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Broken Promises

By Canon Chris Palmer

13 October was the feast day of St Edward the Confessor, who founded Exeter Cathedral in 1050. This homily was preached at the Sung Eucharist on that day. The Gospel reading referred to is Luke 14.27-33.

Every promise is a hostage to fortune. We make promises to love, repay, or work for someone, only to find that we can’t keep our promises. It breaks our heart when we promise to care for someone, only to find that we can’t keep the promise. It breaks our heart to promise to repay someone, only to find we lack the resources do so. Or at least, it breaks our heart if we’re saintly people. It’s too simple to say that good people keep their promises and bad people don’t. It would be truer to say that good people feel bad when they can’t keep their promises, whilst bad people couldn’t care less.

Edward was a good person who couldn’t keep a promise. A son of the royal house of Wessex, he lived much of his early life in exile, whilst the Danes ruled England. But when Danish rule crumbled, he was recalled to be king. He’d made a promise that if he was ever restored to his kingdom, he would go on pilgrimage to Rome. But when the time came, he found that leaving the kingdom for an extended period was impossible. The politics was too fragile, the tensions between Anglo-Saxons and Normans too great, various families were jostling for power – and he was needed here.

So he had to break his promise. But he found a compromise: he would found an Abbey at Westminster, instead of making the pilgrimage. And he did so in 1065, the year before his death.

Here in Exeter, we are keen to tell people that Edward founded another church fifteen years earlier. The foundation charter for the diocese and cathedral church of Exeter still exists in our Library and Archive. It is the only pre-conquest charter founding a cathedral still extant in England.

Edward was a saintly king. He was kind, he worked to maintain peace, and he was devout and championed Christian faith. He lived frugally, and, because he wasn’t addicted to military adventures, he kept taxes low. But he was also a sinner. He appointed his favourites, accepted bribes, banished his wife to a nunnery, and failed to provide for his succession, with calamitous results.

Probably his faults were necessary expedience, political pragmatism to hold together a fragile situation. Like his failure to make a pilgrimage to Rome, they were the necessary compromise of being the ruler. It reminds me of an exchange in the TV series, The West Wing, when the president, distraught as having to resort to military action, quotes Martin Luther King’s words about the spiral of violence. His chief adviser and trusted friend turns to him; “Dr. King wasn’t wrong,” he says, “He just didn’t have your job.”

We would love the invitation to faith, the call to be saints, to be an invitation to leave behind the world of ambiguity, of moral compromise, and contested decisions. But such a view of sanctity is escapist, and God’s call is always to live in the real world. To be a Christian is to endure more reality, not less.

It’s what today’s Gospel reading is about. Jesus’ warning that we must ‘hate father and mother’ is not a call to saintly single-mindedness. It is the agony that, in the service of the kingdom, you might have to break the biblical commandment and proper duty of life to honour your father and mother. Similarly the parables about counting the cost of building the tower, or judging if you’ve got enough to fight the war – these are warnings that necessary, gut-churnings decision making is costly. It traumatises our conscience; induces heartache; and brings us to our knees.

But this place of reality is where we find God. In your hardest decision, in the necessary compromise, in the promise unavoidably broken. Because here we are undone… and remade – and this is where God is forging saints.