Worship at the Abbey

Address given at The Installation of The Reverend Professor Vernon White as Canon of Westminster

7th May 2011 at 15:00

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

It is a great pleasure to welcome Vernon, Joy and Patrick with their family and friends to the Abbey this afternoon and a particular pleasure to have installed Vernon as a Canon of Westminster. When last October we installed Andrew Tremlett as a Canon and Rector of St Margaret’s, we maintained a significant Portsmouth connection on the Chapter. As a south-east Londoner myself I am personally delighted to strengthen the south-east London connection and to welcome today former colleagues and friends of Vernon and his family, perhaps from every stage of his life and ministry in Eltham, Cambridge, Oxford, Exeter, Guildford, Lincoln and Salisbury. Who knows? Perhaps from West Africa as well where Vernon served his gap year.

By a somewhat curious custom the various Chapter offices here – Canon Treasurer, Canon Steward, even Rector of St Margaret’s and Canon Theologian, with the related positions of Almoner and Archdeacon – are assigned annually by a decision of the Dean and Chapter. So although Canon White’s position was advertised as Canon Theologian and he will indeed fulfil that role, I cannot so call him until he has taken his place in the Jerusalem Chamber at the capitular table – as he will after the service – and until the Dean and Chapter together have elected him to the vacant office.

What I can say is that he stands in a dignified succession as a Canon of Westminster. A convenient entry in Wikipedia lists the twelve Prebendaries of Westminster at the time of the First Foundation in 1540 after the Henrician dissolution of the monastery, and at the Second Foundation in 1560 after the Elizabethan dissolution, and again in 1660 at the Restoration of the Crown after the Great Rebellion and Interregnum. I ought to say that the twelve prebendaries were reduced to five in the 19th century and to four in the 20th; and somewhere on the way they lost the ancient title and became known more familiarly as canonries.

If the accuracy of the entry is to be believed, Vernon White is the 31st successor of David Mitchell who was only here two years before becoming in 1662 Bishop of Aberdeen. Among his successors were: Thomas Spratt in the 17th century, who went on to be Dean and was also the first historian of the Royal Society; in the 18th a succession of Friends, Robert and then William; in the 19th century a nephew of the 1st Duke of Wellington, who after seven years here absconded to St Paul’s; and then in the 20th century, such distinguished names as William Temple and Max Warren, followed more recently by John Baker, Anthony Harvey, Tom Wright and of course Nicholas Sagovsky.

Strangely and perhaps wonderfully, one of Vernon’s predecessors in the 20th century shared his Christian name. Vernon Faithfull Storr was a Canon of Westminster from 1921 until his death at the age of 70 in 1940. Vernon Storr was a leading light in the Anglican Evangelical Group Movement that existed from 1906 to 1967. After the First World War the Group Movement became more active and was revitalized through the publication of Canon Vernon Storr's essays under the title Liberal evangelicalism. To quote from a website reference to the archives of the Movement: ‘This title epitomises what the movement became in its heyday of the 1920s and 1930s: one committed to freedom of religion and thought on the one hand but in the practical converting power of the Gospel on the other.’

Vernon Storr was co-editor of the so-called Westminster Books. We have in the Abbey library one of his own in the series, whose very direct title is Do dead men live again? published in 1932. The editors’ preface speaks of the spirit of the age in which he writes. ‘We live’, he says, ‘in a time when many things are being questioned, and notably religious beliefs and traditional theological dogmas.’ He goes on to identify the problems the series of books seeks to address as being ‘living problems’ rather than academic ones: ‘the kind of problems which men come up against every day as they move about in a world flooded with new knowledge in every department of enquiry.’ This seems to me remarkably contemporary. But perhaps every generation has considered the problems of its own time as always being new and unprecedented. At Westminster Abbey, surrounded by the evidence of a thousand years of history, we are inevitably influenced by our predecessors and the problems of their own days and thus gain a fresh perspective on those of our times. With that perspective, at a time when ‘freedom of religion and thought’ is an absolute dogma, we have to give new and vigorous attention to ‘the practical converting power of the Gospel.’

The question may arise in some minds what exactly a Canon Theologian of Westminster does. First things first. The very foundation of our life as the Collegiate Church of St Peter is the daily worship of almighty God. This foundation gave stability to the monastic community that was our forebear and that continues to exercise a powerful influence. When Archbishop Rowan of Canterbury greeted Pope Benedict XVI here at Evening Prayer on 17th September 2010 he referred to our heritage of faith and the primacy of worship. ‘For many centuries the daily Office of the Church has been celebrated here, first by Benedictine monks, then by the new foundation of the sixteenth century, always with the same rhythms of psalmody and petition, and the same purpose of glorifying God in all things. As we join now in that unbroken tradition, we pray that our sacrificium laudis—our sacrifice of praise—will become more and more a sign of the sacrificial love which we offer together in Christ’s name for the renewal of our society and our whole world in the power of his Spirit.’

Given that vital foundation of prayer and worship, by God’s grace, life is gift, by which I mean that the Canon Theologian in particular is free to exercise his own gifts to the glory of God and the welfare of our Church and nation in ways that he thinks fit. On this strong base he can think and write and lecture and do as seems to him right. Every one of his predecessors has been different. Some have devoted themselves to writing, some to lecturing, some to travelling and lecturing, some to action in the world, most to several of these. I am delighted that we have been able to build on our strong historic links with King’s College London and that Vernon White is a Canon Professor, a visiting professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. That relationship will be to our mutual advantage. The gift that is the life of Westminster Abbey, and of which Canon White’s ministry is to be part, is in the service of God, of the Sovereign, of the Church and Nation, of the Commonwealth and of the world. That offers some scope.

This nation, with the world watching, has been reminded recently of what is truly enduring and valuable at the core of our national life. The traditional worship of the Church has been seen to offer a rich context for a young couple to declare publicly their love and commitment to each other and to ask God’s blessing on their life together. Somehow, even in a highly sceptical age, where the new atheism appears to be in the ascendancy, it seems that almost everyone observing the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge thought it just right, found it speaking powerfully through symbol, ceremony, music and beautiful words. Now is a good time for Vernon to be exploring the questions of divine providence and human identity that have been particular aspects of his study and here is a good place. We look forward to the benefits the Abbey community, our Church and nation will derive from his ministry.

Vernon, it is a pleasure to welcome you, as God’s gift to the Abbey and through the Abbey to God’s mission and the spread of God’s Kingdom. In a sermon last month, at the end of a course on contemporary religious questions, you encouraged your hearers not just to think but to do. And if they wondered what to do, what sort of person to be, you said they should pray. Your words seem to me highly encouraging for your ministry here and I quote them. ‘Pray. Ask to be shown what to do, what sort of person to be. And we will be shown. Pray, and then, like the twitch of a curtain in what you thought was an empty house, the hidden hand of God will quietly move something into place, and an opportunity will present itself. Some new opportunity for thoughtful love, for doing justice, for mercy, for bearing witness humbly to your God, will arise. When it does, if we grasp it, the Kingdom of God will unfold a little more.’ May it be so here.