Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary 2012

15 August 2012 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

This year has been truly extraordinary for the United Kingdom. Not only have we hosted here in London for the third time a greatly admired Olympic Games but we have also celebrated the Diamond Jubilee, the sixtieth anniversary of the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth II. Her Majesty’s triumphant celebration has brought particular joy to Westminster Abbey where The Queen is honoured as our Visitor. Only one of the Queen’s ancestors has enjoyed a longer reign and few have been held in such high regard for so long. Some of them had a particularly tough time.

Richard II’s reign, many centuries ago, was particularly short and uncomfortable. He was only ten years old when in 1377 he succeeded his grandfather Edward III who, after a glorious fifty year reign, was buried with his queen behind the high altar. Richard II’s reign was always dogged by troubles. In 1381, the Peasants’ Revolt, a widespread uprising of serfs, brought real peril to the kingdom. The Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered and the Savoy palace, the London home of John of Gaunt, the king’s uncle, was burnt down. The fourteen-year-old king, at first too weak to suppress the revolt, negotiated from the security of the Tower of London but, once the majority of the peasants had dispersed, personally went into Essex to suppress the rebellion. At Billericay, he defeated the last rebels in a small skirmish and effectively ended the Peasants' Revolt. Richard II’s unhappy reign ended tragically in 1399 when he was deposed and later murdered by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who went on to reign as Henry IV and died here at the Abbey in 1413.

Richard II is buried with his queen behind the high altar near the shrine of St Edward the Confessor. Despite his sad end, he is remembered well here and honoured. He loved the Abbey and supported important building works. His is the earliest royal portrait the Abbey possesses, a true image of the king, painted in the last decade of his life. Our image has him seated on a throne in kingly state. Another famous and beautiful image of Richard II, known as the Wilton Diptych, can be seen in the National Gallery. Here the king kneels adoring the Madonna, Mary the Mother of the Lord, with her Child, surrounded by eleven angels. The king himself is backed and supported by three saints: his patron St John the Baptist and two of his royal ancestors, St Edmund king and martyr, and St Edward king and confessor, whose shrine in this holy place he glorified.

Richard’s devotion to St Edward the Confessor was only exceeded by his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is believed that, following the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, he committed England to our Lady Mary as her dowry, for her particular care and protection. A painting, later destroyed, used to hang in the English College in Rome, showing Richard II kneeling and offering England to our Lady as her Dowry here in Westminster Abbey in 1381. He holds a parchment with a Latin inscription, ‘This is your dowry, O pious Virgin’.

A well-known fourteenth-century chronicler, Jean Froissart, described the occasion as having taken place at a small shrine of our Lady, called our Lady of Pew. The shrine now has a modern statue of our Lady, made of alabaster, as was its original, and remains in the original position beside the chapel of St John the Baptist, in the north ambulatory near the shrine of St Edward the Confessor. This is what Froissart said:

[In 1381] ‘Richard II on the Saturday after Corpus Christi went to Westminster, where he heard Mass at the Abbey with all his Lords. He made his devotions at a statue of Our Lady in a little chapel that had witnessed many miracles and where much grace had been gained, so that the Kings of England have much faith in it.’

In 1399, the year of Richard II’s deposition and death, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel, perhaps wanting to honour Richard’s memory and his personal devotion to our Lady, wrote to his bishops:

‘The contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation has drawn all Christian nations to venerate her from whom came the first beginnings of our redemption. But we English, being the servants of her special inheritance and her own dowry, as we are commonly called, ought to surpass others in the fervour of our praises and devotions.’

The sixteenth-century English Reformation is often thought to have brought an end to all devotion to Mary. This is a mistake. Although the Reformers were keen to see an end to statues and images in churches, both Martin Luther and John Calvin on the basis of their biblical theology maintained a strong respect for our Lady. Hear Martin Luther speaking of Mary:

‘She became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man's understanding. For on this there follows all honour, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child.... Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God.’

The Church of England continued through the Reformation to give high honour to our Lady. The short-lived second Prayer Book of Edward VI in 1552, the more Protestant of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s two attempts at post-Reformation liturgy, maintained 2nd February as the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and 25th March, still known as Lady Day, as the feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. Queen Elizabeth I in 1561 added to the Prayer Book three more medieval feasts, 2nd July as the Visitation of the Virgin Mary, 8th September as the Nativity of the Virgin Mary and 8th December as her Conception. The five feasts remain in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, still the official prayer book of the Church of England. The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, which we heard as the Gospel reading, continues to be said or sung by every Church of England cleric at Evening Prayer every day, as it is here and has been for a thousand years. And within the last century the Anglican pilgrimage to one of the great early shrines of our Lady, at Walsingham in Norfolk, has been revived and the shrine itself acknowledged as a place of spiritual importance in this land.

What shall we say, then, in response to our celebration today, in the light of this great history and tradition, worthily focused tonight in this holy place? Can any of us now think of Mary, as a Church of England bishop once described his late mother’s Irish protestant view of her, as a dead Roman Catholic lady? Can any of us, who perhaps see the Catholic cult of Mary as a little over-flamboyant, choose to leave her aside? No biblical Christian can ignore our Lady. Nor can anyone sustain the charge that Mary’s cult diminishes honour to her Son, to God himself. Mary in her humility points away from herself to her Son, our Blessed Lord. She focuses our minds on the Saviour of the world. All Christians can and should love and honour our Lady for the sake of her beloved Son and for the sake of our own eternal salvation as she inexorably points us to him.

One of my predecessors Lancelot Andrewes, Dean of Westminster 400 years ago, in the second generation after the Reformation, who chaired one of the companies that produced the Authorised Version of the Bible, in his Preces Privatae borrowed from Eastern liturgies when he showed a warmth of devotion to our Lady as ‘the all-holy, immaculate, more than blessed mother of God and ever-virgin Mary.’ May we this evening offer ourselves to the care and protection of the all-holy, immaculate, more than blessed mother of God and ever-virgin Mary as her dowry.

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