A Sermon for St Dunstan - Patronal Festival - 17th May 2020
A sermon preached by the Rector for the Patronal Festival at St Dunstan's church.
The 19th May is St Dunstan’s Day. St Dunstan, of course, has particular significance in our parish here in Cheam, being the patronal saint of one of our three churches. So, on this the nearest Sunday to his feast day, we remember St Dunstan along with the foundation of this church I’m in right now.
What about St Dunstan? I have to admit that I knew very little about St Dunstan until I started thinking about what I was going to say today, other than that he was a one-time Archbishop of Canterbury. So, let’s start with a potted history of the man himself.
He was born in 909 into a well-connected family in Somerset. England was weak and unstable at this time. It was ravaged by Viking raids and the throne had a series of young kings with short reigns. The young Dunstan – a serious, studious boy – spent his early years at Glastonbury. Said to be a skilled blacksmith and jeweller, he’s known as the patron saint of smiths. He spent some time at the royal court, but returned to Glastonbury where he lived as a hermit before becoming a monk. Dunstan eventually became the Abbot of Glastonbury, where he worked at rebuilding the monastic community. He established the Rule of St Benedict at the centre of the monastery’s life.
Dunstan was exiled for an unknown reason. Rumour says that Dunstan told off the young King Eadwig for being overindulgent at his coronation. Part of England eventually rejected Eadwig in favour of his brother, Edgar. Edgar appointed Dunstan Bishop of Worcester in 957 and then Bishop of London. Edgar became sole King of England in 959, appointing Dunstan as Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan set about revitalising the church in England. He helped re-establish the monastic tradition. Between them, Edgar and Dunstan brought much stability to the country as well as reform to Church and State. Edgar died in 975 and in 978 Dunstan moved into retirement after enthroning Edgar’s son, Ethelred. Dunstan died in 988. He was canonised in 1029 and was considered England’s favourite saint until Thomas à Becket’s martyrdom in 1170.
In a slightly more fun approach, there are several legends associated with Dunstan and the Devil. In the most famous one, he resists temptation and tweaks Lucifer’s nose with a hot pair of smithing tongs – the image onscreen before the service began. A folk rhyme relates:
“St Dunstan, as the story goes, Once pull’d the devil by the nose With red-hot tongs, which made him roar, That he was heard three miles or more.”
There is another piece of folklore linking him with the common late May frosts in the West Country, which were said to happen between 17th and 19th May. Dunstan bought some barley and made some beer, which he then hoped to sell on for a good price. Seeing this, the Devil appeared before him and offered to blight the local apple trees with frost. This would ensure there was no cider (a critical West Country staple, of course) and so drive demand for beer. Dunstan accepted the offer but stipulated that the frost should strike from the 17-19 May, hence the frost at this time! So, this is why we celebrate St Dunstan on 19thMay – an agreement with the Devil about making a tidy profit on his homebrew.
Much has been lost about Dunstan in the past 1,100 years. If we were to try to tease something out of the little that we do know, we might want to say that Dunstan’s sainthood lies in the stability he brought, in the good governance he established, and in his efforts to rebuild the foundations of what was an unstable church at the time. His close work with King Edgar shows that he is a good saint for the Church of England, striving for close relationships between Church and State. All this makes Dunstan seem rather like a slightly saintly manager rather than anything else. But such skills do have their place in the Church.
Our patronal festivals are always good opportunities for us to think about our churches – how we’re doing and where we’re going. Much of what I’m going to say now is focused on St Dunstan’s rather than St Oswald’s and St Alban’s. But it is relevant to our whole parish – the work we’ve been doing here will need to happen in all three of our churches. I had hoped that today, we at St Dunstan’s would have been able to explore further what the future might hold for us. We were going to have tables set out in and around church for us to consider ideas together – obviously not possible today. We did manage to hold three of the planned four Lent lunches back in March, before we had to suspend all our public activities. The purpose of these gatherings was to begin to open up ideas about the direction in which we might go in the coming years. I know some people missed out on this. If you would like to take part in an online discussion about this, please let me know. Each of the gatherings were different, but many of the thoughts and ideas that people expressed were clearly coalescing around six areas. These areas are:
we need to develop a more accessible and flexible approach to our liturgy, looking especially to develop more family-friendly services.
Outreach – we need to develop two things:
outreach which seeks to engage with our community, in order to understand and respond to its needs.
outreach which is more specifically evangelistic, allowing people to connect constructively with questions of faith.
Learning and Discipleship:
faith does not stand still and neither does God. We need to provide opportunities for us all to grow in our understanding of what we believe.
we need to invest in our building to create a more accessible, user-friendly, and imaginative space which can be used by us and our community far more extensively than at present.
Finance and Giving:
money is important and we need to find ways of growing our own generosity through stewardship and ways of using our building better as a source of income.
we need to find better ways of communicating with the community as a whole. There is much to reflect on here, especially how digital platforms have proved their value in recent weeks.
These are six very clear areas in which we can begin to develop our sense of mission – our sense of where we discern God might be drawing us here in Cheam. What I hope to do in the coming weeks is to get some sense of priority. We cannot work at all six of these areas at once. We will also need to think about how these relate to our shared mission as a parish. What is it that we can do better together than apart?
We will then need to find a way of getting some small groups together to work on some of these areas, and begin to try out a few ideas when we come back together again. This is the next step in bringing change, in bringing the stability and reform that St Dunstan himself embodied to our parish. So whilst we celebrate our patronal saint and look back to him, we also look forward to our future in his name and in God’s name.