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Richard III can build confidence

04 January 2013

The king's reburial in Leicester could boost faith, say Tim Stevens and David Monteith

Remembered: the current memorial in Leicester Cathedral

Remembered: the current memorial in Leicester Cathedral

LEICESTER Cathedral, formed in 1927 from the Church of St Martin, is architecturally unprepossessing and has modest resources; and yet we have discovered that these are not impairments to Christian witness.

A recent report from Theos, Spiritual Capital, in which it was one of six cathedrals researched in depth, showed that 88 per cent of the respondents affirmed Leicester Cathedral to be a "beacon of the Christian faith" ( News, Comment, 19 October). The new gardens scheme (News, 28 September) signals a growing confidence - the cathedral literally taking its place in the public square.

We believe that the finding of what could be the remains of King Richard III ( News, 14 September, 5 October), which may be reinterred in the cathedral, will assist us even further to develop Christian confidence in a public setting.

Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith (Brazos Press, 2011) emerges from his background in the former Yugoslavia, which, like Leicester, is a multifaith area. He shows that the debates about faith's acting in the public square tend to emphasise how faith malfunctions. It can become "idle", spinning self-referentially like a "tyre stuck in an icy hole", he says.

It is often said that Churches that become concerned with themselves become unable to act or speak. At the other pole, and with countless examples of faith wedded to violence, he shows how faith can become "coercive".

Our experience in Leicester over 20 years suggests other possibilities. The English Defence League has come twice recently to our city to protest, making the Muslim community feel threatened. Each time, the cathedral became the natural default venue, where people of all faiths and none gathered in solidarity with those under attack.

Volf's "idle faith" would result in the cathedral's ignoring what was going on in its community, or failing to recognise that it had something to offer. Coercive faith would lead to Christians' and others' fuelling the fires further, through a misreading of Islam, or a patriotism defined narrowly by a selective Christian narrative.

IN MOMENTS such as these, we have recognised that it is the presence of our neighbours - people from other faiths, those in our civic and church gatherings - who have pulled us from idleness and saved us from coerciveness. In addition, their questions mean that we need constantly to give an account of the "hope that is within us" (1 Peter 3.15). So how will Richard III help?

First, monarchy points beyond the transient to the eternal. The Queen began her Jubilee Tour in Leicester. At the heart of that visit was a service in the cathedral. Young people read texts from the world religions, celebrating faith.

Thousands gathered on the day, and thousands kept coming to the cathedral the next week. This was more than being close to "celebrity", because huge numbers lit candles and left prayers - some for the Queen, but many for the sick, the unemployed, and the bereaved.

They were drawn by monarchy; they encountered spirituality and the eternal. Richard III came from turbulent times: history now helps us to see beyond that uncertainty to a confidence in God.

SECOND, there are no tombs in the cathedral, although there are many memorials. The early Christians gathered near the graves of their brothers and sisters. They redefined the geography of their cities by creating cemeteries around their churches. Death was no longer confined to a necropolis. Faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus was demonstrated publicly by bringing the living and the dead together in one place.

With Richard III, we have someone who seems to have been buried in haste near the cathedral. His story and potential reburial will enable us to talk more about death and human dignity, in a culture that tries to deny it. This contrasts with Volf's idle option, which believes that faith has nothing to say to a contemporary experience of death.

Alternatively, death can be so misunderstood that it cheapens life. This is Volf's coercive option. Here, religious-based violence forfeits us a place in the conversation, because phrases such as "the sanctity of life" become meaningless. Instead, Christian faith can claim death as part of life: it can foster human worth, and address our fears, shaping our ethics and how we deal pastorally with death. 

THIRD, forgiveness and redemption need to be made real. Thomas More and Shakespeare have provided us with one version of Richard III, which emphasises his disability, frailty, and possible involvement in the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Other accounts now reject this as Tudor propaganda, and emphasise the King's political skill and effectiveness.

If interred in the cathedral in the dust of the earth, a defeated king, not afforded the full dignity of an anointed monarch, would force us to ask what we believe about the redemptive power of God.

A 17th-century epitaph to Richard concludes: "Reader, whoe'er thou art, thy prayers bestow, T'atone my crimes and ease my pains below." As the public condemns the "undeserving poor", and media sometimes exercise more judgement than the courts, we urgently need to recapture a Christian proclamation of redemption. No one should be written off, whether defeated or victorious, politically astute or flawed.

The idea of redemption recognises the necessity and gift of forgiveness, because the death and resurrection of Jesus offers a critique of all our actions, holding out the promise of absolution. Institutions and public figures may have feet of clay, but Christians remain more hopeful. This is good news for the common good.

If Richard III is reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, we hope that many will encounter the Christian faith afresh. Like the population of our city who have come from afar, and have often known conflict, we will provide him with sanctuary, and dignified peace.

Mission proceeds from a confidence in Christ, whose love is eternal, who has embraced and conquered death, and whose redemption extends to every aspect of society. A medieval king will inspire fresh expressions of Church.


The Rt Revd Tim Stevens is the Bishop of Leicester, and the Revd David Monteith is Canon Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral.

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