born ‘Edmund Rich’ the son of a devout Christian family, whose mother encourage Edmund to adopt an ascetic way of life, from an early age. He was educated at Oxford and Paris, teaching in the Arts Faculty in Oxford from 1195-1201 being the first to teach the philosophy of Aristotle.
He then moved to Paris to study theology, returning to live with the Austin Canons at Merton in Surrey for a year, then taking a further course in theology at Oxford, graduating in 1214. After Ordination he gained a reputation as a gifted preacher and travelled widely around England being much in demand.
It was in 1222 that he took a living at Calne and became Canon Treasurer at Salisbury where he became close friends with Ela Countess of Salisbury, and her husband, William Longespée, whose tomb can be found not far from here in the Nave. During his time as Canon Treasurer of the Cathedral he became noted for his works of charity and the austerity of his life.
Had he not been called to high office in the church, he might well have remained in Wiltshire, but he appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1234. He was not the Chapter of Canterbury’s first choice, nor their second, nor their third, but a fourth choice, an outsider, who became a candidate, only after the other nominations made by the Cathedral Chapter of Canterbury, had been rejected by the Pope.
Edmund was a reforming archbishop, he endeavoured to end corrupt practices and mismanagement within the Church. He was not enamoured of the administrative responsibilities that went with his office, so he chose able advisers, to whom he delegated much of the day-to-day responsibility of managing church affairs. This enabled him to set about visiting each diocese and monastic community. Not all Dioceses and Monastic Communities welcomed his attentions, but if they tried to obstruct him, he was prepared to go through the courts to gain the necessary permission. Not surprisingly he soon made enemies within the church, the Benedictine monks being especially resentful of his visits, as was his own monastic community at Canterbury.
Edmund was more than able to stand up to royal interference to, siding with the nobles against the king, upholding the principals of the Magna Carta at the court of Henry lll. Whilst he might have thwarted Henry’s grand designs, he also proved helpful to him for his abilities as a negotiator brokered a peace treaty between Henry and Llywelyn the Great.
Edmund campaigned tirelessly against both royal mismanagement and papal interference, the latter proving his downfall.
His ‘Constitutions’ (a set of guidelines or rules) for the government of the Church were issued in 1236, but were largely ignored by corrupt churchmen, and so seeking support from the Pope for his reforms he journeyed to Rome. Gregory IX rejected Edmund’s appeals, and feeling betrayed and unsupported, Edmund retired to Pontigny where he died in 1240.
What then can we learn from Edmund’s life? His devout Christian faith gave him the zeal to root out corruption from the church and to stand up to Henry lll, in support of Magna Carta. His commitment to an authentic Christian faith, is a challenge to both lay and ordained Christians. His example begs the question ‘How authentic is our Christian faith and practise?’ Is the leadership of our church, as keen as Edmund was, to speak truth to power, to speak out against much that it wrong in our modern world, and speak up for those who are on the margins?
I suppose the answer to these questions is ‘Some of the time’, but because we are comfortable, because we are perhaps frightened, because other things take up our time, and because there are powerful forces opposing the Christian world view and kingdom values, we do not put into practise our good intentions, as a church and as individuals.
Edmund, despite his commitment to Christianity and kingdom values failed, the forces ranged against him proving too powerful, resulting in him quietly leaving the stage to find solace in the monastic life of prayer and contemplation. The conclusion of Edmund’s story presents me with a quandary. Resignation in the face of vested interest – a failure to see through necessary reforms, is not where I want to leave Edmund’s story. I would much rather be able to say, in conclusion, that we should take Edmund as our example, follow his lead, and seek to make a difference in the world and perhaps I still can.
Although Edmund of Abingdon didn’t achieve all that he attempted, can any of us, this side of eternity? Life in this imperfect world, will always be somewhat of a compromise, the art of the possible, we do what we can, what we have the energy and capacity for in the place where we are set, in our here and now. It will never be enough, but it might be just enough.