Leicester Cathedral Flower Festival

Sermon: Sunday 15 September 2013

Leicester Cathedral Flower Festival

The Rt Revd Tom Butler

‘Loyalty Binds Me’

It’s very good to be back in Leicester Cathedral to share your worship and a privilege to preach at this Flower Festival; and let me congratulate the Dean and his colleagues at the stunning reordering of the Cathedral – it has never looked so good and the flowers, of course, show the building off to its very best.

I enjoy flower festivals.  They bring together so much of what is good and creative in life: the beauty and variety of nature shown in the innumerable different blooms in the Cathedral this evening; the skill and hard work of horticulturalist and gardener, developing and growing the flowers through generation after generation until they have a unique beauty; and then there’s the creativity and vision of the flower arranger, for each arrangement is like a multi-coloured sculpture, communicating to heart and soul through shape and colour.  And the arrangements we have all around in the Cathedral this evening are a fine example of that art and vision.  They enhance and help us the worship our creator God.  So first let me congratulate all who have worked so hard to present this beautiful festival of flowers.

Its theme, of course, is the motto of Richard III, “Loyalty binds me”, and walking around yesterday I was astounded at the different and varied ways that theme has been interpreted and presented in the flower arrangements.  We’ll return to Richard a little later but the biblical story which for me most emphasizes human loyalty is the story of Ruth and her mother in law Naomi, read to us earlier in the service.

Naomi with her husband had travelled from Judah into the country of Moab and there they had brought up their family, and when her had husband died their two sons had married local wives, Ruth being one of these.  Sadly both of the sons also died and Naomi, being almost destitute, told her two daughters in law that she had no option but to return to Judah and they must go back to their own families in Moab.

Ruth refused to leave her mother in law saying those famous words, “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God shall be my God” – surely a phrase well illustrating our motto, “Loyalty binds me.”

Well Ruth’s loyalty was well rewarded because back in Judah and with some help from her mother in law she made a new marriage to a very significant worthy called Boaz who fell in love with her when he saw her gleaning the edges of his field at harvest time.  And now we get to the point of the story, for the book of Ruth is far more than a Mills and Boon novel with a happy ending, it’s a piece of political and theological polemic.

You may remember that in the 6th century bc Cyrus the Mede allowed the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem who had been in exile for seventy years in Babylon to return to their home city, now in a ruinous state and populated by local peoples who’d moved in to occupy the vacated city.  The returning refugees set to work rebuilding their homes, the city walls, and the temple, sometimes against the opposition of the local people and sometimes in co-operation with them.  Indeed some of the Jewish incomers took local wives and had families with them.

Soon there was a dispute.  The purists and the nationalists claimed that Jerusalem and Judah were to be exclusively for Jewish people, the peoples of the land with their different ways and religions had no place, and indeed any local wives must be divorced and sent away.

It was into that situation that the Book of Ruth was written.  Of course it was set long back in history when the people of Israel were establishing themselves in the promised land, having escaped from slavery in Egypt, but it had a cutting contemporary political and theological point.  Let me read you that last few verses of the book.  You might think it sounds a little boring, but trust me, stay with it, because it goes to the heart of what we are doing here this evening.

 “So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife and Jehovah gave her conception, and she bare a son.  And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it.  And they called his name Obed: and he is the father of Jesse, and he is the father of David.”

So there you have it.  The writer of the Book of Ruth is saying to the hard line purist people of his time, putting away foreign wives because they and their fellow countrymen and women were claimed to have no part in the future of Israel, he’s saying, “Look, it was Ruth from Moab who was the great grandmother of the great king David.”  How can you say that foreign women are to play no part in Israel’s future, when this foreign woman through her loyalty and love played such a significant part in Israel’s past?

But what has all this got to do with King Richard III?  A great deal.  We know about Ruth and her loyalty because the author of her tale is making a serious political and theological point in his society long after the times in which he is setting Ruth’s story.  Equally we know a lot about Richard III because the politicians and playwrights and theologians of the Tudor period were writing up his story a generation or two later to make a series of political points.

Richard had been defeated, of course, at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor, and we have an incredible flower display artistically portraying that bloody battle whose victor, Henry, was to become the father of Henry VIII, and the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I.  Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne was very weak indeed and throughout his troubled reign he was every involved in defending his throne against Yorkist claimants related to Richard III.  He had an army of spies to bring him intelligence of fresh plots and he had an army of propagandists who were only too willing to blacken Richard III’s reputation and by so doing indicating that Henry Tudor had performed a great public good by killing Richard.  The most famous of these propagandists writing in the time of Henry’s grand-daughter Elizabeth, was, of course, William Shakespeare, and it is his portrait of Richard as the archetypal evil villain that has been passed down through history, and again we have a flower display pointing us to Shakespeare’s portrayal.

“Loyalty binds me.”  That’s a strange motto for Shakespeare’s Richard to have.   Shakespeare would surely have given him the motto, “Evil binds me.”  But that would have been unfair to Richard, for in many ways loyalty did bind him.  He was utterly loyal to his brother, King Edward IV, bravely fighting many battles in his cause; indeed, he was the commander of one of Edward’s armies when he was only fourteen years old.  Loyalty bound him to the people of the north, whom under Edward he governed justly and well for many years through the Council of the North which he created.   Indeed many people feel we need such a Council of the North today to loosen the grip which London and Westminster have on our national life.

Richard was a loyal and loving father to his fragile only son, Edward, and was devastated when the boy died aged ten, probably of tuberculosis.  Richard was a loyal and devout churchman and a generous benefactor.  He was a loyal and loving husband to his wife Anne Nevile, daughter of Warwick the king maker.  Anne and Richard were married for twenty years before she also died of tuberculosis, just five months before the Battle of Bosworth.

But it can’t be claimed that there was absolutely no truth in Shakespeare’s portrait of Richard the villain.  Richard’s relationship with his niece Elizabeth during the latter years of his marriage is complex to say the least.  Was he having a love affair with her, or was he trying to undermine Elizabeth’s betrothal to his rival Henry Tudor, or were both things going on?

And then of course there is the case of the disappearance and probable murder of the princes in the tower during his guardianship of them.  Shakespeare has no doubt that they were killed on Richard’s orders and certainly rumours to that effect were circulating widely during his reign and were probably part of the reason that former firm supporters were far less keen to fight on Richard’s side at Bosworth.  The disappearance of the princes certainly cleared the way of Richard’s path to the crown, but they were equally an obstacle in the way of Henry Tudor and his ambitious mother and their disappearance served their ambitions too.  They must join Richard in the frame of suspects.

We’ll probably never know the truth of the mystery but it might help if the bones reputed to be the two princes, dug up in the tower in the sixteenth century and interred in Westminster Abbey, were subject to DNA testing.  I think that the Dean of Leicester, once the bones of Richard III are finally laid to rest, should lead the campaign to persuade the Dean of Westminster to allow the bones of the two boys to be tested to see whether they are both indeed the princes, or neither is, or perhaps  just one is, and if that were the case then perhaps the story of the younger prince Richard escaping to the continent, which was claimed though much of Henry Tudor’s reign and was the cause of much of the king’s paranoia, has some truth in it.

“Loyalty binds me” – a good and accurate motto them for Richard to bear until the death of his brother and the complications with his niece and the princes in the tower which I’ve just described.  But then he had major problems of loyalty with his followers as he assumed the troubled crown.  He just didn’t know whom he could trust, and despite the astonishing sculpture of Richard’s horse in the South Aisle, I believe that his last words before being cut down at Bosworth when his former supporter Lord Stanley changed sides were not as Shakespeare wrote “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”, but the more basic word, “Treachery”.

“Loyalty binds me”.  If the loyalty driving Richard during his brother’s reign, during his own reign, turned into disloyalty which helped kill him, this pattern is well illustrated in our readings this afternoon, with the first reading from the Book of Ruth giving us a beautiful illustration of loyalty, and our second reading from the Gospel of St John illustrating the disloyalty that even Jesus of Nazareth encountered in his struggle to herald the kingdom of heaven.

As we’ve heard, after a challenging piece of Jesus’s teaching the evangelist records:

“Upon this many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.   Jesus said therefore unto the twelve, Would you also go away?   Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.    And after these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Judaea, because the Jews sought to kill him there.”

And of course they ultimately succeeded in killing him, but they didn’t kill those words of eternal life.  For if Richard III occasionally lived up to his motto, “Loyalty binds me”,   Jesus from Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, was endlessly and eternally bound to bringing the eternal life which was to be his father’s gift to all who would receive it, and neither the enmity of his opponents nor the disloyalty of his friends, no not even the torturous death on the cross would prevent Jesus from doing the will of his father.  And we should leave the Cathedral today with a fresh determination to be loyal disciples of the heavenly king who bound himself to us in life and death.

And the words “Loyalty binds me” might well describe the mission of this sacred place throughout past years and in this festival you portray it in flowers: its ministry stemming from the generosity of its patron saint, St. Martin;  its ministry of baptism, confirmation, marriage, ordination, family life – it’s all there in your displays.

For over nine hundred years this church has been bound with bonds of faith and love to the city and people of Leicester and Leicestershire, for the past 86 years as their Cathedral.  In good times and bad, in war and peace, the people of city and county have brought human things here, births and marriages and deaths, hopes and expectations, fears and forebodings.  They’ve brought these human things here to be touched and ennobled by the worship and prayer, by the teaching and music, by the holiness that seeps out of the very walls of this special place.

Today this Cathedral is set in a city where East meets West as some of your arrangements portray, and we share our religious and human concerns with those of other faiths, and this weekend in particular we stand in solidarity with our Muslim friends as they mourn the dreadful killing of Shehnila Taufiq and her three children, for your mission is to be a pointer to the divine compassion of a God who cares for all his children, and loyalty to this city and its people binds Leicester Cathedral to go on with that mission now and into the centuries which lie ahead.

I share the hopes of many that King Richard III will shortly be buried here, but it might not have been a king, the bones might have been those of a pauper, and the truth is that in one significant way it wouldn’t have mattered.  Leicester Cathedral would still have given those bones, once supporting a life, a dignified place within is precincts, for loyalty binds this Cathedral to this community, be it made up of princes or paupers, and to the heavenly prince who became a pauper for our sake be all honour and glory worship and power, now and forever.  Amen.

© The Rt Revd Tom Butler