A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

St Alphege Sermon by Brian Torode

Deerhurst 1


In spite of the weather it is exciting to be here today, doing what that great favourite hymn reminds us of –   Brothers we are treading where the saints have trod – and at this point may I say a big thank you to Sheila and the Deerhurst Church family for hosting our visit today.

Where Saints have trod, and how privileged we are in this area of the country to have many sites associated with holy men and women who received after their death, the accolade of the Church in recognition of their life and work spent in the service of Christ. To mention just a few, there is St Kenelm of Winchcombe, St Arilda of Oldbury, St Oswald of Gloucester, St Wulfstan of Worcester, and St Egwin of Evesham. But St Alphege? I wonder how many of you know anything about Alphege, in fact how many of you had even heard of him until this year? if you hadn’t it is quite understandable because his impact was mainly witnessed through his time as Abbot of Bath, Bishop of Winchester and eventually Archbishop of Canterbury. So why our celebration here today? Well, from little seeds great apples grow and that is really how Deerhurst fits in to today’s celebration.

Most of what we know about his life and witness is recorded in contemporary monastic manuscripts, such as that of William of Malmesbury and Osbern. Alphege was born near Bath about 954, into an illustrious family. He grew up to be a studious and bookish child and as a young man, his parents were somewhat surprised at his intelligence and the innocency of his life – not at all like the average teenager. He received his education at the hands of a private tutor, and found his studies about the Christian faith and the life of Christ, the most rewarding of all his studies. He spent hours privately in reading and in prayer seeking how to come closer to the God who was so much part of his life. But he felt that total devotion to the service of Christ was   impeded by the devotion shown to him by his mother – she idolised her son.  He prayed that God would show him how best he could serve him and promised that nothing – not even the love of his parents – would stand in the way of total devotion to the service of Christ.

The call came to enter the religious life. At this period – the mid 900’s – Deerhurst was a flourishing if somewhat small monastery and being not too far from Bath, Alphege was admitted to the monastic community in 972 at the age of 18. He was impressed by the commitment and devotion and even the severity and humility of life of the other monks and this soon became the pattern of his own life too.

Some eight years passed and Alphege felt that the challenge he was looking for was somehow missing – the Deerhurst Community was not renowned for its scholarship – and Alphege also felt a desire to lead a more challenging and an even more austere life than existed at Deerhurst. He left Deerhurst totally convinced that God had greater things in store for him. I suppose it was to be expected that his footsteps led him to Bath and he set himself up in a little hut and lived a semi reclusive life but reputation for sanctity, good counsel and sincerity soon attracted many followers and he was obliged to build a monastery to house what soon developed into a monastic community.

Alphege’s reputation spread far and wide and eventually and much against his will, he was appointed in 990, Abbot of Bath Abbey by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. Then in 994, again after much persuasion, he was appointed to the Bishopric of Winchester. He served in this capacity for 22 years and earned a reputation for leadership, hospitality to the poor and generous almsgiving. He was a man wise in worldly matters but simple in devotion to God. He never indulged in luxurious meals, and only ate meat when he was ill. In 1005 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and travelled to Rome to receive his Pallium- Episcopal insignia – from the Pope himself – some journey in those days! But he was a man of determination and inner strength. At times, he would rise in the middle of the night and plunge himself thigh deep into the river in order to keep awake to praise God for all his blessings.

In the Middle Ages of which I am speaking, there had been regular invasions of our country every few years in fact, by Scandinavian Vikings and this still continued during Alphege’s lifetime and during his time as Archbishop and it was during this period in his life that he exercised his leadership and trust in God, at one of the most challenging and threatening times in English history.

In September 1011 the Danes seized Canterbury, plundered the city and burned the Cathedral. Many of the inhabitants were taken prisoner and the invaders demanded enormous sums for their release. This sum was raised by the following April but then the Danes captured Archbishop, Alphege and demanded an additional enormous sum of money – about £40,000 at today’s value- for his release. Alphege ordered his people not to pay up – they had suffered enough already and he could see them suffer no more. The Danes held him for six months, dragging him from place to place in the hope that the money would be forthcoming, but Alphege insisted that no ransom was to be paid. Even during this period of captivity, Alphege showed sympathy and pity in helping many of the Danish invaders who had succumbed to a dreadful disease. But his help did not bring about a change of their hearts. Eventually in an unplanned outburst of drunken rage, Alphege was killed at Greenwich and his death is recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as follows:

The Danes seized the Archbishop and brought him to their Assembly on 19th April, and shamefully put him to death there.  They pelted him with bones and ox heads and one of them struck him on the head with the back of an axe. He sank down with the blow his holy blood falling to the ground and he sent his soul to God’s kingdom. In the morning his body was carried from Greenwich to London where it was received with due reverence and buried in St Paul’s where God still reveals the power of that Holy Martyr.

About 11 years later his remains were exhumed and transferred to Canterbury Cathedral.

So, Martyr? Why martyr? Alphege’s life was one of devotion to Our Blessed Lord, dedicated to prayer and the service of others, a promoter of non- violent actions against his enemies and concern for the well-being and security of his own people. He surrendered his life in refusing to allow a ransom to be raised for saving it, because he knew that his people had already suffered enough and he would not add to that suffering. He died that others might live.

So why are we here on this day in 2012, a thousand years after his death? Well we may be small in number but in London at noon today, the beginning of the commemoration of St Alphege’s life and his death 1000 years ago today, began with a service in Southwark Cathedral where some of us were last year for that memorable consecration service of Bishop Jonathan Baker.  Archbishop Rowan will have by now blessed all those gathered there including some from Gloucestershire, and then the pilgrims will have set off by now, some on foot, some on bikes, and 190 by a specially chartered Thames motor clipper to the Norwegian Church at Rotherhithe for a service of reconciliation. The pilgrimage will continue to Greenwich Pier, and then process through the park to St Alphege’s School and join a wonderful dancing and singing procession for a celebration in St Alphege’s Park. At 4.30 – in about an hour and a half from now, The Archbishop of Canterbury will preside and preach at a service in St Alphege’s Church at Greenwich, built on the site of the Saint’s martyrdom, a service attended by representatives of all Churches dedicated to St Alphege and by pilgrims of many Scandinavian churches and organisations – a service of Reconciliation and forgiveness indeed.

Tomorrow a three-day cycle pilgrimage will leave Canterbury Cathedral to arrive at Greenwich for a Sunday Eucharist followed by a celebratory picnic and activities in Greenwich’s St Alphege Park.

And tonight in Bath St Alphege’s Catholic Church is hosting a wonderful Celebration Mass attended by Civic dignitaries, clergy, bishops and the Abbot of Downside will preach

Although miles from the main activities, we pilgrims here at Deerhurst are part of the celebrations and will be remembered in prayers this evening. It is important that we hold on through pilgrimage to events of the past as they help us to move forward in faith into the future, and remind us of the debt we owe to those who have prepared the way before us. That is why we are here today. If we are determined to hand on the faith to those who come after us, it is vital. that we are confident in our knowledge of where that faith came from and the pain and struggles it has endured.

Although Deerhurst played only a small part in the Saint’s life, let us rejoice that it was indeed the seed from which came much fruit and that today, brothers and sisters, we are treading where the Saint has trod.


Deerhurst 2

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