Sermons from St Faith's

Celebrating Saint Faith
The Very Revd Peter Atkinson, Dean of Worcester: Eve of St Faith, October 5th, 2010

I  have lived most of my life under the patronage of St Faith, Virgin and Martyr; though for some of that time, I would not have understood it in that way. When I was four years old, my family moved to Maidstone in Kent, and began to attend St Faith’s Church in that town. There I went to Sunday School, there I was confirmed and made my first communion, there I officiated at my sister’s wedding, there I attended both my parents’ funerals. And while St Faith’s, Maidstone, was, and is, a church of strongly evangelical tradition, and the idea of a patron saint formed little part of my Christian upbringing, the name of St Faith still evokes for me a wealth of memories of that upbringing, for which I thank God. I was there when Archbishop Robert Runcie preached, and he spoke of the St Faith’s Church he too had grown up in; so it means a great deal to me to celebrate St Faith’s Tide with you here in Great Crosby.

The present building of St Faith’s, Maidstone, is of the late Victorian period, just a little earlier than your own; but it stands on the site of an older church, consecrated in 1270, at the time when the cult of St Faith was becoming popular in this country. Some pillars of the old church survive in a nearby park. Later, the church served as a place of worship for Huguenot refugees in Kent, and they had a row with Archbishop Laud, who wanted them to use the Book of Common Prayer. So the parish has had a varied history.

I am not sure, but I think, that the growth in popularity of St Faith in mediæval England must be to do with the great pilgrimage to Santiago of Compostela in northern Spain. That famous shrine, which continues to draw thousands of pilgrims every year, established certain pilgrim-routes across Europe: the ‘ways of St James’. On the pilgrim-route through western France, the road taken by English pilgrims, stands the town and abbey of Conques, the shrine of St Faith and the place where her body is said to lie. And how could any visitor to Conques fail to remember the extraordinary image of St Faith they saw there – and can still see? The oldest surviving large-scale Christian sculpture in Europe; a strange figure of the tenth century, leafed in gold and encrusted with precious stones; a remote figure, androgynous, barbaric, pagan, unlike the conventional pious figures of later times! This image of St Faith must have impressed itself on passing pilgrims as a powerful saint, a saint to be invoked, a saint whose protection was worth having. At any rate, churches and chapels dedicated to St Faith sprang up in England; and both St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey have them still. St Faith made a particular home for herself in Norfolk in the vicinity of Walsingham; all in all St Faith was adopted by the English and took on an English character.

But more remote from us in time than mediæval England, France, or Spain, is the all-but-lost story of St Faith herself, that thirteen-year-old Christian girl, denounced by her own father to the authorities of Roman Gaul, tortured and killed in one of the intermittent bouts of persecution which Christians suffered in those times. What were the Lord’s words in the Gospel reading? ‘They will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles  ...  Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved’. St Faith endured those appalling agonies to the end; not saved for life in this world, but saved for the life of the world to come.

Her story brings home to us one of the extraordinary things about being a Christian: that the life and death of a fellow-Christian, far removed in time and place from ourselves, can, as it were, set out on a journey of its own and make contact with us across the centuries. So the story of St Faith travelled from Provence to Conques, was taken up by pilgrims across Europe, made its home in mediæval England, travelled on down the years, was taken up again here in Victorian Lancashire, and is still remembered today.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey once preached a sermon on St Nicholas, another early Christian martyr whose life is almost lost in legend but who established himself in the affection of Christians across the world. Of St Nicholas, he said: ‘[the stories of his life] tell of the impact upon Christendom made by a real personality who could not be forgotten or ignored ... Just as when a stone is dropped in a pool the ripples of water circle far beyond the central point, so the impact upon humanity of a [person] of power and saintliness creates ripples of story and legend across the Christian world.’
So it is too with St Faith. The story of the child-martyr of Provence has appealed to Christians in different ways, in different times and in different places. Look at the image of St Faith in this church, and look at the image of St Faith in the Abbey at Conques, and you would ask: where is the connection? - they are so utterly different from each other. The connection is that whether in Conques or in Crosby, whether in London or in Kent or in Norfolk, Christians have responded to the story of the unimaginable courage of a child-martyr in the face of family betrayal and official persecution.

But how do we respond to it? ‘Martyrdom’ has taken on a sinister connotation for many people today. The phrase ‘child-martyr’ strikes an uneasy chord. We know the devastating and destructive power of the ‘martyrs’ of the terrorist bomb and the suicide attack. Is martyrdom to be praised, or should it be resisted? The answer is both. The Church of the early centuries discouraged – discouraged in the strongest possible terms – any sort of martyrdom for its own sake. No one should seek martyrdom. That was the temptation with which Thomas Becket wrestled in Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral. The Christian way is not to seek death, but rather to love life, and only part with life if our Christian confession positively demands it. Becket, in the play, puts it like this:

A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to his ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, and are seen, not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.2

Thus was St Faith a true martyr of God, whose martyrdom was the design of God, who had become the instrument of God, who had lost her will in the will of God, and who now lives in the light of the Godhead from which she draws her being. May we, and all who honour her today, be led back to the ways of God by the glory of Faith and all the Saints.

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