Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 4 September 2011
4 September 2011 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
From Monday to Saturday in this Abbey Church thousands of people enter through our north door and take a tour of the Abbey and its precincts, most often with the aid of an audio guide and some guided by our team of Vergers.
A frequently-asked question, as people wander round or stand in awe of their surroundings, is, “Do services still happen here”.
Well, you know the answer to that question as you are participating in one of our five services happening here today. And for those who visit the Abbey's website and read the Dean’s welcome, the very first thing he emphasises is that Westminster Abbey is a living church where Almighty God is worshipped every day.
Also included in his welcome is a section which describes the mission of the Abbey, and it reads thus:
Our mission is,
• to serve almighty God as a ‘school of the Lord’s service’ by offering divine worship daily and publicly;
• to serve the sovereign by daily prayer and by a ready response to requests made by or on behalf of Her Majesty;
• to serve the nation by fostering the place of true religion within national life, maintaining a close relationship with members of the House of Commons and House of Lords and with others in representative positions;
• to serve pilgrims and all other visitors and to maintain a tradition of hospitality.
During this month of September in my sermons at Matins I am planning to look at our mission statement in a bit more detail and to describe some of the activities which help us put this vision into practice.
Today, I want us to think about that first priority of serving almighty God by the offering of divine worship and to reflect on what worship actually is and on why it has top priority in our mission statement.
But first, let’s begin by reminding ourselves briefly about the history of worship here at Westminster Abbey.
When people attend a service here they are participating in a tradition which goes back over a thousand years. Historical records show that there was a community of monks living on this site in the year 960, and it’s possible that such a community had been here for many years before that.
They were Benedictine monks following a rule of life written by St Benedict in the 6th century.
His rule was centred on a daily round of worship - in fact on seven services a day - starting with Prime in the very early hours of the morning and concluding with Compline just before going to bed.
Westminster Abbey continued with that rhythm of worship until the time of Henry VIII when, along with all the other monasteries in England, the monastery here was dissolved and a new structure put in its place which, by the reign of Elizabeth I was established in exactly the way we have it today.
Although now we don’t have those seven monastic services; each day the community here - the Dean and Canons, the Minor Canons, and Sister Judith, joined by others, begin our day with Matins at 7.30am; this is followed by a eucharist in one of our side chapels; then in the middle of the day a eucharist is celebrated in the nave; and each afternoon the liturgical day is brought to a close with choral Evensong here in the Quire.
All this adds up to twenty eight regular services each week, in addition to which there are many special services here; such as memorial Services for people who’ve given great public service; celebrations for schools; and in the month ahead we are commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11; we have the consecration of a bishop; a thanksgiving service for the work of the RSPCA; and the annual Judges Service to mark the opening of the legal year.
In our daily worship there is a rhythm of listening to Scripture, reciting the Psalms, praying for the needs of the world around us, and of participating in the Eucharist in response to the command of Jesus, to “Do this in remembrance of me”, and in our special services we offer up to God a huge range of human activity, achievement, and need.
Let’s turn now to those fundamental questions of what worship actually is and why it comes first on our mission statement here at Westminster Abbey.
The word itself is actually two words put together - worth ship. When we worship, we are giving worth to, or acknowledging the worth of the object of our attention.
It’s quite possible then to worship all kinds of things besides God - we can worship particular people in our lives, we can worship money and possessions, and there is plenty of evidence from history showing that people have worshipped natural phenomenon around them - the sun, the moon, the stars and even the earth itself.
When we worship God though, we are being lifted out of ourselves and focussing our attention and giving worth to something beyond all these natural and worldly things, to someone who is so great that he is beyond our imagining. Although, having said that, because God has shared our existence through the incarnation - coming into our world in the person of Jesus - he has helped us to see who we are actually worshipping; the kind of God he is.
So in Christian worship we are giving worth to, praising, and adoring a God who is infinitely creative, loving, compassionate, just, and merciful. And we can worship God wherever we are, but perhaps aided by the beauty of our surroundings, or by inspiring and uplifting music, or by the presence of fellow human beings.
And why does all this come first in our mission statement?
The answer to this, I believe, is that worship not only comes at the top of our list of priorities, it also underpins everything else we are about as Christians.
If we manage to put God first in our lives, and through our worship to be lifted into his presence, we are likely to find that he is constantly in our thinking and present in the actions we take in every part of our living.
The words sung in a well-known hymn, or sometimes as an anthem, then come to life in us and transform our living:
God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing. Amen.