Sermon preached to the College of Canons, Ely Cathedral, on the Feast of Translation and Elevation of St Etheldreda, 16th October 2015

Ely EtheldredaDeep in Poland, in an old-time convent, the Mother Abbess lay dying. The sisters gathered round her bed as she lay slumped back into the pillows, and asked whether there was anything she would like to have. “A little milk,” she wheezed, and slumped back into the pillows. Sister Prioress hurried off to the kitchen and poured the milk, but then noticed a bottle of brandy high up on a shelf gathering dust – left over from the Bishop’s last visit many years ago. It was now or never, and into the glass it went, a rather large glug from her inexperienced hand.

Back at the bedside, the Abbess sipped at the glass of milk. And then sipped again, and drained the glass, before slumping again in to the pillows, a little less heavily than before. After a discreet wait, the sisters asked a second time whether there was anything else they could bring her, or any last word for them. “Another glass of that milk,” came the reply. Once again the glass was prepared and fetched. Once again it was offered and drunk, only this time it was downed in one go. And once again Mother Abbess slumped back into her pillows, smiling happily.

After a while the sisters asked for a third time, was there anything they could fetch or any last word. With a strangely warm smile, their Mother raised herself one last time from the pillow, and pointed to the window behind them. “Whatever you do, don’t sell that cow.”

The unsung hero of the story is of course the Sister Prioress who discerned the Spirit and put it to work. So how are you doing, dear sisters and brothers, in discerning the Spirit today and letting it out of its bottle? You can ponder that while I waffle on a bit about Etheldreda, but be warned, I’ll be coming back to it before I finish, because I think it has something important to say to us as the company which is gathered here today.

But now to Etheldreda, whose feast we celebrate today: not her death, but her translation, and indeed her elevation. This calls for a word of explanation, since she was neither a book nor a chalice, but a saint. What you need to know is that when a saintly Anglo-Saxon of some note was buried, a careful eye was kept on them to see if any miracles would follow. Where they did, the routine was that after a few years the decision was taken to dig up the body and have a look. Incorruptibility and the odour of sanctity proved the point, and the body was elevated into a new sarcophagus above the ground, so that those seeking the prayers of the saint could more readily reach out to her – which they did very physically in those days – and receive her help. Moved and lifted up, translated and elevated, and it is that moment that we celebrate today.

Happily we have an account of the event by no less a historian than Bede, which has to be read on an occasion like this. It’s quite long, so forgive me if I just give you the best bits for now. Bede writes:

“Etheldreda was succeeded in the office of abbess by her sister Sexburg. When her sister had been buried sixteen years, she thought fit to take up her bones, and, putting them into a new coffin, to translate them into the church. Accordingly she ordered some of the brothers to find a stone whereof to make a coffin for this purpose. They went on board ship, for the district of Ely is on every side encompassed with water and marshes, and has no large stones, and came to a small deserted city not far from thence called Grantchester [he means Cambridge: I thought you’d like that bit] where they found a white marble coffin, most beautifully wrought. When the grave was opened and the body of the holy virgin and bride of Christ was brought into the light of day, it was found as free from corruption as if she had died and been buried on that very day.”

Since I am happy to be labelled as both an antiquarian and a charismatic, all this is absolutely fine by me. This has not been the case for everyone though; and notably not so for Dean Merivale, famous as one of the founders of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, rowing at 4 himself.

As a muscular Christian he took a dim view of all this Catholic nonsense. So when in 1873 Ely commemorated the twelve hundredth anniversary of Etheldreda’s foundation, he chose not to celebrate this moving of the Spirit but to quench it, acknowledging in his sermon that St Etheldreda had founded the monastery, “But of aught else that has been written of her,” he sternly proclaimed, “I feel a very slender assurance indeed. She has been said indeed to have twice married, and to have refused to consort with either of her husbands, to have quitted house and home and spouse and every worldly duty in order to effect her fantastic purpose of founding a monastery. It may be so. But it is also said that wonders attended her in her life, that wonders followed her and clung to her after her death. I have little faith in either the one set of incidents or the other.”

Happily, we have learnt to love our foundress again and draw strength from her sanctity. We may not have rebuilt her shrine as has happened elsewhere; but spiritually, “The stone that the builders rejected has [once again] become the very head of the corner.”

The important question, though, is to ask ourselves whether we are simply going through the motions of commemoration – Chaucerian Pilgrims just there for the ride – or truly reaching out for the same Spirit that so transformed her life and can transform ours – because of course however much honour we give to a saint, it is only a platform from which to give far greater honour to the one whose saint they are, and from whom our assistance really comes.

And that takes me back to this College of Canons. Now I am neither the Dean nor the Diocesan, so I speak as a fool and probably out of turn. But it strikes me that the real function of this College is not to put its hand up en bloc once in a generation to elect a new Bishop from a shortlist of one. Nor to be a PR team for the Cathedral in the Diocese. Nor a reward for long service or holding high office.

No, the College is as I see it still the extended household of the Bishop, who long before Bishop’s Councils and Senior Staffs were thought of, would gather round him to share in the discernment of the Spirit, to offer prayer, and then work with the Bishop to let the fruit of that Spirit be born on all the branches of the diocese from whose corners they have come and to whose corners they will return as the generous and visible people of Jesus Christ, seeking his transformation in their lives and in their communities as they deepen their life in him, grow disciples for him, and engage for him with the needs of the world.

And the Canons’ ability and call to do that is not built on the badge on their scarf so much on the Rule or Canon of life that they follow. Scarily they, we are to be exemplary priests, leading God’s mission for his people as much by their walk as by their talk. So – and I speak as a fool again – perhaps it will be this College that will lead the way, visibly and generously, when the Rule of Life that we speak of our in our strategy is put into effect.

The Lord Jesus was lifted up so that he might draw all people to himself, the Light of the World. We celebrate the lifting up today of Etheldreda, to whom so many have been drawn seeking light in their darkness. And we remember that we too are to be lights to the world. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Amen.