England’s saints have been written out of history

St Etheldreda at St Peter and St Paul church, Ampton, Suffolk

Today, under the old dispensation, which may yet return, would have been Corpus Christi, and at least in the Cathedral town of Arundel, it still is, and thousands of people will be rushing down to West Sussex to see the magnificent carpet of flowers and to take part in the solemn Mass and procession at 5.30pm. I, sadly, cannot be with them, and for those in that position, I offer some consolation in a reflection of today’s very English saint, St Etheldreda.

Etheldreda (630-679), sometimes called Audrey, was a royal princess, daughter of a king, twice married, second time around to the King of Northumbria; nevertheless she remained a virgin, took religious vows, and founded the Abbey of Ely. The Viking invaders later destroyed her abbey, but it was restored in more peaceful days, only to be suppressed once more in the 16th century by Henry VIII.

The period in which she lived is often called the Dark Ages. We ourselves live in a period of self-proclaimed Enlightenment. But these are broad brush terms, and as Catholics we believe in a hermeneutic of continuity: the past is not to be swept away, but rather should inspire us and provide us with a firm foundation for future progress. So we can learn, even from the Dark Ages. Sadly, St Etheldreda is now an almost forgotten historical figure, remembered in few places. The heroes of our history are those who destroyed her abbey, and who did so much damage to the fabric of our nation.

England was once a land of saints, but the saints of our isle have been written out of the script by Whiggish historians, which is part of a larger trend still much to the fore today to consign all religious people to the dustbin of history, branding them as part of the forces of reaction and enemies of progress. This is a deeply held but irrational belief: the idea that religion is the source of all our ills, and as such to be excluded from the public sphere, and corralled into the realm of the purely private.

This is clearly the view of Mary Honeyball. Just think, everyone is free to speak in the public sphere except the religious!

But what exactly is meant by the private sphere, to which religion is to be relegated? Was St Etheldreda’s abbey a purely private space, her retirement into religious life a purely private action? The personal is political, as many feminists will tell us, and how right they are. “There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life,” as George Eliot observed. She would have appreciated the choice of Etheldreda, queen turned nun. The private and the public necessarily overlap and the two cannot be separated.

This is not the only mistake that secularism of the modern type assumes. Its other error is to deny the importance of our historical roots; but if we do that we lose contact with reality, for we are historical beings. Catholicism, the religion of the Pope, is the historical faith of these islands, something that Professor Dawkins should take note of; Oxford, where Dawkins teaches, is a historically Catholic university; New College, of which he is a fellow, is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Secularity, however, properly understood, is a respectable, necessary, and indeed Christian idea, about the God-given autonomy of the world. It is admirably expressed in Gaudium et Spes, 17:

Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man. For God has willed that man remain “under the control of his own decisions,” so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him. Hence man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since man’s freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God’s grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each man must render an account of his own life, whether he has done good or evil.

The above statement strikes me as more deeply humanist than anything coming from our contemporaries who claim to be humanists. But modern pseudo-secularism is, as has often been observed, merely the irrational hatred of religion.

Why do they hate us so much? That is a question we cannot answer, only they can. But this does not mean we have no responsibility in this department. We need to adopt an evangelical attitude so that we alert everyone we meet to the attractive side of religion. We need to be dulcet, not strident, patient, not aggressive, kind, not sarcastic, charitable, not odious, in all our conversations. We need to smile not scowl; and smile sincerely, not falsely. We need in short to do what Jesus commands us to do – love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us. St Etheldreda, a wise ruler of her abbey, who must have dealt with lots of difficult people in her time, and who was even married to two of them, did no less I am sure.

Sancta Etheldreda, ora pro nobis!