Exeter Cathedral - 22 Oct 2017


The Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paulís Cathedral at the Trafalgar Service 22nd.October 2017.


When you stand in the pulpit at St Paulís Cathedral to broadcast your sermon Ė farther away from the congregation than I am now- and look to your left, you can see Lord Horatio Nelsonís monument, with a statue of the man standing tall and proud with a cloak over his right shoulder hiding the loss of his arm.

To Nelsonís right on the monument is the figure of Britannia with two boys, pointing to Nelson as their role model, and on his left thereís an open-mouthed lion, which according to the childrenís guide to St Paulís can be interpreted either as roaring loudly or, as cats are wont to do, being about to vomit, given that Nelson was nearly always seasick when he went to sea.

Nelson was small as a baby and as an adult, not having strong constitution, often ill Ė and yet a brilliant naval tactician and leader, inspiring great loyalty in his men. One of the reasons he was so good was that he had a deep hunger for fame and fortune, the fruit of being a poor parsonís son without much in the way of connections and wealth; he had a simmering resentment at being overlooked for promotion and was given less recognition than other better connected but no so able officers.

His double adulterous affair with Emma Hamilton was largely conducted in more liberal Italy, though he brought her back to England with their child, abandoned his wife, and settled Lady Hamilton and child in his estate in Surrey, where he was immensely popular. Nelson worked at being a celebrity Ė he went on walkabouts and engaged with the populace as a hero, in an age when heroes were being created as alternative role models for the common man, to head off any thoughts they might have of following the footsteps of the French into a revolutionary republic.

Thatís why St Paulís Cathedral has so many Napoleonic era monuments, including Nelson Ė itís government sponsored propaganda, because setting up inspiring statues of your heroic relations was a lot cheaper and easier to manage than having your head removed by the guillotine.

The monuments in St Paulís Ė as an observant Italian visitor remarked to me only a couple of days ago Ė are pagan and not Christian in character, following Roman and Greek models of classical heroism, with Nelson and Collingwood and others held in the arms of Greek gods, not of Christ.

And the public loved it all Ė the statues and the scandals and the non-establishment way that Nelson carried on, and how they felt he understood his sailors and was kind to them. He was a kind of Diana figure, whose allure and attraction was only heightened by his death in battle, a noble and sacrificial figure giving his life for the nation. Some people think that he wanted to die at Trafalgar, but the evidence is that he was hoping to come home again to a happy and quieter life in Surrey and his adoring public.

That picture of Nelson is very different from the picture of Jesus in the second lesson we had read this morning. Perhaps a bit like Nelson, Jesus was popular with the crowds but no popular with those in power.

But for Jesus, popularity wasnít because he was an alluring figure, heroic and inspiring and keen for fame, but because he healed and delivered those in need; and yet Jesus faced opposition and death for his pains, and he knew that he had to go through death at the hands of those who hated him.

Nelson fought for adulation and wealth, while ready to do his duty, hoping that he would return from battle with fame for which he would not have to pay the ultimate price.
Jesus longed to serve Godís people with warmth and compassion, and without ego, knowing he would not return, ready to give his life as a ransom for many, trusting that God would lead him through the storms of sacrifice that lay ahead.

Following his burial in the Crypt of St Paulís, thousands of naval veterans and others came to see Nelsonís tomb, by the light of an old lantern handed down from verger to verger, in the dark and dirt of the unlit crypt, with other heroes like Admiral Collingwood buried alongside.

In fact, so many people paid to come and see Nelsonís tomb that Westminster Abbey staff got seriously worried about losing their tourist income, and installed a realistic waxwork of Nelson in a side chapel in order to entice sailors and tourists back to the Abbey, away from the exciting new sculptures at St Paulís.

The human story of Nelson, the man and the myth around him, has always fascinated people; and when we hear of the battle of Trafalgar, itís for Nelsonís death that most people will remember it.

And yet, as with the rest of history, itís no so much the great names we remember that make events happen, but those who do the work.

We have here today descendants not only of Admiral Collingwood, Nelsonís great companion in command, but also of Sailmaker John Murch, who with his son fought in the battle; and there are so many unnamed and forgotten sailors by whose efforts and sacrifices battle was won.

Which is why we remember today not only Nelson, but all who have served or still serve in the Navy and the Marines and the Wrens, and all who work at sea to keep us supplied and safe, men and women who may be away from home for long periods and put their lives at risk in what they do.

We give thanks for so many people who, like Nelson, will do their duty, but who unlike Nelson neither have nor seek personal fame or fortune.

Trafalgar Day is named for one battle in 1805, but it stands for the commitment, sacrifice and thanks of so many people going to sea over so many centuries on behalf of this nation and beyond.

We give thanks to God for courage in the face of danger and loss, and we pray for all who have lost those who hey love at sea; and we put our trust, as Jesus did, in the compassion and grace of God, who we pray will hold us in calm and storm, through life and through death, so that the words of the hymn weíve just sung, God may lead us all our journey through and land us safe at last.

To God be the praise and the glory, now and forever. Amen

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