Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Dedication of Westminster Abbey 2011

16 October 2011 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Yesterday here at Westminster Abbey we kept a day of pilgrimage. For the fourth year, as part of the Abbey’s Edwardtide Festival, we set aside a whole Saturday for a national pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor. Apart from a great festival Eucharist in the morning and festal Evensong in the afternoon, there were opportunities of all kinds for pilgrims to learn of St Edward and to pray in his Shrine. People had the opportunity of renewing their baptismal vows, of confessing their sins to a priest in the sacrament of reconciliation, of receiving the sacramental gift of the laying on of hands for healing and the anointing of the sick. Many of the pilgrims took advantage of these opportunities.

I felt an acute sense of privilege being part of the process. For almost half an hour in the Shrine of St Edward yesterday morning I prayed for people and laid on hands and anointed for healing, as instructed by St James in his epistle. I saw no instant examples of miraculous transformations. But we were together within a context where, through the ministry of his priest, God gently and firmly and insistently expressed his intimate love for each of his children and poured his grace into their hearts and lives. There were moments of tears and of quiet joy.

God loves us and wants each of us to love him. His love is life-changing. These sacramental moments were means of God’s grace. We might think of them as microcosms of the meaning and purpose of the life and mission of this great Abbey church, the anniversary of whose consecration and dedication to the glory of God we celebrate today. In the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer we give thanks to God for his ‘inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.’

The most influential figures in the history of the building of the Abbey and this church have been kings of England. This past week we have been celebrating Edward, king of England from 1042 to 1066, who was canonised in 1161 and is known to us as St Edward the Confessor. This Abbey church still contains his earthly remains, in a great tomb, a holy Shrine behind the high altar. St Edward’s annual feast on 13th October falls on the anniversary of the consecration and dedication to the glory of almighty God in 1269 of this current church, built by King Henry III. 13th October was chosen for the consecration in 1269 since it was already a great day of celebration in the life of the Abbey. On 13th October 1163 the remains of St Edward had been moved, or translated, into a new shrine in the previous church, the one he had himself built. The church St Edward the Confessor built had been consecrated on 28th December 1065, just a week before he died. We know little of an earlier church built in the 10th century, except that the land was given by King Edgar. There might have been an abbey and church before 960 but of that there is no more than myth and legend. To complete the picture of royal benefaction, another two kings, Richard II in the 14th century and Henry VII in the early 16th century, added greatly to the magnificence of this Abbey church. So in all, five kings of England, in sequence Edgar, Edward, Henry III, Richard II and Henry VII, all contributed massively in their own way in their own time to the creation of this house of God and house of Kings where God has been worshipped for a thousand years.

We cannot with great confidence look into the minds of these kings, the founders and benefactors of this church. They have left little record of their intentions. We can largely only detect their motivations from the fruit of their works. I have no doubt that their primary plan was to give glory to God and to provide for their people a magnificent house of prayer and praise that would lift their spirits to God and point them to heaven. They might have been thinking of the glory of their earthly kingdom. They might too have hoped their generosity to the church would stand them in good stead when they came to stand before St Peter at the pearly gates. Associating their reign with that of their royal and saintly predecessor certainly seemed to be the plan for two of the kings who have left evidence of their devotion to St Edward. Henry III, two hundred years after the death of Edward the Confessor, named his son in honour of the saint. That son, whom we know as Edward I, is buried beside his father near the shrine of the saint. A century later, Richard II commissioned the beautiful Wilton diptych, an altar piece for his private devotions. The commission was in 1395, just a few years before Richard was deposed by Henry IV. On the right hand panel of the diptych is an image of the Virgin Mary in a rich blue surrounded by angels also dressed in blue. Mary is holding the infant Jesus out to view. On the left hand panel, Richard kneels, richly dressed in cloth of gold, gazing on the Madonna and Child. Behind him stand St John the Baptist, his patron saint, and two of his royal and saintly predecessors, St Edmund, king of the East Angles, martyred in 869, and St Edward the Confessor, carrying the ring, the symbol of his generosity to a beggar.

The royal benefactors gave glory to God and themselves became means of his grace. God’s glory is revealed in this holy place. Here we are directed to the importance and to the possibility of focusing our lives, as the saints have done, on the love and generosity of God. God’s glory is revealed in the lives of his saints, his holy people, made holy not in their own goodness or strength but by the outpouring of God’s love and his grace into their lives. God’s glory in his saints offers us all the hope of glory for ourselves too if we are able by God’s grace to open our lives to him and to live in accordance with his holy will, ourselves becoming means of his grace.

In celebrating the history and life of this Abbey, we give thanks to God for his ‘inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.’

At the end of Evensong yesterday, the first Evensong of our Dedication Festival, standing at the altar in the Lady Chapel, I prayed that, through our earthly pilgrimage, we might ‘be a living temple to [God’s] presence’, that we ourselves might be ‘the place of [God’s] glory on earth.’

As we celebrate the dedication of this church, we whose lives are associated with this holy place -  and all who join us in worship today  - should dedicate ourselves anew to being ‘the place of [God’s] glory on earth’, to being people who radiate in our lives the eternal love of God, to being people who are so open to God’s love that we ourselves become means of his grace.

At Holy Communion in this Eucharist as we stretch out our hands to receive the bread which is the body of Christ, as we drink the wine which is the blood of Christ, so our Lord Jesus Christ pours his life, the life of God incarnate, into our own lives, making us bearers of God, just as his Mother Mary was the bearer of God. We ourselves shall carry Christ into the world today. May each of us be worthy of that great calling.