1066 and all that – defeat, refocus and identity

img_7322950 years ago we’d have been waking up to regime change in the land. King Harold had been killed on the battlefield near Hastings, probably by sustaining an arrow wound in the eye, and William had seized the throne – the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings fell on Friday. Most of the Saxon aristocracy had either died with him or been scattered. In the months and years that followed the grip was consolidated, with a few notable attempts at a fight back, including of course our local boy Hereward. With splendid irony on Friday there was a French market in Cathedral Square with traders from Normandy. Harold came to Peterborough a few weeks ago in a reenactment of his march from Stamford Bridge near York to Battle. He called at Peterborough Abbey as he had done then. He was joined by the Abbot Leofric who didn’t return. I was asked to bless them before they set off on their next stage and one or two friends kindly pointed out afterwards that it was unlikely to change the outcome. It’s not every day though that you get to bless King Harold.

1066 and all that is a defining date in English History. Saxon rule ended and Norman rule came. With the Normans the Vikings, from whom they were descended, stopped invading and a period of relative stability at home began, just with periodic battles with the French and Scots and Welsh, and Stephen and Matilda, and Magna Carta. A part from all of that it was peaceful. The feudal system was part of the medieval worldview and in place before the Normans came but the Normans gave it added force, imposed their presence with stone castles and engaged in a systematic programme of church building and rebuilding. The origins of St John’s date to 1070s. They stamped their mark on the landscape. Archbishops, Bishops and Abbots were replaced, along with all the major lords of the manor. Sheriffs were introduced and forests enclosed for royal hunting only.

For William the victory was the ultimate trial by combat. The question over who should inherit Edward the Confessor’s throne was settled decisively, the victory being seen to show God’s favour. For the Saxons it was complete defeat. Power now vested in the conquerors. A new story emerged, one that brought flourishing. Blessing can still come even if it might not feel like it; even if there is disaster, all is not lost.

The Old Testament carries the theme of defeat as a moment when the community is broken, refocuses and reforms. The exile of the Hebrew people in 597BC and 587BC took them off to Babylon and from this period we get the psalms of lament, such as “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137). How we use defeat can be a defining moment for us. In the Cathedral we have to deal with a serious financial crisis, which has come to light. It feels like defeat. Amidst the crisis it is important to think afresh about what we are for and where our priorities lie. After the vote in June, as we work out what Brexit means – hard or soft, our place in Europe and the role of the European institutions has to be reevaluated. And whatever the outcome a new story emerges. The debates about grammar schools and multi academy trusts make us ask what kind of schools we want and how we want them governed. We seem to be losing local governance, rooted in the community. Those of us who have been involved in schools for a long time know that if you hang about long enough there will be a policy change and today’s vital change will give way to the next, and many of them look familiar to previous ones as the balance is corrected or the pendulum swings.

One of the philosophical casualties of the First and Second World Wars was the notion of progress – that things will inevitably always get better. But it is a persistent concept. Whenever someone uses a phrase like ‘it’s the 21st century that shouldn’t happen’ the myth of progress is being affirmed. But listen to Donald Trump, if you can bear it. He has something like 40% of the support in the USA and yet his attitudes leave many of us shocked and appalled. Look at the attitudes on display with many people walking round the city centre and you see sexism and prejudice are in no danger of dying out just yet. I see many in my own generation making the same mistakes we saw our parents’ generation making. I see despotic managers and leaders and we are supposed to have learnt better ways of working. Checks and balances are no less needed. Some sins and failings come round with depressing frequency. So defeat can be a moment for refocus and reform, for rebuilding.

Into this refocusing comes the second area that emerges for me from the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest and Saxon defeat. Who we are is not just defined by who we were. We frequently find ourselves having to embrace a new reality. It can be a shock and it can take time to adjust to. But take it on board we must. Each new arrival and departure, be it just the march of time and generational succession, let alone in-coming nationals, forces us to ask ‘how is the story changed?’ For the Normans and Saxons the Christian Church provided cultural and religious stability. It gave shared values and a ready means of social cohesion and control. Festivals and celebrations were held in common. When we have a wide variety of cultures, as we do today, this is much more complex to navigate. Christendom, the idea that we can assume Christian outlook and cultural assumptions, is both gone and still present. The Judges Service in the Cathedral the other week provided an example of this, with the assumed dominance of a Christian service but with other elements included. And the judges were from a variety of backgrounds. The temptation in this kind of event is to syncretise, just add in the different traditions without reference to the narrative behind them but that doesn’t honour them. There are common threads and universal truths shared but there are differences in perception too. There are points in common and differences within these.

The question is where do we find the common narrative and how is it held? The assumption that the secular approach can hold the ring is just replacing the domination of one worldview with another. There is no neutral. We don’t have an easy answer here. This is why I am looking forward to this year’s Reith Lectures on Radio 4. They are being given by the philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist Kwame Appiah, who is going to explore 4 areas where he believes there are mistaken identities at work: Creed, Colour, Country and Culture. It will be interesting to see if he offers a mechanism to hold the divergent voices and build a common ground.

Into this mix comes the narrative that shapes our outlook and we celebrate each time we pray and read the Bible. Jesus Christ is not for us an optional extra, but the good news he brings and it shapes who we are. If it doesn’t then we have nothing special offer to this city, to anyone who may be interested to listen. In the gospel reading (Luke 18:1-8) prayer was set out as defining. God is good and so there is nothing that can happen without reference to him. At St Luke’s, where we celebrated St Luke’s day – their patronal, the gospel (Luke 10:1-9) gave us Jesus calling for labourers for the harvest. There are people looking for the narrative to define and so there is a call to speak into this questing and questioning. I heard a blessing from the Iona Community recently which has been echoing round my mind since: ‘The God who creates you calls you, the God who calls you sends you, and the God who sends you equips you’.

There is foundation to our faith and therefore our identity. When the earth is shaken by defeat or epoch changing events, as it was 950 years ago at Hastings and is with cultural change today, God is faithful and blessing can still come. When we struggle to know who we are amidst different stories we refocus and reform in the story of God who creates, calls, sends and equips, not just 950 years ago but today.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 16th October 2016


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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