Worship at the Abbey

The Westminster Abbey Anglo-Saxon Door

7th August 2005 at 12:00 am

Sermon at Matins, 7 August 2005

by the Reverend Canon Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon of Westminster

The Westminster Abbey Anglo-Saxon Door

Readings: Song of Solomon 8: 5-7; 2 Peter 3: 8-13

Westminster Abbey had a lot of press coverage this week: you may have seen we now know we have the oldest door in Britain. Scientific dating has just confirmed that the old door on the right hand side as you go into the Chapter House is nearly a thousand years old. The oak trees it is built from may well have been growing in the forest outside London a thousand years ago and the door itself was probably constructed and put in place about 1050 when Edward the Confessor built Westminster Abbey next to his palace at Westminster.

The age of the door has been worked out by the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory. They bored a tiny hole right through the timber so they could see the pattern of the tree-rings. With trees, each year's growth produces a ring in the trunk and the thickness of the ring depends on the weather that year. So, the pattern of the rings is unique - a bit like the bar code on something you buy in a shop. By comparing the pattern of the tree rings in various bits of wood it is possible to date timber and even to see where it came from. This is how the door was dated.

We also know from the way the door is made that it was special. The wood has been fitted together to leave a flat surface on both sides and there are minute remains of skin behind the iron straps. All sorts of suggestions have been made as to why the skin is there. It used to be thought there was some link with the famous robbery that took place in 1303 from the Pyx Chamber next door to where the door now is. At that time, the Pyx Chamber was used by the king as a Treasury, so when it was robbed the monks of the Abbey were immediately suspected. The Abbot and 48 monks were taken to the Tower of London. Eventually, two monks were convicted of involvement in the robbery. It used to be thought the skin on the door belonged to someone who was punished for the robbery by being flayed and having his skin nailed up on the door - but the explanation for the particles of skin is much less gruesome. The skin is cow hide that would have been painted over so that the door could be decorated. Traces of this hide can be found on both sides of the door, showing it was decorated on both sides. The door was obviously placed somewhere important and needed to look good from both sides.

From the construction of the door it is clear the top has been cut off. It is now only about six feet tall, but when it was made it was probably more than nine feet tall. It is still incredibly solid, so when you think that people in those days were considerably less tall than we are today you can see that how imposing it must have been. When Henry III rebuilt the Abbey and its buildings in honour of King Edward the Confessor, who had been recognised as a saint, he left very little of the buildings that Edward himself put up. Everything was new and everything was in the latest thirteenth-century style. No expense was spared - so there must have been something special about this door that it survived the rebuilding. Perhaps it had some special link with the revered Confessor. Perhaps it was the door to the chamber where his body lay, or to a chapel where prayers had been said since his time, or to the old chapter house, where the monks had met since his time. Who knows? - but for some reason, when almost everything else was replaced with something newer and better, this old, oak door was kept.

Of course, it now looks incredibly battered and worn and doesn't fit perfectly. But it isn't kept behind a glass case and we are not going to replace it with a door made of plywood or plastic. Why should we? It has done its job for nearly a thousand years, and it certainly isn't worn out yet. Now that we know how old it is, we have begun to look at it a bit differently: not just as a battered old door but as a wonderful piece of living history, something you can see and touch, which has been here, in the Abbey, since before almost anything in modern English, and American or Australian or Canadian, history you can think of. We don't know which monks or kings and queens passed though that door or why, but we do know that compared with the age of that door our life will pass in the blink of an eye.

There is something very lovely about this battered old treasure being a working door. A door can be kept locked and used to keep people out. What the press wanted were photos of the door being opened, and inviting us to go in. And what we want to go into, perhaps, is the past - because that is where we come from and that, in some ways, tells us who were are. We love to imagine what this place would have been like a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years ago, and the fascination is, precisely because we can't quite see. We can build up a picture through studying the fragments of the past that are available to us. We can study history and historical objects, like the door by the Chapter House, for a lifetime and so nearly see, so nearly know. We can look at photographs from a hundred years ago and imagine what is just out of the picture and what happened in the minutes before and after the photograph was taken but we can never quite see. The past, it has been said, is another country. We go on learning about it but we can never quite get there.

And this is exactly why places like Westminster Abbey are so special. We love them because they bring that other country so close to us. We love a door that brings us into touch - literally into touch - with the forest of Essex in the early eleventh century and the axes and planes of the craftsmen who worked for Edward the Confessor. This longing for the past is, for Christians, very similar to the longing for another and a different country which we cannot quite touch and we cannot quite see, but which we know by faith is there just beyond the reach of our senses. People have come to this place for a thousand years to reach out to that other country in longing and in prayer, to touch it by touching the tomb of a saint, and to know that this brief life is only a moment of preparation before we are taken to live in that country which is our real home. For a believer, this whole Abbey church is like a door, a good old English door, that has served for nearly a thousand years to invite people into the palace of a heavenly king. That's what Edward and Henry, both earthly kings, wanted: they wanted to pass from this place where their bodies are buried through an open door into the presence of God.

It is in the Gospel of John that Jesus speaks of himself as a door: "I am the door," he says , "If anyone enters by me he will be saved." (Jn 10:9). This is why doorways to churches have always been regarded as important and many are superbly decorated, sometimes with the words of Jacob, "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." (Gen 28:17). Often, as here at the Abbey, the saints and the martyrs are standing there to invite the pilgrim in. One of the lovely things about the battered old door that was receiving all the attention last Thursday is that it is hidden in an inconspicuous corner. It is strong and it has lasted incredibly well but it is no longer decorated and it is not in a prominent place. It is a very English door for a very English Abbey in which the Christian faith has lasted incredibly well for a thousand years, inviting kings and queens, monks and lay people, rich and poor, into the courts of heaven. And if in this ancient place you feel you can reach out in your imagination and touch something of the mystery of God, then you will understand why for a thousand years it has been regarded as nothing other than the house of God, a door that stands open to invite each one of us to pass through into the courts of heaven.