Sermon: The Second Anniversary of the Reinterment of King Richard III
Sunday 26 March 2017
The Reverend Pete Hobson, Director – Leicester Cathedral Revealed
What makes a King? (Readings: Micah 7. 1–7, 18–20 & James 5.1–11)
Leadership is in the spotlight nowadays more than ever. Whether it’s Theresa May speaking impressively in the House of Commons following the awful deaths in Westminster this week, or President Donald Trump bringing his own distinctive talents to the most powerful office in the world, Nicola Sturgeon seeking a distinctive role in Scotland, or Ireland mourning a freedom fighter – or is it terrorist? – turned peace leader in Martin McGuiness, everybody has an opinion of how we should be led. But few people perhaps appreciate just how challenging leadership can be.
It must have been just as challenging in the time of Richard III. Sure, the structures of power were different, as well as the technology – no Twitterstorms for him to worry about! But the challenges I think must have been broadly similar. What does it mean to be responsible for ruling a people? What sort of ruler should I be?
Standing here five centuries later, we should allow a certain humility about trying to answer any of those questions definitively. But if history is the stories we tell ourselves about the past to help make sense of the present, then the physical setting of the last tomb of our warrior King does tell us stories. And they might be stories worth attending to.
For the tomb of King Richard III rests in an Ambulatory – literally a place of walking – surrounded by Chapels – places of prayer. And the common people walk through and around, be they curious, or be they seeking to pay their own tributes. And they light candles and pray around him – maybe for him, maybe for others, maybe just for themselves. That’s what people do in cathedrals – then and now.
But to the eastward of the ambulatory containing the mortal remains of the earthly king is the great east window – itself a WWI memorial – with the image of the Heavenly King central to it. And from it our new Chapel takes its name – the Chapel of Christ the King. It’s very much a lace of prayer. We say our morning prayers in it just about every day, and celebrate the Eucharist several items a week. So the image of the heavenly King overlooks the remains of the earthly king, offering welcome, judgement, compassion – and salvation. All story-lines important to what we tell ourselves today.
And day by day the scriptures are read there. Scriptures such as those set for this evening. Micah bemoaning a nation steeped in injustice, oppression and division – he could have been describing the generations of the Wars of the Roses! And James similarly denouncing those who use their riches and privilege as an excuse to defraud the poor of the land, thinking they can do so immune from judgement. But they can’t.
So what makes for a good king? Surely one who understands his responsibility to his people? One who uses his power and authority to make life fairer and better for his subjects, not safer or more lucrative for his cronies. Was Richard III such a king? We can’t really know. It was a short reign, many years ago. But there are clues in his one parliament, there are clues in his generosities of endowments. Clues you can read one way or another – but in the end that’s all they are. We are not his judges. Certainly William Shakespeare isn’t – though he did write into literature a stunningly powerful villain who has captivated audiences down the years. And history isn’t – whatever ‘history’ is. There is only one judge – and that is the one we know Richard acknowledged, in an era when nearly everybody had to. We gather here today part of a generation for whom religion is largely assumed to be discredited, damaging or even worse that awful word – “boring”! We are also assembled for that most English of traditions, Choral Evensong – part of the tradition of those who have down the generations chosen to bow the knee to Christ the King.
As Richard’s remains lie beneath that wonderful stone-capped tomb, awaiting the hope of the resurrection of the dead when Christ comes in glory, we too stand here in hope. Hope that all people are indeed accountable under God – the rich as well as the poor, the President as well as the terrorist. Hope that caring for the most vulnerable in our society is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Hope that there is more to life than just living, and more to death than just dying.
Two years ago to the day many of us who are here this afternoon were likewise gathered around a grave as Archbishop Justin committed King Richard’s remains to the ground “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life”. The final parts of our service, beginning in a moment with prayers led by the Dean, will remind us of that sure and certain hope, and call us to live that wholly accountable and ultimately redeemable life.