Patronal Festival Sermon

‘Zadok the Priest,’ sang the choir, ‘and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.’ And the cry came in response, ‘Vivat! Vivat Rex!’ – ‘Long live the king!’

The coronation of George II, perhaps, with the music of Handel ringing in our ears? Or of a king in the 20th century? No. The coronation of Edgar in Bath, on 11 May 973.

Two bishops escorted Edgar into the church, up to the High Altar. He took off the circlet already round his head (he had been king for 13 years already) and lay prostrate before the altar as Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, launched the Te Deum: ‘We praise thee, O God: we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.’

Dunstan, in his years of exile, had encountered the coronation rituals of continental Europe. He himself had a large part in drafting Edgar’s service. It was an imperial rite. It remains the basis for the Coronation Service to the present day.

During the service Dunstan placed the ring on Edgar’s finger, girded the sword at his side, raised the crown of England and laid it on his head, gave the rod and sceptre into his hands. But one part of this inheritance he changed dramatically:- Earlier rites for coronation had concluded with the king’s mandate: the precepts for the new reign, pronounced by the king and endorsed by the people with Amen. Edgar, by contrast, must make promises to his people, and before the coronation went ahead. Right at the start of the service the King declared:

These three things to the Christian people subject unto me do I promise in the name of Christ:- First, that the Church of God and all Christian people under my dominion in all time shall keep true peace; Second, that acts of greed, violence and all iniquities in all ranks and classes I will forbid; Third, that in all judgments I will declare justice and mercy; so to me and to you may God, gracious and merciful, yield his mercy, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.


We know of Dunstan from hagiographers, of course: chiefly Anglo-Norman monks who wrote of him almost a hundred years after his death and made of him a model of Norman religious life, the great reformer who brought the Benedictine rule to England’s monasteries, old and new. But his first biographer was not himself a monk. His hero’s sanctity was austere and vehement. This Dunstan was not always popular: he was thrown into a duck pond as a young man by his own colleagues. But nothing could daunt him. He was pursued by the devil in the shape of a bear, would swing his staff at ever-present demons and wake up his monks by whacking the cloister walls with his stick. He was much given to visions, and – perhaps no coincidence – to illness. When a king left his coronation banquet to join two women in bed, a mother and daughter, Dunstan followed in a fury and dragged the startled king back to the hall and his knights. The episode, no surprise, led to Dunstan’s exile. It is only later, from the Norman hagiographer Osbern, that we hear of Dunstan’s most famous battle with the devil. But it is in character. Dunstan was at work in the forge at Glastonbury; he found the devil in the form, sadly and predictably, of a young woman – and seized him by the nose with the red-hot-tongs.

But there is still more to Dunstan. In the Bodleian Library is St Dunstan’s Classbook, a collection of texts introduced by a full-page illustration and marked throughout with annotations. Some of the annotations are Dunstan’s own. And the illustration on the frontispiece? Here is the figure of Christ, his feet obscured by a cloud. To the right is a monk, kneeling in awe and hiding his face with one hand from the glory before him. The image draws on the traditions of Christ Transfigured before three of his disciples. Above the monk’s figure are two lines of verse:

I ask you, merciful Christ, to watch over me, Dunstan.
May you not permit the Taenarian storms to swallow me.

The verse is in Dunstan’s own hand. He has coloured its letters as well, and applied colour too to the figure of Christ. Here is the work of a scholar and artist in awe of Christ’s majesty. Within a generation of Dunstan’s time at Canterbury the scriptorium that he fostered there would be producing some of the most beautiful of all Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.


Father William points out that no churches were dedicated to Dunstan after the Norman Conquest. Your own foundation, then, must surely be Saxon in origin. William admits, there is no direct evidence for the claim. But is it right? Then we at the Temple, here in Fleet Street only since the 1170s, are mere arrivistes. We must have been uppity new neighbours. The Templars were already enormously wealthy, and would become far wealthier still in the coming decades. As if the land south of Fleet Street was not enough, we had our jousting ground and farriers just to the west of you.

We may have been awkward neighbours. But you have looked after us with great kindness in the centuries since. On 18 January 1781 the fire-engine of St Dunstan’s was used to put out a fire in Church Yard Court in the Temple; the Inns paid 1 guinea for its use. We could have used such an engine again on the night of 10 May 1941. An incendiary bomb landed on the roof of the Temple Church above the pulpit. The watchmen at Hoares Bank offered three times to come to our aid. Those of you who know the Temple will not be surprised:- Three times we said No, we could cope perfectly well by ourselves. No surprise either, that the next morning the church was a smouldering shell. We still wish we had taken up the offer of help.

But you looked after us. The Rector of St Dunstan’s gave the Inns the use of the church for quarterly – and then for monthly – services. Over the coming years the Inns helped to pay for the repair of the organ at St Dunstan’s; St Dunstan’s allowed our choir the use of their robes. We finally returned to the Temple at the rededication of our Round Church on 23 March 1954.

(I wonder if you allowed the Master the use of your Eucharistic vestments? If you did, he was a man more elegantly adorned than I will ever be. Even this cope has come out for an airing today only at the invitation of your Clerk. It would never do to be seen in such a garment, redolent of ritual, south of Fleet Street!)

There are many of you here this morning, who know both St Dunstans and the Temple well. I hope you look with affection on us both. And that you can see some shape, some purpose, in our attempts to serve in our different ways the communities of our area.

At the Temple our strongest suit is – and for decades has been – our music. There Ernest Lough recorded ‘O for the wings of a Dove’ in 1927, the first great classical hit on gramophone record. And in a few weeks time we will be holding the premieres of a new and extraordinary work:- An all-night vigil by Sir John Tavener, The Veil of the Temple. . The full work really dos last all night, from 10.00pm to 5.30am. I hope it will not be taken amiss if I say that some of the judges I am proud to serve are, perhaps, in the second – rather than the first – flush of youth. For the convenience of such listeners as these, the composer and we have designed an abbreviated version: just two hours long. I have been recommending it to judges far and wide. To no avail. They reply, one and all, that they have every intention of coming to an all-nighter: ‘I haven’t been up all night since the May Ball in Cambridge in 1949, wouldn’t miss this for the world, of course my wife and I are coming to the real thing, looking forward to it enormously.’ Crikey. I need hardly add, that any of you – or any age! – will be most welcome to join us, for two hours or for eight, for an unforgettable event.

And yourselves? We look in immense admiration at the work going on here at St Dunstans:- What a wonderful interior this is once more, now that Shaw’s work is brought back to light. And now for the organ; and for the crypt. This is a remarkable place. And for far more than just its building. At a time of deepening and widening divisions, you offer bridges of courtesy, welcome and genuine understanding:- Between the different traditions within the Church of England; between Orthodox and Western Christendom. William is out of sight of me, round the corner. I can say, then, without seeing his embarrassment, that I could, for myself, imagine no better or kinder colleague, friend and neighbour than William himself, with Beatrice and Valentine. When William’s predecessor Edward Auriol, Rector here for 37 years, died in 1880, an address was given in this church in his memory. He was described as ‘the very impersonation of sanctified common sense’ (Revd Sir Emilius Bayley, Bt, BD). What an accolade. It could as well and as truly be said of William.

We do not live in the England of St Dunstan. But he too knew of divisions. On the death of his brother Edwy in 959 Edgar had effectively united all England under his one throne. Danes and Saxons lived in an uneasy peace. The Northumbrian Danes were attracted to the Danish princes the Sons of Gunnhild. By the magnificent coronation at Bath, the border-city between the ancient kingdoms of Mercia and West Saxony, Dunstan raised his king above the level of all politicians and local potentates. In your work, day by day, year by year, for understanding and love between the traditions of the church, you are the heirs indeed of your great patron.

At that coronation St Dunstan prayed for the unity of England: a unity that has lasted from the reign of King Edgar, to the present day – a unity that it is our charge to bequeath to those who shall come after us.

May the king so foster and teach, defend and provide the Church of this whole realm and people, so administer strongly and royally against all enemies visible and invisible the ruling of thy power, that he forsake not the royal throne, the sceptres of the Saxons, Mercians and Northumbrians; that of thy grace he may refashion their minds to their faith and peace of old; that upheld by their due subjection and exalted, as is meet and right, by their love, he may establish in unity and guide through long life the splendour of his father’s glory.

Robin Griffith-Jones