Alfred the Great and Ecumenism

It’s interesting that we celebrate this minor feast of Alfred the Great at this ARCUSA meeting when at least some of our discussion on immigration and other moral issues have to do with the Church’s role in society and in interaction with the State!

 Alfred was King of the West Saxons in the late 9th century, and born at a time when the Anglo-Saxons were under constant threat from the Danish Vikings. Eventually, he not only managed to save his kingdom from annihilation, but he proved to be quite a statesman and a scholar in his own right. Among his accomplishments were the first English attempts at civic planning, and some of the first translations of Latin texts into the Anglo Saxon vernacular. So, he not only saved his people from the Vikings, but helped to revive and save their culture as well.

 No wonder our Prayer for today speaks of him coming to the throne “that he might establish peace in a ravaged land and revive learning and arts among the people.” No wonder the First Lesson from the Wisdom of Solomon is addressed to “kings and monarchs” and counsels them to “learn wisdom and not transgress…(for) the multitude of the wise is the salvation of the world, and a sensible king is the stability of any people.” (Wisdom 6)

 Well, we would look at that somewhat differently in our democratic, essentially “anti-monarchial” system of government, treasuring as we do a clear separation of church and state (for some awfully good reasons!). Yet surely our attention must be drawn to our Lord’s own words in today’s Gospel about the importance of firm foundations, of building presumably not only our personal, but our societal, houses on rock rather than on shifting sand. 

 Clearly one of the fruits of the ecumenical movement, over the years, has been our ability to make “common cause” and speak to the “powers that be” with a more-or-less united voice on some of the great social issues which confront us in the world today. We don’t agree on everything, of course, and part of the reason for dialogues like this one on “Ecclesiology and Moral Discernment” is so that we can understand one another better and perhaps find more areas of convergence than we had once thought…or at least appreciate our differing perspectives when such agreement cannot be found.

 But the churches made a witness together (albeit unsuccessfully) in the run-up to the war in Iraq and evangelicals were quoting catholic teaching on what is, and what is not, a “just war” in some circles!  We do share common concerns about immigration policy in this country. And the broadest ecumenical table every assembled in this land – Christian Churches Together in the USA – made up of Catholics and Orthodox, Historic Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, predominantly Black churches and para-church groups like Bread for the World and Sojourners – have crafted a joint statement on Domestic Poverty together and we spent one of our meetings bearing common witness about that concern on Capitol Hill in this very city.   

 Yes, it is important for the churches, sometimes in tandem with other faith communities to seek to be a kind of “soul’ for the nation, without overstepping our bounds and using whatever power or influence we have left in inappropriate ways to force our religious convictions on others.

 Both Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury have expressed their concerns, in various ways, about the secularization of Europe, and have wondered about how the Church can regain her nerve and speak a word of truth in that kind of environment. Although ostensibly more “religious” as a society, some of those same trends are evident right here in the United States and it is not too soon for us to begin asking ourselves those same questions. And, hopefully, asking them together!

 Alfred’s specific contributions toward justice and peace in his day would not be ours today. But surely the words of the Psalmist chosen for this feast day challenge us to work together in finding out what those contributions might reasonably be:

 “Happy are those who fear the Lord

and have great delight in his commandments…

The righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

It is good for them to be generous in lending

And to manage their affairs with justice…

They have given freely to the poor,

And their righteousness stands fast for ever…


Let’s hope so!


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