|   Our Lady & St Alphege
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Saint & Martyr
954-1012 Early Days, Deerhurst & Bath
Alphege, or Elphege, (written as Aelfheath in Anglo-Saxon times but pronounced as it is today, namely alf edge ) was reputedly born in 954 of a noble family in
the village of Weston, now a parish in the west of Bath, Somerset. While still young he renounced the world and entered the monastery at
Deerhurst, near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, apparently against the wishes of his widowed mother.
The ancient church at Deerhurst still
contains features from that time and a mediaeval stained glass window depicting the saint. Alphege served as monk, and later as Abbot, at
Deerhurst, but he found the life there too lax for his taste. After 8 years, seeking a life of greater seclusion and austerity, he moved back
to Weston in 980 and set up a small cell on the slopes of Lansdown Hill above the village. Ordnance Survey maps mark a spot there, just below Bath Racecourse, as
St Alphage’s Well.
Read below about the icon and its blessing
The Story of St Alphege in Stone
A selection of the 20 carvings by William D. Gough
at Our Lady & St Alphege, Bath
Solemn blessing of our new Icon of St Alphege
The solemn blessing of our new Icon of St Alphege took place at St Alphege’s Church on 19th October 2011 during the celebration of the Office of Vespers, which were sung by the choir of the Orthodox Parish of St John of Kronstadt, Bath. The preacher was Father John Crowe, former Rector of Dorchester Abbey.
The icon was given in memory of Graham Griffiths, and as a devotional focus during the year 2012, which marks the millenium of the martyrdom of St Alphege at Greenwich. Graham Griffiths was a much loved member of St Alphege's Parish who died in 2008. The icon had been created by skilled iconographer Tamara Penwell, whose children attend St John's Primary School.
Present were members of the Orthodox Parish, who meet at 48 Lyncombe Hill, including Fr Seraphim Johnson (parish priest), Fr Yves Dubois (founder priest), and Mother Sarah (who lives at the Convent of St John of Kronstadt and also works part time at the Ecumenical Chaplaincy of Bath University). The choir was conducted by Charles Hetherington. The moving ceremony was followed by refreshments in St Alphege’s Hall and a talk by the iconographer Tamara Penwell.
Fr Crowe's Sermon
"Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it: but anyone who loses his life for the sake of Christ and the gospel will save it." (Matthew 8.35)
Thank you for the privilege to preach at this special service of Vespers in preparation for next year - the thousandth anniversary of the martyrdom of St Alphege. It is a joy to be here to witness the blessing of the new icon of St Alphege so beautifully and prayerfully painted by the iconographer, Tamara Penwell.
We need to focus on the saints of the Universal Church before the schism between the Catholic Church of the West and the Churches of the East and the later disunity through the Reformation. Those saints, including St Alphege, have a special part in our joint history and can be seen as living stones on which can be built progress towards unity. It is so good that this evening we are a truly ecumenical gathering, especially having so many from the Orthodox Parish of St John of Kronstadt.
But how much do we know about the saints of that period? What is the significance of St Alphege for us today? How can we be helped by his story?
St Alphege died a martyr's death - following in the Way of Jesus Christ. He was Archbishop of Canterbury at a time when marauding Danes were raiding the coast of England - pillaging, murdering and enslaving many thousands of prisoners, demanding money for their release. Rather like the Somali pirates of modern times. After a huge army of Danes had landed in Kent in late September 1011 they seized Canterbury, plundering the city, burning the cathedral and taking many citizens prisoner. They demanded a huge sum of money for their release, promising then to leave the country peaceably. It took up until the following April to raise the ransom money.
They then insisted on a further hefty ransom for the life of Archbishop Alphege, but he refused to allow this to be done. He said that his people were suffering great hardships already. He could have saved his life, but gave himself up for the sake of his people. Shortly after Easter Alphege was beaten to death by a drunken mob of Danes at Greenwich who attacked him with ox bones.
One of the Danish commanders, Thorkell the Tall, tried to save Alphege from the mob, without success. Later Thorkell went over to the English side with 45 ships. Surely the example of Alphege dying a martyr's death, showing a Christ-like witness, was part of Thorkell's change of heart!
We can also recognize Alphege's saintliness in the example he gave through the whole of his life up to his martyrdom. As parishioners here in Bath you have a great story to share with others. The whole of his story is shown carved into the capitals of the pillars of this wonderful church down the south side of the nave. A year's celebration lies ahead with special services and events to be organized in the places where he lived. Some of those places so close by!
Alphege was born in the village of Weston just outside Bath. Later, as a young man, he joined the monastic community at Deerhurst, near Tewkesbury. Do visit Deerhurst, a quiet out of the way village even now with its Saxon church where Alphege studied, prayed and worked. Then for a few years Alphege lived a hermit's life in a cell on Landsdown above Bath before being elected as Abbot of Bath Abbey. He was not one to seek preferment and had to be persuaded to become Bishop of Winchester where he was renowned for his care of the poor and the austerity of his life. Finally he was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England in 1004 for those last 7 years of his life in the context of almost daily fear induced by the threat of Danish invasion.
We have briefly considered his life and the manner of his death. The coming year will be an opportunity to learn more. Surely a story so relevant to today's world. God's martyrs - those who are willing to stand up for the Gospel and for peace and justice have been and will continue to be from every generation, not least our own. Witnessing to Christ even unto death happens so much in many parts of the world today.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was in Zimbabwe a short time ago during a visit to Central Africa. 10,000 Anglicans were present at an open air Eucharist unable to use their cathedral stolen from them by Mugabe supporters. Archbishop Rowan was able to confront President Mugabe and present to him a dossier of abuses and violence including murder against clergy and laity in the Anglican Church there. Such intimidation and persecution is also suffered by Catholics and other denominations when anyone speaks up for the poor and against injustice and abuse.
The story and example of St Alphege is a source of great encouragement for wise and brave Christian leadership in today's world. Thanks be to God for the faithful and loving witness of St Alphege almost 1000 years ago here in our own country - for his caring pastoral work, his holy life and brave example and especially for his own self sacrifice, dying a martyr'e death - following in the Way of his Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, majesty and power for evermore. Amen.
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