Sermon at Matins on Sunday 18 October: Feast of Dedication
18 October 2009 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
The date on which to celebrate the dedication of this Abbey is a complex business, because various parts of the Abbey were built at different times so there are many possible dates. But undoubtedly the moving of St Edward the Confessor’s body to its present tomb behind the High Altar 740 years ago on 13th October 1269 following the completion of Henry IIIrd’s Abbey, was a very significant event, hence the decision to keep the Feast of Dedication on the Sunday following that.
I suppose to understand the significance of the original dedication when it happened it would be necessary to seek to inhabit a world in some ways foreign to most of us today, a world where the relics of a saint, the divine right of Kings, and the power and influence of the Church intermingled in a way that most of us now would find odd. But as some of us heard on Friday from our Roman Catholic friends at Westminster Cathedral, nearly 100,000 people passed through that cathedral in three days last week to venerate the relics of St Theresa of Lisieux. It does seem the relics of holy people still exercise an extraordinary fascination on many people’s minds, as any of you who have entered the shrine of St Edward behind the High Altar here may have experienced as well. And as I have said before from this pulpit perhaps no one has captured the spirit of that better than T S Eliot. He was writing of Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire in his volume Four Quartets, but it could have been written for the Shrine of St Edward as well.
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
Those words of Eliot come to my mind almost every time I enter the Shrine.
But if that particular part of this building’s history still exercises power, what else speaks to today? What, I wonder, does the dedication of this Abbey church mean for its life now?
Well, location has a part to play. Parliament Square has around it some of the most significant institutions of England. There is the mother of Parliaments, of course, to the east, on the site that used to be Edward the Confessor’s palace. Then there is Whitehall to the north, with government departments starting with the Treasury running away up the road that leads to Trafalgar Square. Now, to the west of the square, there is the new Supreme Court, the home of the highest legal authority in the United Kingdom. The Abbey’s position on the south of the Square, predating as it does all the other buildings, is a sermon in stone on the place of religion in our nation. In the very heart of government and the law there is a church. He, who has eyes to see, let him hear!
Of course our understanding of God has probably changed over the years from the original dedication, and there will I am sure be many in Parliament, in the Civil Service and in the Law who are sceptical about religion. But the American theologian Paul Tillich once wrote about what he described as ‘the depth of existence’ and wrote:
‘The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word does not have much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or an unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God.’
Well, with those words of Tillich in mind, what I hope this Abbey stands for, set in the very heart of government, is ultimate seriousness. It is a place to investigate and reflect upon what we take most seriously without any reservation, a place to think about ultimate questions of meaning and purpose, a place where the depths of life can be explored. And we do it, I believe, not using the Christian faith as tramlines, because every age has to explore things in new ways, in the light of new understandings, new observations, new knowledge even, but we can, I believe, still find in the Christian faith signposts, which will help us on the journey.
And it has been some understanding like that, not of course expressed in those words, that has lain behind some of the major events that have happened here. Coronations certainly, major acts of remembrance of various moments and people in our nation’s history, significant Royal events like marriages and funerals, and, I hope, the daily pattern of the worship of God in this place.
Some years ago I was involved with the former Dean of this Abbey, Wesley Carr, and others in writing a book about the Church of England entitled ‘Say One for Me.’ Our essential argument was that the Church of England is here for everyone, and much of what we do we do on behalf of others. And sometimes, although perhaps only sometimes, the others are rather glad it is being done somewhere. Well here, above all, we pray in that daily pattern of worship, we pray for the church, of course, and for the Royal family every day, but we pray also for the world and especially for those charged with the awesome responsibility of government and the administration of the law. Here the life of this nation, with all its complex depths and ambiguities, is laid before God in prayerful reflection. A Feast of Dedication is a good moment to renew ourselves afresh to that task.