Sermon for Matins (Trinity 16)

26 September 2004 at :00 am

Westminster Abbey - Sermon 2004

Sermon for Matins, Trinity 16, 26 September 2004, Westminster Abbey
by the Reverend David Hutt, Sub Dean

Yesterday, Saturday 25th September, the Abbey calendar noted the commemoration of Lancelot Andrewes.

Among a number of significant appointments he became Dean of Westminster in July 1601 (until 1605). Andrewes was born in 1555 six years after the publication of the first English prayer book in 1549. This was the first attempt to sketch out a >via media, (a ‘middle way’) which was reinvented during 1558 and 1559 by the government of Elizabeth the First after a period of extremes which marked the reign of Queen Mary.

Lancelot Andrewes was educated at Merchant Taylors School and Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he was elected Fellow in 1576. He was a scholar of considerable eminence who is reputed to have mastered no fewer than fifteen languages. He was to become a Prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral where his remarkable preaching earned him a widespread reputation. Queen Elizabeth offered him two Bishoprics, those of Salisbury and Ely, both of which he declined. He subsequently enjoyed the patronage of King James I with the result that his rise was accelerated, not to say meteoric, becoming Bishop of Chichester in 1605, of Ely in 1609 and Winchester in 1619. He died at Winchester House, Southwark, on the 25th September 1626 and was buried in what is now Southwark Cathedral nearby.

Throughout his distinguished career he lived the life of a scholar. A biography of Andrewes by Henry Isaacson records a typical day in the life of “The Reverend Prelate”.

“His private devotions finished, to the time he was called to dinner, which, by his own order, was not until 12 noon at the soonest, he kept close at his book and would not be interrupted by any that came to speak with him, or upon any occasion, public prayer excepted. Insomuch that he would be so displeased with scholars that attempted to speak with him in a morning, that he would say “he doubted they were no true scholar that came to speak with him before noonday.”

Among the more bizarre events in his lifetime was his appointment to the commission examining George Abbott, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had accidentally shot a gamekeeper while out hunting. Reprieved from censure by the casting vote of King James the sporty Archbishop survived the contemporary equivalent of “hounding by the tabloids” and went on to crown King Charles I.

History records that his few years at the Abbey were relatively successful. He was popular, unstuffy and apparently a good judge of character in the appointment of four first-class men as Prebendaries installed during his reign. A disciplinarian, he turned his attention to the Petty Canons or singing men. Until his arrival they had largely pleased themselves about the regularity of their attendance in choir “by means whereof divers tymes greate inconvenience hathe insewed, all the voyces of one part being absent at once”. There was some acrimonious correspondence between the High Steward, Sir Robert Cecil, and the Dean and Chapter over a certain John Heathman who desired “a singing-mansplace” and “emoluments” but who objected to having to perform any duties whatsoever. Not surprisingly, the Chapter refused to sanction this appointment since, as they pointed out, not only would the choir be “impaired with the discontinuance of any voice” but others might well be tempted to follow his example.

In 1603 bubonic plague raged in London resulting in more than 33,500 deaths. Dean Andrewes wisely decamped to the relative safety of Chiswick but he returned in time to assist at the Coronation of James and his Queen which, shorn of the usual procession, took place on the 25 July 1603. Immediately afterwards he fled back to his bolthole and a Chapter Minute of the 27th July 1603 records: “the College shall break up and ye Commons be dissolved from tomorrow at Night”. The dissolution was to continue until the 7 October or to such time “as it shall please God to cease his visitation”

Back once again at Westminster after an exile lasting more than four months Andrewes set about a programme of restoration and repair to the fabric. “Item”, ran a Chapter minute of the 3rd September 1603 “that provision be made of lead, stone, timber and other necessaries towards the reparations of the fabricke of the church yearely to the value of £40, layd up in the storehouse, not to be imployed without consent of the Dean.” When he resigned his office in 1605 Andrewes was judged to have “left a place truly collegiate in all respects both within and without, free from debts, from encroachments and evil customs”. The truth of this was only partial. He did indeed leave the Abbey free of debt and added considerably to the amenities of the Deanery; but other collegiate buildings were bequeathed to his successor in a sad state of decay. Furthermore he fully expected the Chapter to compensate him for his “stuffe” at Westminster and Chiswick, besides paying for the Wainscotting that he had installed in the Dean’s Lodgings.

Andrewes’ time at the Abbey is chiefly remembered for the great interest he took in Westminster School - insisting on strict discipline and personally supervising the studies of the scholars. His reign was likewise noteworthy for the commencement of a tradition whereby the Dean regularly preached a sermon at Court on Good Friday.

His stature as a scholar led him to be appointed one of the translators of the authorised version of the Bible. He was persistent in upholding the need for order in public worship and maintained a high view of the Episcopate. That the Church of England was part of the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” he had no doubt.

Biographers have recorded a certain timidity of temperament and an inability to express criticism of the reigning monarch even when censure was appropriate. Obliquely, he challenged the worldliness and corruption of the court of King James through his sermons and also in his own profound personal piety.

The historian Florence Higham has remarked:

“To him tranquillity and order in rule, in worship and belief were God’s will for his Holy Church and this was the end he strove to foster, alike in his writing and Episcopal duties and in the witness of his own disciplined life grounded firmly on the daily practice of prayer.”

It is noteworthy that apart from his studies and tasks as a Bishop he is reputed to have spent five hours a day in prayer at his devotions.

Given the distance of time and the contradictions and complexities of another culture so far distant from us, what are we to make of Lancelot Andrewes? Surely a rare disciplined and committed Christian especially blessed with a quality of humility. On becoming Bishop of Chichester he caused to be engraved around his Episcopal seal words attributed to St Paul. “And who is sufficient for these things?” ( 2 cor 2 16). Of his published works the Preces Privatae or Private Prayers is now recognised as one of the great Anglican devotional treatises of the 17th Century reflecting his simple but profound faith in God and Jesus Christ as his Saviour.

He was never really at home in the Courts of Kings and was unwilling to face confrontation well knowing the consequences of open criticism and conflict. We must recall that the year of his birth witnessed many Protestant martyrdoms under Queen Mary.

He displayed a real concern for the poor and needy. At his own desire his funeral cortege was followed by seventy one old people representing the years of his age, all clad in new warm mourning gowns. In his will he provided for the yearly legacy of £25 to be distributed on mid-summer’s day amongst seven “poore, fatherless children”; £25 to be distributed on the 3rd January each year to “aged widows”; £25 to be allocated during the course of Holy Week to seven prisoners in the nearby clink/prison. Further monies were provided for the relief of old and retired seafarers.

There can be no doubt that he did not spare himself – in a word “he worked hard” and used the God-given day to the greatest advantage.

We must be grateful for his insistence that “all things shall be done decently and in order”. Much of what is highly regarded at the Abbey he once served in terms of music, liturgy and conduct of services follows from this principle. It remains a true legacy which must be acknowledged. Frequently taken for granted such careful ordering nevertheless provides a threshold for all to experience the presence of God and a window through which heaven may be glimpsed. May his memory be blessed and his soul rest in peace. Amen.

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