Feast of Edmund of Anglia, 870

Penick Village 50th Anniversary
November 20, 2013
Katharine Jefferts Schori

We’re celebrating 50 years of this remarkable community on the feast of an English king and martyr who died in the year 870.  The two do have something to do with one another.  Not only does this community continue to grow in the communion of saints who’ve shared life here for the last 50 years, but also with the saints from a much longer trajectory in our collective history.

Edmund was born in East Anglia around 841, and became king at the age of 15.  Can you envision one of your grandchildren ruling a nation, even a small one?  Yet people can rise to the challenge when nurtured and called to it from an early age, especially when they’ve been well mentored.  Edmund presided over a reasonably prosperous and peaceful season in East Anglia until the Viking raids started up again in 870.  Two Danish kings brought their forces into Britain and moved south toward Edmund’s lands killing, pillaging, and burning the villages and monasteries in their path.  They sent messengers to Edmund, promising to spare him and even share their loot if he would become their vassal and repudiate his Christian religion.  He declined, they captured him, tied him to a tree, beat him and shot him full of arrows – as the tale says, ‘until he looked like a hedgehog’ – and then cut him down and offered the deal again.  He refused and they cut off his head.  He was all of 29.  His friends and subjects went looking for his body and eventually committed it to the ground in a Benedictine abbey, later called Bury St. Edmunds.  There are some 60 English churches dedicated to him, in remembrance of his martyrdom and his fidelity to the idea of a home for his people, both English and Christian.

Edmund’s story has been told in a variety of ways, for the Viking destruction completely erased any contemporary documentary evidence of his rule.  One commentator notes that Edmund didn’t give much evidence of being “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  Edmund supposedly consulted his bishops about the deal that was being offered, and they urged him to accept it, apparently believing that keeping his head, rather than losing it, offered far more possibility to negotiate a more creative outcome.[1]

Another tells a richer and more mythic version of the story.  Years before Edmund’s encounter with the invading Danish king, a young Danish prince had gone hawking in a boat and was lost at sea.  He washed up on the coast of England and was taken to Edmund, who learned of the young man’s skill and made him his chief falconer.  But the man whom he replaced as falconer lured him into the woods and murdered him.  The prince’s dog kept turning up at the castle to be fed and then going back to the woods, but it took quite a while before someone followed him and found the body.  The deposed falconer was found guilty and set adrift in the same boat the young prince had come in – without oars or sail or food.  As one might expect in a good epic, he in turn washed ashore on the Danish coast and was taken to the court, where he told the king that Edmund had ordered the prince’s murder.  Thus Ingvar’s furious investment in doing away with Edmund and his god.[2]

It’s a great legend, and it gets even better with echoes of the prince’s death in the story of Edmund’s.  After Edmund is executed, his loyal subjects find his body and the severed head – with the aid of a wolf, crying “here, here, here.”  There’s a very old mural in a church at Padbury, Buckinghamshire that shows a wolf carrying Edmund’s head.

It makes one wonder what elaborate stories will be told in future about the founders and residents of Penick Village!  Yet there are some deeply significant and serious issues here.  Edmund evidently did give an account of the hope that was in him, whether or not some have judged it foolish.  He acted out of integrity.  He loved the people of his kingdom, and he loved the enemy who washed up on his shore near death.  He may have been naïve to promote the young prince and thereby demote a man prone to raging jealousy.  He clearly was not a terribly effective or elegant politician.  And the witness of his life is remembered as holy and life-giving for his people.  He was the patron saint of England through most of the Middle Ages.

We remember saints as witnesses, examples of holy living.  They are never perfect imitations of godliness – they’re very human in rich and complex ways, with feet of clay and checkered histories, even legendary ones.  Each one opens a window onto what it means to offer evidence of the hope that is within us, as Peter puts it.  And each encounter with one of these witnesses invites us to ask that question of ourselves.  What’s my witness?  What’s yours?  Most of us aren’t going to be tied to trees and shot with arrows, but what does it mean for us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves? 

I’ve been intrigued and deeply moved by the stories I’ve heard about the witness in Charlotte called “Moral Mondays.”  It has been a bold and faith-full witness about loving all our neighbors as ourselves, and caring for the least of these.  Those who have gone to the capitol and challenged the state assembly may seem foolish in the world’s eyes, but they understand their cause as a holy one.  I’m not certain that those who’ve worked to remove voting rights or social safety nets ought to be compared to marauding Vikings, but there are some parallels to be seen in laying waste to flourishing communities and educational opportunities, and removing hope from what had been growing stability in poor families. 

Those monasteries the Vikings looted and laid waste were the social and spiritual support systems for the poor, the migrant laborers, orphans, and widows of their day.  They also provided the only educational opportunities.  Edmund gave his life insisting that God is larger than the destroying impulses of this world.  Penick Village is a latter day echo of a medieval monastery – it’s a religious foundation for the care and nurture of human beings in the closing years of their lives.  And it claims to be a hostel for human beings, uniquely created as beloved children of God. 

The need for hostels and homes for all God’s children is an ancient one, and it’s a growing need around here.  On Monday, the Fayette Observer reported about the homeless population in Moore County, noting that many don’t recognize the need because they assume this is a wealthy community.[3]  How are the people of this Village connected to the people of the larger village called Moore County, or North Carolina?  I’ve been hearing about some here who are focused on that larger village, working and volunteering and giving witness to those connections.  Some are probably mentoring potential Edmunds, youngsters who could become strong leaders for a more peaceable community.  I know there are Edmunds here in this village, asking “Who needs a home around here?” and working to ensure they have one.  What witness do we offer with our very lives, what hope for greater and more abundant life?

[1] Sam Portaro, The Brighest and the Best.

[2] Stars in a Dark World, 705-707