Sermon, 19 May 2008

Sermon, 19 May 2008
preached at
St Dunstan-in-the-West

Monday 19 May 2008 Festal Evensong for the Feast of St Dunstan – Sermon

“St Dunstan died exactly one thousand and twenty years ago at this very hour on this very day, 19 May 988.

I want to pick one or two moments from his biography, or hagiography, by the 11 th c Canterbury Monk Osbern and then, permit me an anachronistic flight of fancy.

St Dunstan was born in the England’s most beautiful county, on what it today regarded as the wrong side of the motorway, in the Mendip Hills, in 909 in the village of Baltonsborough. His family were Saxon nobles, his father’s two brothers were Bishops of Winchester and Crediton, and another of his kinsman in his childhood was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was educated in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, showed great promise and made his way as a young man to court. His life from then on was characterised by the call of the royal household, at that stage a contested concept, and service of the church. By any standards he died an old man, he made an enormous impression on the chroniclers, bards and story tellers of his own day and there was more than enough material for Osbern to draw on when compiling Dunstan’s life, which already on the Eve of the Norman invasion was the stuff of superhero status.
Dunstan’s call to service of the church sits somewhere between history and myth. He was a favourite of the King Athelstan when he first arrived at court. A plot was hatched to disgrace him and Dunstan was accused of being involved with witchcraft and black magic. The king ordered him to leave the court and as Dunstan was leaving the palace his enemies physically attacked him, beat him severely, bound him, and threw him into a cesspool. He managed to crawl out and make his way to the house of a friend. From there, he journeyed to Winchester and entered the service of his uncle, Ælfheah, bishop of Winchester.

The bishop tried to persuade him to become a monk, but Dunstan was doubtful whether he had a vocation to a celibate life. The answer came in the form of an attack of swelling tumours all over Dunstan’s body. This ailment was so severe that it was thought to be leprosy. It was more probably some form of blood poisoning caused by being beaten and thrown in the cesspool. Whatever the cause, it changed Dunstan’s mind. He took Holy Orders in 943, in the presence of Ælfheah, and returned to live the life of a hermit at Glastonbury. Against the old church of St Mary he built a small cell five feet long and two and a half feet deep. It was there that Dunstan studied, worked at his handicrafts, and played on his harp. It is at this point that, according to a late 11th century legend, that the Devil is said to have tempted Dunstan and to have been held by the face with Dunstan’s tongs. The famous Glastonbury Classbook depicts a monk kneeling at the feet of Jesus, tradition has always maintained it was a self portrait of Dunstan.

Dunstan acquired considerable wealth in his own right, despite his monastic vows. He was left both his father’s estates and considerable fortune by Princess Aethelflaed. He became a trusted courtier once again this time to King Edmund. The court was nearby and he remained in charge of considerable renovation work at Glastonbury, reimposing the Benedictine rule in its fullness, for the first time in living memory. The impact of this cannot be underestimated. One of the most striking memories of my childhood was the frequent journey to Wells in Somerset, passing through its near neighbour Glastonbury. The road takes you round two sides of the Abbey ruins, and the scale of the Abbey Church is apparent at every turn, despite its diminished state. The kitchens which are all that are in tact, spell the scale of the abbatial foundation. The Abbey, which was dissolved at the Reformation was not the one built by Dunstan, but he had the same experience as a child, knowing only the ruins of a former house of prayer and almost subconsciously vowing, when he had the means, to restore the sanctity of that holy place. The vicissitudes of Saxon politics meant that Dunstan’s desire was granted in a way he might not have imagined. In 955, King Edwy came to the throne. Dunstan had to remonstrate with him for gross behaviour on the day of his coronation and having shown great moral courage Dunstan was warned to flee the country as he had kindled the king’s rage. He was warmly received by the Count of Flanders and lodged in the Abbey of Mt Blandin. There for the first time he saw a functioning Benedictine house, of a type unknown for generations in England. When it was safe to return, he did so inspired to continue the renovation not just of his native Glastonbury but the great collegiate and monastic foundations. His zeal was noted by the Bishops and soon after his return he became Bishop of Worcester, almost immediately Bishop of London and very soon after Archbishop of Canterbury, the previous nominee having died in the Alps on his way to Rome.

I must spare you many more details save two, his supreme achievement at the coronation of King Edgar in Bath in 973, according to a rite of his own careful planning, which had enormous political implications in his own day with reverberations to our own.

Secondly the account of his death: on the feast of the Ascension, Dunstan said Mass and preached three times to the people: at the Gospel, at the offertory, and after the Agnus Dei. In this last address, he announced his impending death and wished them well. That afternoon he chose the spot for his tomb, then went to his bed. His strength failed rapidly, and on Saturday morning, 19 May, he caused the clergy to assemble. Mass was celebrated in his presence, then he received Extreme Unction and the Viaticum, and died. Dunstan’s final words were “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear Him.”

I craved that you would spare me a flight of fancy: St Dunstan, as Bishop of London from 958, would have known this parish. I have been musing on what he might say were he to visit us today. As a metal worker, like Bezaleel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur of the Tribe of Judah in our Old Testament Lesson for this feast day, he would observe that our iron railings, metal gratings and organ pipe work, are in sorry need of repair. As one of the most competent administrators of the Saxon Church, he would have asked on entering, what progress had been made on submitting our on-line returns to the Diocese, I am sure. These trifles dispensed with, I think he would turn to more urgent matters.


St Dunstan lived at a time of political turmoil. What England was to become after the Norman conquest was very different from the time of Saxon rule. England’s regions were fiercely divided, with local potentates in all sorts of curious alliances. Modern Europe has some parallels with 10th c. England. Mass migration was not unknown. Only near this Church, the Danes had encamped and been confined and for centuries they had been establishing communities.

Europe is going through a comparable period fast moving change. I was at the Diocese in Europe Synod last week. In the next 20 years the 2.5 million people with residences on continental Europe is set to double. There have been a million Poles in this country, with a rapid turnover, and now an indication of net numbers returning. The gap in skills in Poland was met by young Uzbeks and others from the former Soviet Republics moving West.

The Church has a renewed challenge to engage with these extraordinary demographic realities. We think there could have been 4000 Romanian Orthodox here this Orthodox Easter. St Dunstan would have been intrigued and at home with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. He is a saint of the undivided Church, with this day as much in the Eastern calendar as ours. When he went to Flanders his eyes were opened to the riches of the monastic inheritance, whose roots are deepest in the Eastern tradition. The liturgy Dunstan would have known would have had more resonances with the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom than our own. Dunstan would be challenging us to enter into a deep communion of friendship and discovery with our brothers and sisters in faith. He would be scandalised by the divisions within Christendom, and insistent that we do all in our capacity to mine the treasures of undivided Church, of his age and to recover the unity which is at the heart not just of God’s intention for his Church, but of God himself. Worship is at the heart of an Orthodox understanding of mission. Not worship which escapes from the world, but worship which shows the world what we can be, and what we are to become, by God’s grace. Dunstan would have known a Bendictine truth, which in turn comes from East, and which is greatly pondered on a new Church Report The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church chaired by the Bishop of Chichester, to live liturgically. This is simple truth, but one it is all to easy to ignore. The Liturgy shapes our whole life, it gives meaning and shape and order to all that we do and all that we are. It is derived from an ancient Greek word, which meant to exercise one’s public or civic duty. It implies that the practise of religion can never be private, liturgical life is demonstration in all that we do, in every action, that we refer our existence and being to the one who created us. It means that actions, gestures and symbols inherent to worship have a place in the world. The sign of the cross, the kissing of a thing of value, kneeling, standing, praying may all impinge on our quotidian lives without inhibition. It is easy perhaps for me to say this dressed as I am, but what we might each be asked to ponder, is how can each moment be an act of thanksgiving, and each gift of God hallowed for what it is, not a possession but a thing of sanctity? All the more, how might we see in each person the value God gives to everyone of us?

Dunstan is a figure of the past, but he has a particular message of the moment which speaks of a world reborn in Christ Jesus, and transfigured in his light.

He would be scandalised by the rupture between our churches and would be remonstrating with us to work for the day when our Lord’s High Priestly prayer might be fulfilled “Holy Father, keep through thine own name, those whom that hast given me, that they may be one, as we are one.”

Blessed Dunstan, who governed and pastored this land as Metropolitan in the days of the undivided church, pray for us in our earnest desire to see that day come when the whole church may be “that great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in robes of white, with Palm branches in their hands and crying with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!.”

William Gulliford


O God, I thank thee for the Church of thy dear Son, without which I would not know of they love; Without which I would not be caught up in worship; Without which I would be lonely and afraid; without which I would not know of thy forgiveness and grace, without which I would not be constantly reminded that I am thy child, called to live the Christ life. I pray for the church that it may be one according to thy will; that it may be holy in all its members and in all its branches; that it may be Catholic – for all in all truth; that it may be apostolic in faith an in outgoing love. O God, make they Church truly the Body of thy Son, a community of love and service, a pioneer of salvation. Amen.

Heavenly Father we give thee thanks and praise for the life and witness of our Patron Dunstan. As we remember the anniversary of his death, so we celebrate his being numbered with thy Saints. As he inspired our ancestors with vision, piety and grace, may thy Spirit pour these gifts on us.

Yesterday in the Latin Church was the Feast of the Holy Trinity: an Orthodox hymn to the Trinity:

I glorify the Holy Father, I honour the Holy Son, I sing the praises of the Holy Spirit; simple Trinity, one in essence. Each person is God; three lights, yet one light coming from a single sun. The Trinity supreme in Godhead, is by essence an undivided unity; single in nature, yet distinguished in persons; indivisible yet divided; one yet three. Father, Son and Holy Spirit of Life. Together guarding all things. O simple and undivided Trinity, one consubstantial nature: Thou art praised as light and lights, one holy and three holies. Sing o my soul and glorify. Life and lives the God of all.

O everlasting God, who art ever adored by the angels, and yet dost choose us to be stewards of thy mysteries: bless, we beseech thee, the work of this church and congregation, that we may serve before thee in purity and love. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.