A sermon preached by Canon Simon Everett, Rural Dean of Purbeck
When I was first asked to preach at this service celebrating Edmund, I decided to look on the Internet to find out what I could about him, only to discover, and I quote, ‘Almost nothing is known about Edmund!’
Well I thought, this either gives me carte blanche to say what I like and no one will be any the wiser! Or, I have to preach around my subject and draw whatever I can at the Holy Spirit’s prompting. However, after a further conversation with the Precentor I discovered I had been trying to find out about the wrong Edmund (there are at least 9 in the British Church’s calendar).
So my subject for this evening is Edmund Rich, or Edmund of Abingdon as he became known. Not surprisingly it is thought that he was born in Abingdon in the year 1174, give or take a year, there are no records.
Edmund's parents were deeply religious folk and their interest in spiritual matters spilled over onto Edmund. As a youth, he studied at newly formed Oxford University. Whilst there, he believed he had literally encountered Jesus while he was walking alone in a field one evening. Ever afterward, this gentle man made a special gesture of remembrance each night before he went to bed and he vowed to remain chaste for the rest of his life.
Edmund learned well and became a teacher, lecturing at the universities of Oxford and of Paris in mathematics and dialectics and in particular the philosophy of Aristotle. On both sides of the channel he was held in high esteem for his holiness and learning. At night, it was said he spent more time in prayer than in sleep! (which meant that he often fell asleep during lectures, hopefully not his own!) During this time, many tried to encourage him towards ordination, although he stridently resisted this, until eventually he gave in, convinced it was God’s will. Following his ordination he continued his studies and was eventually awarded a Doctor of Divinity by Oxford University.
On April 2, 1234, Edmund was reluctantly consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite this elevation he continued to be valued by the local people for his teaching, preaching, study, and his prayer. But his uncompromising stand in favour of good discipline in both civil and ecclesial government brought him into conflict with Henry III, with several monasteries, and with the priests of Canterbury cathedral.
Edmund struggled hard to clean up the church and restore its rights, which had been diminished by the King. He travelled to Rome to try and elicit the help of Pope Gregory IX, but failed. Instead the Pope, in cahoots with the King, tightened his grip on the Church in England.
It was whilst travelling to Rome a second time that Edmund fell ill and on this day in 1240 he died at Soisy-Buoy in Northern France.
So what are we to learn from this great man? I think the first thing that I would like to say is that I warm to him because of his gently humility and from what we know, he appears so normal. There are some saints who are so bold and courageous I feel I could never be like them, except in my dreams. There are others who seem so holy that again I know I could never emulate them, I am too human, with so many faults and failings. No, it seems Edmund had his strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures just like most of us. But he was faithful and obedient to his Master’s call. Hearing the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, as our Gospel reading, it struck me that Edmund endeavoured to live these out in his life, to make his life a blessing to those around and an offering to God.
In particular from the little we know he strikes me as a meek man, in the Biblical sense of the word. It’s unfortunate that in English the word meek has become a rather condescending one. Nowadays it carries with it an idea of spinelessness and subservience, it paints a picture of rather a submissive and ineffectual creature! But if you return to the Greek in which the NT was written the word praotēs is an honourable word. Indeed a word that Aristotle used to define every virtue as the mean between two extremes. I suppose we might say that it describes an even-tempered nature, one who knows when to get angry when to stay calm, when to give and when to abstain from giving.
Edmund had no delusions of grandeur, he really did not want to become Archbishop of Canterbury, but he was persuaded that he was the right man for the position at that particular time. Because of his meekness he could stand up to the King, the Pope and the powerful monastic orders, whilst still holding the common touch. He could organise the Church, bringing order and discipline where there had been disorder and licence, and he could do this with conviction but without bullying or belittling those around him. For his desire to do good, and see the Church well ordered, he paid a high price, but he accepted it as his lot. Edmund is a saint that is easily overlooked, and he probably is by many, but thank God we can remember him here today with thanksgiving and celebrate his life; it is right for us so to do.
As Jesus said: Blessed are the Meek for they shall inherit the earth.