Sermon given at Solemn Eucharist on Pentecost Day, Sunday 12 June 2011, at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York
12 June 2011 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
It’s refreshing to worship on this great day of days, the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Spirit, the birthday of the Church, in a place which uses the traditional liturgy. At Westminster Abbey we have a judicious mixture. This morning at 8 there is a service of Holy Communion in the Abbey according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and at 10 Mattins using the same book. The 11.15 Eucharist uses the Church of England’s Common Worship prayer book of 2000 in a modern language version. For Evensong, we’re back to 1662. It’s a rich diet but it can all be a little confusing.
When the modern version of the greeting was introduced in England, the redoubtable bishop of Bath and Wells, still happily alive many years later, John Bickersteth, was visiting a parish with a nervous parson. He prepared his parishioners carefully. When the bishop says The Lord be with you or Peace be with you or whatever he says in his greeting, please don’t forget. It’s not And with thy spirit but And also with you. Just remember: And also with you. The bishop arrived. The service began. But the sound system was erratic. The bishop tried to speak but could not be heard. Just as he spoke, suddenly the sound system crackled into life and the people heard him saying, There’s something wrong with the microphone, he said. Dutifully they replied, And also with you.
I suppose the bishop could have replied, There’s quite a lot wrong with you too. Despite all the joy and glory of this day, we have to recognise that all is not well with us, with the Church. A birthday is obviously a time for celebration but it should also be a time for reflection, for taking stock, looking back and looking forward, a time for honesty, for recognising failure and committing to improvement. Now it would be impertinent, and in any case impossible, for me to attempt here and now a review of the Church, of the Anglican Communion, of the Church of England, let alone of The Episcopal Church. I’m not even going to hint at what those reflections might be. All I will say is that I have a deep love of the Church of England and an abiding and strong commitment to the Anglican Communion as part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. And my presumption is that what divides or destroys is unlikely to be truly godly. That is one reason why I am so glad to have been invited to St Thomas Church and why I am delighted to be here. Hands across the ocean. Anyway as we know it’s only a pond. And we are always delighted to welcome American visitors to the Abbey. The President and First Lady were with us last month. I told Barack Obama what a large number of people from the United States visit the Abbey. He said that he and his fellow citizens are conscious of the US being comparatively a young country and of wanting to find their roots as he had in Ireland. He reflected that in Westminster Abbey is to be found the history not only of England, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth but of our whole civilization, of the English-speaking world.
Recognising that there are many matters wrong with ourselves and with the Church must not depress us. It is indeed a necessary condition for a true celebration of this great feast that we recognise our own failures and know our need of God. We know that the eleven disciples were feeling pretty miserable, locked in the Upper Room, with Mary the Mother of the Lord herself perhaps wondering what it all meant, what next with the great story of her Son’s life, death and resurrection. What was this power from on high that he had promised? When? How would it come? They were miserable about the future and still fearful for their lives, despite their knowledge that death had not defeated their Lord and Master, their Lord and their God.
The experience of Pentecost, of the gift of the Holy Spirit, was literally indescribable, though St Luke was to do his best. ‘And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.’ [Acts 2: 2, 3] As I am sure you know, the Hebrew and Greek words for wind are precisely those translated into English as spirit. The wind bloweth where it listeth; the Spirit bloweth where it listeth. [John 3: 8] Now the apostles lost their misery, lost their fear, and were empowered by God the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of God’s triumph in our Lord Jesus Christ. They risked everything and were to suffer everything.
2,000 years later, by the grace of God, here we are. If we have a tendency to feel miserable about ourselves or about the Church, to despair, to fear for the future, though there is little risk to our lives, we are to take courage and renew our confidence this day in the wonderful gifts of God the Holy Spirit, and refresh our trust in God’s future. I have been Dean of Westminster for four and a half years and am constantly learning about the life and history of that most remarkable church, where kings and queens of England and of the United Kingdom have been crowned since 1066, where thirty kings and queens are buried and where there have now been sixteen royal weddings, nine in the Middle Ages, six in the 20th century and another, most happily, in Easter week this year. To me it feels a most extraordinary privilege. I have the pleasure of wandering frequently through the Abbey church when it is quiet, resting from the daily round of visitors, a million in an average year, and worshippers, many thousands each week. The heart of our life is the daily worship of almighty God. That has been the heart of our life since at least 960 when St Dunstan established a community of Benedictine monks on a low-lying island on the river Thames outside London. But when the great church is at rest, I find myself reflecting on the experiences of those who went before us. John Islip died as abbot of Westminster in 1532 – two years before the break with Rome and eight years before the dissolution of the monastery. He must have known that the old order was passing away. Could he have predicted that his beautiful church - its nave complete at last and its stunning new Lady Chapel - would survive the terrible changes that threatened at that tumultuous time? Could he have known that a mere five hundred years later, it would continue to be a House of God and House of Kings better known than ever? Then I reflect that the Church and Westminster Abbey itself are still young. Future generations many centuries hence will look back on this era as we look back on the troubles of the era of persecutions and on the terrible doctrinal disputes of the 4th and 5th centuries and of the Reformation. All end one day it will, when the Lord comes again and when the earth is consumed by fire. The end of this life will surely come for us too. In the meantime we plan and work and look forward with hope and with trust. It is God’s future. May it be a blessed one, for us all, in particular for Ryouan, Alex and Will, who today come to the end of their memorable ministry in the choir of this holy place and step out on the next stage of their earthly pilgrimage to heaven! May the Holy Spirit of God continue to inspire us and to refresh our trust in God’s glorious future!