A sermon preached on the Feast of St Osmund, Sunday 16 July, by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer.
When I get up and stumble towards the bathroom, wondering what the new day will hold, I pass something that helps me keep a sense of proportion. It’s a montage of postcards, including one of a scene in the Bayeux tapestry with its cartoon violence of the battle of Hastings. That October day 950 years ago changed England’s history, as its people discovered the brutal truth of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: to the victorious Normans more was given; from the dispossessed Saxons even what they had was taken away.
Someone whose career prospects improved that day was Osmund, one of the entourage of William of Normandy. Spoils of war quickly came his way, including the position of Chancellor of England in 1070. Eight years later he became bishop of the new diocese of Sarum (now Salisbury). The cathedral in those days was at what we now call Old Sarum: a religious centre, administrative HQ and military base, all in one; strong and stable government, Norman style. We can imagine the resentment that greeted Osmund, yet this foreign import, who might well have been seen as just another ‘bastard Norman’ (as Shakespeare would put it), would acquire a rather different reputation.
Osmund, it seems, was energetic. Like the good and trustworthy slaves in Jesus’ parable he put his resources to work, completing the cathedral his predecessor had started, then rebuilding it (like Simon the high priest in our first reading) after a fire ravaged it a week later. Canon Ed, our Acting Dean, is sure we have Osmund to thank for our library’s remarkable set of manuscripts, begun about 1080. More than that, he seems to have cared about the cathedral as a community of prayer and worship, and about relations between Saxon and Norman.
In the 1220s, before this, the resited cathedral, was complete, the canons moved (or ‘translated’) Osmund’s bones to the Trinity Chapel and began the campaign to make him a saint. Over two centuries later, in 1457, the Pope consented, and Saint Osmund’s remains were moved again into a grand shrine - for less than a century, because the Reformation would sweep such things away. The only probable survival is the foramina tomb, with holes in its side for the pilgrim to get close to the saint.
All the above you could have heard from one of our excellent guides, so what place has it in a sermon? How does any of this help us know God and follow Jesus? Osmund can help us see what God has done for us through those who have been here before us, and what God asks of us now. Good things to think about when we have just said goodbye to our Dean.
First, the business of places like this, which never changes: the production of saints. When St Paul uses the word, it’s to describe all the believers, as when he writes ‘to all the saints throughout Achaia’ (2 Corinthians 1.1). On his reckoning, a saint is anyone who has responded to the call of God with faith, with a willingness to serve the purposes of God. Osmund passes this test, but then so does any one of us who can say, ‘I am a Christian’.
This is an important truth that underlay the breaking up of Osmund’s shrine. When we see such destruction nowadays we call it barbaric, and no doubt many of the motives for this demolition were bad: greed - for wealth or power or both - and that sad enjoyment some get from smashing things and hurting people. But it also stemmed from a conviction that was not barbaric: that those who bear the name of Jesus can get close to God without any human mediation, event that of a canonised saint. And that with privilege comes responsibility: we cannot contract out the things of God to a spiritual elite or to religious professionals, for there are matters between you and God that no-one else can handle for you.
Talking of religious professionals, we are already talking about what we need in our new Dean. That’s all good, but the list of virtues is already so long that a miraculous combination of Francis of Assisi and Martha Lane Fox would not come close. I find the cult of the saint a good warning here: am I looking for someone to do things for me that I should do for myself?
But that’s harsh. It is not good for us to be alone, and we need each other’s help in the journey of faith. Didn’t St Paul, didn’t Jesus himself point out people as examples to follow? And isn’t that essentially what the church has done when it has designated as saints those who show (in the official language) ‘heroic sanctity’? Here are people to help and inspire the rest of us.
Did Osmund have ‘heroic sanctity’? How would his record stand up to the sort of scrutiny applied, say, to the chair of a major public enquiry? We know too little to say, but I suspect his life would throw up some dark material if we could dig a bit. That’s the risk if you put your life’s resources to work. Sometimes, like the good and trustworthy slaves in Jesus’ story, you get a healthy return. And sometimes you get cleaned out. So here is an alternative definition of a saint (for which I’m indebted to Prof Lesley Houlden) - someone whose life has been inadequately researched.
Happily the Bible knows little of Mary Poppins sainthood - ‘practically perfect in every way’ - but it does know stories of flawed, cracked, even broken people meeting the free grace of God. Yesterday, in the service at which June, our former Dean, was consecrated as a bishop, we heard the story of one such person, St Peter (John 21.15-19). Jesus asks him three times, ‘Do you love me?’, and he needs to ask, because when Jesus was on trial this friend of his denied three times that he even knew who Jesus was. If to be a saint is to be a holy person, a human being is holy not because he or she lives a perfect life - who of us ever could? - but because in his or her life we see the victory of God’s faithfulness in the midst of what is imperfect. Real people like you and me and Peter become holy by depending on the dependability of God: by trusting that God will be there on the other side of every tragedy, every failure, with open arms, with the offer of strength, wisdom, forgiveness, a new start. ‘Do you love me?’ asks Jesus. ‘Yes,’ says, Peter, ‘you know I do.’ ‘Feed my sheep.’
We can’t be sure precisely where Osmund’s shrine stood nor where what are left of his remains now lie. That unknowingness reminds us that, with Osmund as with any forebear of ours, we probably owe them more than we shall ever know, this side of heaven. Just as God asks things of us now - for instance in the way we care for this overheating planet - that will bear fruit in the lives of people who will never know our names, let alone where our mortal remains will lie.
George Eliot ends her novel Middlemarch by saying that her ‘heroine’ Dorothea lived in pretty unheroic circumstances; her life flowed through channels ‘which had no great name on earth’. But it didn’t matter, because
'the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.'