Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 8 August 2010
8 August 2010 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Hutt, Canon Emeritus of Westminster
On Sundays here at the Abbey there’s no visiting, that’s to say, services are the priority and worship takes precedence over all else. But an important part of the medieval monastic building may be visited freely and that’s the area of the cloisters you will pass through after this service.
In these cloisters the monks of the pre-Reformation Abbey spent the greater part of their time engaged in study, prayer and contemplation. Originally glazed with coloured glass to keep out the elements, carpeted with hay or straw in winter and with rushes in summer the four enclosures or “walks” surrounding the Great Garth were once busy with community activity. You can see a seat once occupied by a Senior whose task it was to teach the younger monks or novices.
Human nature changes little over the centuries and we have evidence that a favourite game of the period was played in leisure time, ‘nine man’s morris’ – traces of which are to be found in the first bay of the north cloister where the indentations are clearly visible on the stone bench near the Prior’s seat.
Who, we may wonder, were the young men who made these marks and enjoyed their recreation more than 600 years ago? What were their daily concerns or their comprehension of the known world? What great persons did they see visiting the important Royal Abbey of St Peter in Westminster? And could they ever have imagined that such a simple game would prove so evocative in a future time and in so different a world?
Traces of the past are part-and-parcel of our present and nowhere is this more so than in an ancient foundation where a community has lived and worked for many generations. These walls have undoubtedly witnessed the range of human experience and human emotion shared by our forebears and all the fragments, all the traces, bring them to life. In those cloisters once decorated with paintings and illumined with lamps suspended by chains from the vaulting there’s little remaining evidence of the one-time thriving monastery with its scriptorium, a place set apart for the copying and illuminating of manuscripts, or else the narrow partitioned spaces with their wooden benches and tables where monks could study in the light of the warm southerly sun.
Gone, too are the doors which once enclosed the recesses at the west end of the south cloister where the monks hung up their towels after washing their hands before meals in the refectory. The east cloister is where the Abbott washed the feet of thirteen aged men on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week. They were seated on the broad stone bench against the west wall, some of the rings to which mats were hooked are still just visible. The men were given threepence, seven red herrings, ale and three loaves apiece. The choir monks meanwhile washed the feet of children in the south range. Here the historical records keep alive memories which help to bring the past to life and by their powerful evocation influence our thinking about the present.
The institution we know as “The Church” resembles such a building and the community that once energised it. A Christian lives on two dimensions, the past and the present. From the moment of Baptism we enter an ancient foundation and a venerable community, inheriting its experience, its wisdom and its treasures. We may look back to generations long gone but which continue to speak to us across the centuries, their stories reflecting moments of joy and times of misfortune, the traces they have left behind contributing to a vibrant daily existence of which we’re a part. At this intersection of time we find ourselves the inheritors of an outlook, of a store of common associations and historical events. We’re not born into a vacuum, some kind of weightless, sense-bereft world without boundaries, a world without meaning, shorn of associations and a past. Our task in our lifetime is not to build the human story from scratch, to engage alone with the baffling mysteries of life and death but rather to recognise ourselves to be part of an organic Tradition where both change and continuity have their place.
We may take solace form a community that offers resources for living, companionship for the journey, the lessons of experience and a goal that binds us as we journey towards our destination. This is the community of the Faithful whose roots reach back in time and who hopes press forward into the future and beyond the grave …
All this seems to me to be part of the answer to those who claim to lead the Christian life without reference to the Christian institution. Of course, like any other institution, the Christian Variety can impose burdens as well as offer support and enrichment. Like any family or monastic community the Church as a chequered and uneven past. It suffers failure of nerve from time to time and is no strange to discord. Frustration, irritation, disappointment and resentment are all the price of belonging to any community susceptible to human failings and defects. Like all essentially human institutions, even those with Divine inspiration, the Church has its full share of felons, fools and incompetents in parallel with its saints, heroes and poets. It knows well-enough the experience of declining fortunes as well as those dangerous episodes of success and prosperity.
In arguing against membership of such a community, such a repository of life and continuity, a critical observer must ponder the price of attempting to “go it alone”. Outside the Household of Faith the lone individual experiences the limitations of a closed circle, a self-sufficient lifestyle, essentially private and insular however moral and law abiding. He or she may meet others who are like-minded and so create the appearance of community – but without roots and without the organic, upward-striving aspiration to what lies beyond our present, passing existence, there can be no purpose, no continuity.
“Joining” is always risky, but, at Baptism, we are joined-to Something and Someone beyond our imagining and beyond our human comprehension. In short, we join a succession of Souls. These were, and are, the men and women like us who laughed and cried and surprised themselves by little intimations of glory. Who lived and died, who are memorialised or gone without trace except for a scratched game on a stone bench, or without trace at all, remembered only in the mind of God.
Part of the bidding prayer for the service of nine lessons and carols as first used in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, reminds us of the past, roots us in the present and points us to the future: “Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one for ever more.” Amen