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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon on the Abbey’s Dedication Festival: Sunday 18 October

18 October 2009 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

On Tuesday, we celebrated the feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor. We commemorated the removal of the saint’s remains in 1163 to a new shrine and again in 1269 to their present place behind the high altar. Today we remember in particular the dedication and consecration on that day in 1269 of the new church which King Henry III had built to honour the relics of St Edward, King and Confessor. We thank God for all his blessings to Church and State over the centuries through this great Church that Henry built. Today in particular we pray that the ministry and mission of Westminster Abbey in and for this nation and beyond may be richly blessed and directed by almighty God.

On Friday, the opening was celebrated of a new neighbour for the Abbey. The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh visited the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, which began work in the former Middlesex Guildhall this month, replacing the House of Lords as the highest court of the land. The Justices of the Supreme Court were joined by senior judges from all the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom and by chief justices from Commonwealth and European countries and from the United States.

The official programme included these words, “The new Supreme Court is situated in a highly symbolic location on Parliament Square, with the judiciary, the legislature, the executive and the established Church on the four sides.” The Lord Chancellor’s prepared speech elaborated the point, “Situated in Parliament Square – one of the most historic and recognisable public spaces in the world – the Supreme Court sits alongside other key British institutions – Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the Treasury, further emphasising the clear and physical separation of powers.” In fact Jack Straw improvised a little on the occasion, reordering the institutional list so as to refer last to Westminster Abbey, symbolising, as he said, God presiding over all.

Something of this powerful symbolic importance attaches to all great church buildings. Here, in the centre of our national life, this church has particular significance. It offers us encouragement and challenge as we reflect today in the light of God’s word on the life and purpose of this Collegiate Church.

From the Old Testament we heard how King David made provision to build a temple in Jerusalem. He himself would not be able to build the temple, on account of God’s displeasure with him for his lapses in personal morality. Instead he would provide the necessary wealth and his son Solomon would build the temple. The particular point of the reading is that, in offering his wealth to God, for the sake of glorifying God’s name, David recognises that he could have nothing at all to offer without having first received everything he has from God’s hand. “For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” [I Chronicles 29: 14]

This church was built largely at the expense of kings. The 10th century Saxon church of St Dunstan was not on this scale. Edward, King and Confessor, in the 11th century, built the first great church here at his own expense, likewise King Henry III this church in the 13th century, with the 16th century Lady Chapel added by King Henry VII, very few years before the dissolution of the monastery. Like David and Solomon in the building of the temple in Jerusalem, these kings spent very large sums of money building this church. Why did they do it?  The motives of powerful men will inevitably be seen as complex. They saw the church, as Jack Straw said yesterday, symbolising the powerful blessing of almighty God on their rule. But, we must trust that, as with David and Solomon, their ultimate purpose in building was to give greater glory to almighty God. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam!

Over the centuries, incalculable numbers of individuals have contributed from their own wealth, great and small, to add glory to this church. The most beautiful materials have been chosen; the most brilliant artistry has been used; the most skilled craftsmanship has been applied. That standard is one that we continue to set and must continue to set in our own day. Everything we do in and to this great building, so powerfully symbolic for our Church and Nation and Commonwealth, must be of the very highest standard, not for our glory, not with the primary motivation of the personal satisfaction of the participants, not to make passing points or to give passing pleasure, but to the greater glory of God. This is a tough test. Looking around the Abbey precincts and this church, it is possible sometimes to wonder whether the motive force of this memorial or that was to give greater glory to God. However it is not up to us to make judgements on the past but to apply the highest criteria to our own actions in the present and immediate future. The test is clear about anything we plan to do, be it passing or permanent: is it to the greater glory of God?

This is not of course an easy test to apply and the answer may not be immediately obvious. Some would deny that such a building as this with its tradition of worship is to the greater glory of God. Some would remember the words of St Irenaeus that the glory of God is a human being fully alive or conclude from the gospel reading this morning that the only true temple is the temple of the Body of Christ, that is the plebs sancta Dei, the holy people of God, and they do not need grand buildings. Whilst we must never forget those lessons, they should not undermine us in the maintenance and development of this building, driven as we are by considerations of its symbolic power and sacramental significance over the centuries.

There is another way of looking at the question whether and how this church building gives greater glory to God. We could ask how the Christian community here, inhabiting and shaped by this historic inheritance, serves God’s mission in God’s world, how it helps spread the Gospel, the Good News of God’s love. Much here could be said. First, the regular round of worship offered to almighty God daily as it has been for a thousand years shapes and forms us and is itself informed by the building, which demands of us nothing less than the highest standards in quality and devotion. Second, through welcome, prayer and pilgrimage, in our daily choral services, in the day of prayer and the national day of pilgrimage we observed yesterday, we strengthen and encourage the Christian communities of our nation and beyond. This would not be possible without our Edwardine inheritance. Third, we are inspired by words in today’s Epistle that show Christ reconciling the whole of humanity to himself and thus making peace to reach out, as the particular historic inheritance of this building enables us, to those from whom we are otherwise divided. To stand praying on Friday evening at the shrine of St Edward the Confessor in the company of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster was to be reminded that no barrier is too high to be overcome through prayer.

All this is about the ministry and mission this church offers us, almost imposes on us. There is a fourth point, about this glorious church building itself, which we have inherited from the past and of which we are the guardians. Westminster Abbey proclaims the gospel message it embodies. In the 21st century the opportunity may occur for our generation humbly to offer further enhancement to the building and more powerfully to proclaim our belief, and that of the building itself, in the glory of God and his sovereignty over all.

In this, we would be following the tradition of those saints and monarchs who over the rolling centuries have successively added to the beauty and significance of this Abbey and its Church, whose dedication to the greater glory of God we celebrate today.

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