Choristers Valediction Evensong sermon 2009
12 July 2009 at 15:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
One of the many extraordinary aspects of being Dean of Westminster is the sense of responsibility for a range of buildings that includes 3,300 people buried or memorialised. That very large number means that it is always possible to discover something new and unexpected when walking through the Abbey, something you can’t remember having noticed before. No doubt the more senile I become the more this will be true, so I look forward to many years of fresh discoveries. Last week, I noticed for the first time, nestling at the foot of the extravagant memorial to General Wolfe, the conqueror of Quebec, just behind me, a simple Purbeck marble slab raised a little from the ground with the brass of an abbot in vestments and mitre, carrying his crosier. I spent some time observing him and decided that I must find out what I could about him.
The abbot in question was John Esteney, whose name strikes few chords in our own day. In his, though, he was a significant man. He was first Prior and then Abbot of Westminster 24 years from 1474 to 1498. During his reign, the building of the Gothic nave, not begun until 1376, was almost but not quite completed. The summit of the pre-Reformation work on the Abbey was not to be reached until John Islip’s thirty year abbacy from 1500 with the reconstruction of the Lady Chapel. John Esteney achieved much, considering that he lived through troubled times. He was responsible for the coronation of Richard III in 1483. He gave sanctuary from the wrath of Richard III to Edward IV’s widowed Queen Elizabeth Woodville. He acted as godfather to her son, Edward V, later murdered in the Tower, probably at the command of Richard III. Perhaps his most lasting memorial was the help he gave to John Caxton to set up his printing press, the first in England, within the precincts of the Abbey. A tablet marks the spot, just outside Poets Corner. So he was a father to the father of printing and thus in a sense a father of the modern age.
There are so many stories that could be told here in the Abbey, that the very stones of the Abbey could tell us if only they could speak: stories of weakness and wickedness, of greatness and holiness, of vile and terrible deeds and of humble suffering for truth, of ambition, venality and greed, and of mighty heroism. Many of the stories will never now be told; others are there, like that of John Esteney and so many more, to be uncovered and remarked; others shine on through the centuries. The best story is that of people in their successive generations humbly and patiently seeking after God and finding him. That story is today’s story, as hundreds and thousands of people every week come here to wonder or to worship and find their hearts and their souls touched by the presence and power of the living God.
Our worship this afternoon falls at the end of the Abbey choir’s term and academic year. At the end of this service, the seven senior choristers will leave the choir and come to stand before the altar for a formal valediction. Maxim del Mar, Daniel Parr, Samuel Slattery, Augustus Streeting, Raphael Taylor-Davies, David Warren and Hee-Rak Yang have been members of Westminster Abbey Choir School for five years and served regularly during that time in the Abbey Choir. I say to you choristers who are leaving, that you have all distinguished yourselves academically and musically. You all go on with considerable achievement and success to you new schools, to five more years of education before university. We wish you all every joy and blessing and thank you for you contribution to the worship and life of the Abbey. I have some advice for you. Remember the Abbey in your prayers; remember your need for a nest in the wilderness, for rest in the turmoil of life; see the Abbey always, throughout your lives, as your spiritual home; return frequently to the Abbey for spiritual refreshment. We shall be praying for you that in your new schools the Lord will send his guardian angels to protect you and to guide you and to keep you faithful to the Lord’s service.
The Abbey is rich not only with history and meaning but also in terms of its current life and its future hopes. Whatever our expectations or our plans, nothing matters by comparison with the daily worship of almighty God that forms the foundation and carries the meaning and purpose of the Abbey. Above all, the Abbey is a place of God, here to serve and honour God, here to bring people to worship him, here to promote God’s kingdom in his world. All else will fade into insignificance and dissolve into meaninglessness unless that prime purpose is functioning and in order. The Dean and Chapter and the other clergy of the Abbey, whose main task is the worship of God, are encouraged and strengthened immeasurably by the powerful presence and support of musicians. As Saint Augustine said: “For he that sings praise, not only praises, but also praises with gladness: he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him of whom he sings. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection of one loving”. This has often been abbreviated to read, “He who sings prays twice.” At the Sanctus in the Eucharist, we on earth are joining with the saints and angels in heaven as they join in the unending praise of almighty God. Here, heaven and earth are one. Here, our worship on earth is commingled with the eternal worship of heaven, our offering transfigured by the angels to be one with their heavenly praise. Music lifts us all into the heavenly spheres.
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitations of thy glory and dominion,
world without end.