Sermon: The Commemoration on the Anniversary of the Death of King Richard III
Saturday 19 August 2017
The Revd Canon Dr Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
If the psychologists are right, all human relationships depend on projection. We imagine things about the other person which have more to do with ourselves than with the other – in good ways as in bad ways. Just remember how it feels when you fall in love with somebody: you notice a lot of amazing things about the other person, but usually fail to notice that she doesn’t close the toothpaste cap or has that annoying habit of whistling in the morning. When you are freshly in love you find all of this incredibly cute or ignore it – it usually doesn’t last a lifetime and a more realistic approach becomes necessary if things are supposed to last. It also works the other way round: it is a fact that nothing annoys us as much about another person than a quality similar to a disliked quality of my own. To quote Woody Allan: ‘I don’t want to be part of a club which takes people like me.’
Richard III polarises. Amazingly his character has this power 500 years beyond his death. He attracts admiration, perhaps even love, distaste, contempt and hatred. You will feel strongly about him – probably in a positive way, otherwise you would not have made the effort of coming to this service today.
But of course this place does not only attract admirers of Richard III but also people who feel intensely irritated by what they consider to be a distasteful display of honour for somebody dishonourable. Somebody recently asked me when visiting Leicester Cathedral in a state of agitation why the church honours somebody with a pretty visible central place in this building who was an impostor to the throne and a child murderer. I guess from where you are coming from this would have caused an agitated emotional state for you – most of you are here because you have very positive views on Richard III.
I don’t feel very emotionally invested – being German does help in this instance – and my standard answer to any strong views on Richard III is that I don’t know. You will have views – probably strongly held views extrapolating from what is securely known about Richard – but I am no expert on his life. More importantly, from a theological viewpoint I actually don’t mind whether anybody buried in this church – and there are many – was a really wonderful and exemplary human being or rather flawed.
I do not mind for sound theological reasons.
A funeral liturgy which is unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future is the burial rite of the Royal Family of Austria, last enacted for Otto von Habsburg, last Crown-Prince of Austria, who died in 2011. The so-called Anklopfritual consists of the Master of Ceremonies knocking on the door of Vienna Cathedral. Questioned by one of the priests who it is who demands entry the MC first recites the ancestry and family history of the deceased, stressing the role of the deceased in history. Following this the Cathedral clergy reply: ‘We do not know him.’ Secondly, the MC recites all the titles and honours the deceased received during his or her time of life, and again the clergy reply in the same way. ‘We do not know him.’ Finally, the MC answers the question of who demands entry with a very simple line: ‘Otto – a mortal and sinful human being.’ Following this line the clergy open the gates and invite the entry of the procession.
The reception of the mortal remains of King Richard stressed a similar point: he was received as a baptised human being. What matters is not titles and honours, but the dignity of every single human being as a citizen of heaven and the equalising power of death. This was the rationale behind not speaking of King Richard, but using solely his Christian name once his remains entered the church. To quote: ‘We receive the remains of our brother Richard with confidence in God, the giver of life, who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead.’ The piece of music by John Sheppard (c.1515-1560) accompanying the walk from the cathedral doors to the font affirmed the same theological point:
Media vita in morte sumus:
quem quaerimus adjutorem
nisi te Domine
qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris?
(In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?).
The coffin was moved to the font as the place of Christian baptism, stressing the point that a baptised Christian, a citizen of heaven was received by the church. This narrative was affirmed through a number of symbolic actions: the processional cross was placed near the coffin, and as a reminder of baptism water was sprinkled on the coffin and incense used as a sign of prayer. A pall as a sign of the covering love of God was added by the descendants of Bosworth peers, and a contemporary Vulgate bible in the possession of Leicester University was placed on top of the coffin. These were signs of a baptised Christian – we honoured our brother Richard as a citizen of heaven, an honour hugely surpassing any earthly honour he held during his life. King Richard we know not, our brother Richard, a fellow mortal and sinful human being, a fellow citizen of heaven and beloved of God, we welcome with joy. All citizens of heaven are welcome here, the saints, the good ones, the less good ones and the ones who terribly harmed others as themselves, the normal ones and the extraordinary ones, those who lived to a hundred years and those who didn’t finish their first year on earth.
Following Richard’s reinterment the cathedral community sang the service of Compline as could have happened any day – welcoming the remains of our brother Richard into Leicester Cathedral and doing what the church does: hallowing time by praying the daily office and praying for the church, living and departed. Every day we pray here, like those preceding us have done here for a thousand years. We pray here surrounded by the remains of those gone before us – they are everywhere.
I was in Rome a few weeks ago and visited a number of graves. The Necropolis in Ostia Antica, the old Roman harbour – is fascinating: little houses for the dead with roof terraces, so that families could come and visit, celebrate on the rooftop and offer parts of the food and drink for the benefit of their ancestors. The catacombs along the Via Appia are much less cheerful and were obviously for poorer people. Some of you may have been – it is quite an experience to walk along countless empty graves hacked into the soft stone underground. All of them are empty, the human remains having long decomposed. The guide told us that we are obviously not the first visitors – countless generations of tourists and other barbarians have visited the catacombs and anything remotely valuable has been removed a very long time ago. There is however a striking difference between the pagan and the later Christian graves: the Christian graves contained no gifts for the afterlife. Christians treated their human remains with due respect and buried them, but they didn’t add anything else to the graves. If you are a citizen of heaven, you don’t need any gold or jewellery to get in – no payment is required. A citizen is somebody who has been away for three or four score years and is coming home where he or she belongs. If you manage to get there with your passport of baptism and without having damaged your soul beyond recognition you can simply go in. It’s home. You will be provided for and you are welcome at the banquet.
In contrast, we don’t really belong here. We are heavenly beings, placed here for a lifetime to make a unique earthly, material and human experience, but we remain misfits during all our time on this planet. Our home is with our Father in heaven. And so, we are called to make the most of this earthly life and refer through words and actions to who we truly are and to what creation is called to be. We keep praying and singing, in communion and fellow citizenship of heaven with those who have gone before us, waiting during this brief lifetime of separation for the time when we, united with our brother Richard and all the others who have gone before us, will be praying and singing together, not living in hope any more, but in knowledge, safety and embrace. Until then, we keep hoping and praying. Amen.