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England’s saints have been written out of history

Our isle was once a land of saints, but now there is a trend to consign all religious people to the dustbin of history

By on Thursday, 23 June 2011

St Etheldreda at St Peter and St Paul church, Ampton, Suffolk

St Etheldreda at St Peter and St Paul church, Ampton, Suffolk

Today, under the old dispensation, which may yet return, would have been Corpus Christi, and at least in the Cathedral town of Arundel, it still is, and thousands of people will be rushing down to West Sussex to see the magnificent carpet of flowers and to take part in the solemn Mass and procession at 5.30pm. I, sadly, cannot be with them, and for those in that position, I offer some consolation in a reflection of today’s very English saint, St Etheldreda.

Etheldreda (630-679), sometimes called Audrey, was a royal princess, daughter of a king, twice married, second time around to the King of Northumbria; nevertheless she remained a virgin, took religious vows, and founded the Abbey of Ely. The Viking invaders later destroyed her abbey, but it was restored in more peaceful days, only to be suppressed once more in the 16th century by Henry VIII.

The period in which she lived is often called the Dark Ages. We ourselves live in a period of self-proclaimed Enlightenment. But these are broad brush terms, and as Catholics we believe in a hermeneutic of continuity: the past is not to be swept away, but rather should inspire us and provide us with a firm foundation for future progress. So we can learn, even from the Dark Ages. Sadly, St Etheldreda is now an almost forgotten historical figure, remembered in few places. The heroes of our history are those who destroyed her abbey, and who did so much damage to the fabric of our nation.

England was once a land of saints, but the saints of our isle have been written out of the script by Whiggish historians, which is part of a larger trend still much to the fore today to consign all religious people to the dustbin of history, branding them as part of the forces of reaction and enemies of progress. This is a deeply held but irrational belief: the idea that religion is the source of all our ills, and as such to be excluded from the public sphere, and corralled into the realm of the purely private.

This is clearly the view of Mary Honeyball. Just think, everyone is free to speak in the public sphere except the religious!

But what exactly is meant by the private sphere, to which religion is to be relegated? Was St Etheldreda’s abbey a purely private space, her retirement into religious life a purely private action? The personal is political, as many feminists will tell us, and how right they are. “There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life,” as George Eliot observed. She would have appreciated the choice of Etheldreda, queen turned nun. The private and the public necessarily overlap and the two cannot be separated.

This is not the only mistake that secularism of the modern type assumes. Its other error is to deny the importance of our historical roots; but if we do that we lose contact with reality, for we are historical beings. Catholicism, the religion of the Pope, is the historical faith of these islands, something that Professor Dawkins should take note of; Oxford, where Dawkins teaches, is a historically Catholic university; New College, of which he is a fellow, is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Secularity, however, properly understood, is a respectable, necessary, and indeed Christian idea, about the God-given autonomy of the world. It is admirably expressed in Gaudium et Spes, 17:

Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man. For God has willed that man remain “under the control of his own decisions,” so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him. Hence man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since man’s freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God’s grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each man must render an account of his own life, whether he has done good or evil.

The above statement strikes me as more deeply humanist than anything coming from our contemporaries who claim to be humanists. But modern pseudo-secularism is, as has often been observed, merely the irrational hatred of religion.

Why do they hate us so much? That is a question we cannot answer, only they can. But this does not mean we have no responsibility in this department. We need to adopt an evangelical attitude so that we alert everyone we meet to the attractive side of religion. We need to be dulcet, not strident, patient, not aggressive, kind, not sarcastic, charitable, not odious, in all our conversations. We need to smile not scowl; and smile sincerely, not falsely. We need in short to do what Jesus commands us to do – love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us. St Etheldreda, a wise ruler of her abbey, who must have dealt with lots of difficult people in her time, and who was even married to two of them, did no less I am sure.

Sancta Etheldreda, ora pro nobis!

  • http://twitter.com/DaTechGuyblog Peter Ingemi

    Let’s never forget that Anglicism was founded so a King could get laid without “sin”

  • Anonymous

    In my experience, many (perhaps most) people nowadays simply do not understand what a Saint is. They labour under the erroneous idea that Saints are supposed to be perfect, and then point to any imperfection or sin to rubbish the whole idea of saints. Very few understand that Saints often have feet of clay – St Peter denied knowing Jesus three times and frequently went wrong, St. Paul abetted in a murder and even after his conversion had quite a temper. None of that takes away from their ultimate reconciliation with God and their status of sainthood.

    The secular world ultimately looks for the faults and condemns – God looks for the good and the willingness to repentance and elevates those who seek Him.

  • Charles Martel

    “Why do they hate us so much? That is a question we cannot answer, only they can.”
    Well, we can answer that:
    “If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because
    you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world,
    therefore the world hateth you.”  (John 15:19)
    In other words, it is about the children of light against the children of darkness.

  • MP

    Etheldreda of the fens! Thank you for reminding us of her, and for this timely and necessary reminder of how we must be more like her, less like Dawkins et al.

  • Ratbag

    These secularists have short, selective memories. Feminism has had its day but the brasiere burners won’t accept that fact and carry on, regardless of how haggard and faded they look. 

    Agressive atheism is as dangerous a fashion as having a piercing done on one’s body by an unhygenic needle.

    As fashions come and go… it’s soooooooooo yesterday!

    It is fashionable these days to go around bashing religion –  especially the Roman Catholic religion –  but, hey! It’s nothing new. There’ll be something else round the corner to get their bored, empty minds to get het up about. Why don’t they get a life and care about something else that’s worthwhile? Ah, but that will prevent them from taking up ink and airtime… tsk! tsk! That will NEVER do – he he!

    British saints would still live on in our memories if Henry VIII didn’t spit his dummy and broke with Rome.

    Let us not forget Saint Alban, Saint Winifride, Saint Cuthbert and Saint Oswald… the list goes on. It is time we revived these great saints and start studying them and talking about them. Saints have much to teach us, no matter how far back they go in history.

  • Brian A Cook

    Sadly, the likes of the BNP openly boast of upholding religion in public life.

  • Brian A Cook

    Please excuse the spamming, but I feel like I should expand on that last comment.  I never meant to compare the author of this article to the notorious neo-fascists of the BNP.  Rather, I simply wanted to give a warning that right-wing extremists are co-opting causes such as this.  I truly hope that Mother Church will be unlinked from right-wing extremism.  If I recall correctly, a few leaders have denounced the BNP agenda. 

  • Ratbag

    The BNP are to upholding religion like the Ku Klux Klan are to promoting limbo dancing.

  • Ratbag

    How true!

  • Anonymous

    One would think that they would notice that racism does not hold with the religions that they claim to uphold and neither does anything else that any Church stands for. Anywhere in politics Catholics are always left with a dilemma: either we agree with the left-wing parties who support the Church’s views on money and on distribution of wealth but encourage abortion and homosexuality, or we ally ourselves to parties like the BNP who agree with us on these things but are almost always either racist or overly nationalistic (or we can choose the current British government which seems determined to remove any religion that is not politically correct from the public sphere and will encourage anything that such a faith condems.) So much for our society’s “freedom from religion.”

  • Parasum

    “In my experience, many (perhaps most) people nowadays simply do not
    understand what a Saint is. They labour under the erroneous idea that
    Saints are supposed to be perfect, and then point to any imperfection or
    sin to rubbish the whole idea of saints.”

    This is unsurprising, as the pre-1969 process for canonisation was extremely rigorous, & Saints were apt to be treated as all but belonging to a different species. JP2, for instance, would never have been beatifiable under the rules in force before 1969.   

  • Parasum

    “Why do they hate us so much? That is a question we cannot answer, only they can.”

    The recent record of the CC does not exactly inspire enthusiastic admiration, one may suppose. There
    is a very great deal to hate in a Church that treats the young as the CC has been found to do.  What happened is worthy of hatred, and hatred is a healthy & appropriate reaction to evil: it is the reaction these events deserve, and ought to evoke. That the Church’s enemies hate these things is a very good sign; that is how someone with a heathy psyche ought to re-act. What would be cause for very grave concern would be for people either to try to approve or justify these evils, or else shrug them off as not being worth reacting to. Condemnation of evil by contrast is, in itself, a wholly admirable thing. Not to condemn evil in the Church implies that Christ is an amoral or even immoral monster. The Church owes more to people like Christopher Hitchens than to those who try to play down these events or divert attention to evils in other bodies. 

    “We need to adopt an evangelical attitude so that we alert everyone we
    meet to the attractive side of religion. We need to be dulcet, not
    strident, patient, not aggressive, kind, not sarcastic, charitable, not
    odious, in all our conversations. We need to smile not scowl; and smile
    sincerely, not falsely. We need in short to do what Jesus commands us to
    do – love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us.”

    Excellently stated.

  • Ratbag

    Removing ‘religion’ from public life and society has been attempted several times before… and it failed pretty miserably.

    Do these secularist not read any history books at all?

    British party politics have given Roman Catholics a dilemma. Here, RCs are merely tolerated… except when serious, far-reaching social issues affect us and society as a whole… then we show our teeth.

  • Margaret Allain

    The saddest thing is the lack of knowledge and love of the saints in today’s Catholic teaching and even in worship.   How often do you hear the litany of the saints?  Real teaching of the faith and all it’s beauty has been watered down.

  • SOSJ

    Fair enough comment. However you fall into the trap of calling such as the BNP the “far right”. This label was introduced by Marxists to distance themselves from their errant fellow socialists. These people are fundamentally socialist (check their policies),  just as the Nazi (National Socialist German Workers Party) and Italian Fascist parties were. They share the same statist agenda as Marxists but tend to pursue a nationalist rather than internationalist line and scapegoat,  usually, racial groups rather than ideas such as capitalism.  Their malignant effect is similar but should never be equated with being “right wlng” in the normal sense.

  • Brian A Cook

    But didn’t the Nazis throw socialists into gas chambers?  Didn’t the Nazis constantly rail against “cultural Bolshevism”?  Weren’t the Nazis totally anti-liberal? 

  • Aunt Raven

    Well, as my pastor advised when questioned about elections, “Vote for the lesser of two evils.”  And between elections keep asking your MP to back pro-life legislation.  

  • SOSJ

    This was in effect a civil war for control of “the proletariat” so name-calling and worse was bound to occur between the sociaist factions. Of course each socialist variety despised the other. The Nazis were assuredly “anti-liberal” and so of course were/are the Marxists. Unfortunately the term “liberal” today has changed from the tolerance it once connoted in most people’s minds, to an aggressively secular intolerance of Christian values – indeed ” liberal fascism”. See “Liberal Fascism – a secret history of the Left from Mussolini to the politics of meaning” by Jonah Goldberg.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sure that is your pastor’s advice but it is a classic example of the dilemma. We are offered and evil by each part but which is the lesser of the two; the denial of the truth of the word of Christ and a surpression of religious freedom, or the holocaust of the abortion clinics? Regretably many “Catholics” today seen reluctant to condemn both of these as evils and will back one or other of them. The question of which one remains open to many and, rather disturbingly, some so-called Catholics even advocate these parties’ views on either secularism or abortion. Hence the dilemma.

  • Anonymous

    Of course the secularists read history books; they just convinently miss the chapters about what happens when you try to remove God from the picture. They vaguely know what happened in the days of Christendom (and then enormously exaggerate that in order to discredit religion) but then fail to notice that the bloodbaths of the Jacobin Revolution up to the Bolshevik Revolution were born out of their own ideals of “freedom from religion.” It’s all summed up rather well in a quote I heard from a survival of the revolution: “we thought that we could get rid of God and retain a value for man, but we found that we couldn’t; we destroyed man as well.” Such devaluation of human life is just as evident in modern hard atheism; why else do people allow women to murder their children because they might be too hard to bring up?

  • Anonymous

    Sorry it should say “a survivor of the revolution”. My mistake.