Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Octave Day of St Peter 2012
6th July 2012 at 5:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
This time last week, the Choir and clergy of Westminster Abbey were in Rome preparing to celebrate a service of Choral Evensong in one of the great Basilicas of that city. We were to sing the evening office of the Feast of St Peter in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva: the archetypically Anglican service near the heart of Roman Catholicism. We were there at the invitation of its titular parish priest Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster.
This occasion was the last in a series of remarkable events in Rome, in which the Choir and clergy of Westminster Abbey had taken part, including a concert in another Roman Basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore, and a recital in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Then, a week ago today quite early in the morning, we were in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome awaiting the beginning of a Solemn Mass to be celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI. This was St Peter’s Day in St Peter’s Basilica built over the place of St Peter’s burial at a service presided over by the successor of St Peter. The Choir of Westminster Abbey was to sing the service with the Pope’s own choir, and the clergy of Westminster Abbey were to have a prominent place in the congregation. Westminster Abbey, this archetypically Anglican community, had a place at the heart of Roman Catholicism.
These were moments without precedent. Anglican choirs have sung in Rome but now for the first time a choir would sing at a papal liturgy alongside the Sistine Chapel choir, the two choirs forming one choir, Anglican and Roman Catholic together.
And the invitation, from the Pope himself, was one of the fruits of his visit to Great Britain two years ago. When the Pope joined us here on 17th September 2010 for an ecumenical service of Evening Prayer, I was struck by the irony that, 450 years after the split with Rome, Benedict XVI was the first ever Pope to visit this Church dedicated to St Peter, which for 600 years as a Benedictine abbey had enjoyed a close relationship of mutual support with the papacy.
The events I am describing constituted a genuine ecumenical exchange – the Pope in the Abbey reminding the people of England of our rich Christian heritage; the Abbey Choir in Rome contributing to the worship from the English choral tradition. When Pope Benedict was here at my invitation two years ago he thanked us for our gracious welcome and added;
This noble edifice evokes England’s long history, so deeply marked by the preaching of the Gospel and the Christian culture to which it gave birth. I come here today as a pilgrim from Rome, to pray before the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor and to join you in imploring the gift of Christian unity.
So, what happened a week ago was that the choir and clergy of Westminster took the Abbey on a return pilgrimage to Rome, to pray before the tomb of St Peter the Apostle and Martyr, our patron: our presence and our prayer likewise implored the gift of Christian unity.
For several of those who heard us in Rome, one moment stood out, at the Papal Mass, when the Abbey Choir sang William Byrd’s motet Ave verum Corpus, addressed to our Lord Jesus Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament: Hail, true Body, born of Mary. One friend wrote to me, ‘For English Roman Catholics Byrd’s Ave verum is an iconic work that summons up the whole recusant experience. To hear it sung by Westminster Abbey Choir at Papal Mass was a massive re-configuration of experience, not denying personal history but putting it into a far larger context, and bringing an inexpressible sense of joy and hope.’ He described the Westminster Abbey pilgrimage there as ‘momentous and historic’ with the ‘unforgettable juxtapositionings of Anglican clergy and choir in the most Roman of settings.’
It certainly was historic. When King Edward, whom we know as St Edward the Confessor, gained his throne from the Danish empire in 1042, the Pope dispensed him from a vow to make a pilgrimage to Rome on condition that he build a church in honour of St Peter. Beside his new Palace here at Westminster, he rebuilt the existing Abbey church, in the Romanesque style familiar to him from his upbringing in Normandy. St Edward never made his pilgrimage to Rome. In the Middle Ages, abbots of Westminster, after election by their fellow monks, journeyed to Rome for papal confirmation of their appointment. In a sense, perhaps, they took the Abbey with them. But that was then, when they recognised papal authority. This was different. The Choir and clergy of Westminster Abbey, were welcomed as guests to the heart of Rome, ‘in the most Roman of settings’, and greeted by the Pope. Nigel Baker, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Holy See, wrote, again of William Byrd’s Ave verum being sung at the Vatican, ‘Byrd lived and worked at a time of religious convulsion, and wrote both for the reformed English and the Roman rites. He was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. But he remained all his life a loyal Catholic, composing settings for the Latin Mass at a time when celebration of the Roman rite in England was punishable by death for treason after Queen Elizabeth I’s excommunication by Pope Pius V. And yet here was Byrd’s music, being sung brilliantly by an Anglican choir, at a Papal mass, bringing Rome and Canterbury, the United Kingdom and the Holy See, together.’
Events can create a fresh perspective on history. Think of the remarkable hand-shake recently between The Queen and Martin McGuinness in Northern Ireland. Mutual exchange; mutual pilgrimage; harmony from discordance; unity in diversity: these were the themes of the visit to Rome. And they continued in Monte Cassino, the Abbey founded by St Benedict in 529, which he never left and where he is buried. This was a true pilgrimage of Westminster Abbey, once a Benedictine house, still under the influence of the Rule of St Benedict, to the shrine of the founder of western monasticism, where we were generously, warmly received.
Divisions are hard to heal; broken bodies take time to mend. Kept apart, they grow apart. And the divergences between Rome and Canterbury are as significant in our own day as the unhealed memories, the 450 year history apart. There is much that divides the Church of England and the Anglican Communion from the Roman Catholic Church. And yet, there is so much we hold in common, so much we have always held together: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. And so much more! Fifty years ago, this mutual exchange would have been unthinkable. Now it seemed remarkable, thrilling, but unexceptionable: right and worthy. What has changed is the growing mutual understanding achieved as a result of the work of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commissions, first established by Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey during the Archbishop’s historic visit to the Pope in March 1966, and of our growing friendship, the result of praying together and what may be called the dialogue of life.
Westminster Abbey has played its part in these developments. When my predecessor Edward Carpenter heard on 9th February 1976 that the abbot of Ampleforth Basil Hume had been appointed Archbishop of Westminster, he travelled to Yorkshire to express his delight and welcome. What followed was surprising and is still well remembered: on the evening of 25th March 1976, the day of Basil Hume’s episcopal ordination and installation at Westminster Cathedral, the monks of Ampleforth with their former abbot came down Victoria Street to celebrate Vespers here in the Abbey.
Westminster Abbey will continue to play our part in this rich mutual exchange. In God’s good time and by God’s grace, the effect of our joint pilgrimage, our journeying together, above all of our own closer walking with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the company of the saints and angels, will be a fuller sharing, a Eucharistic communion between our Churches, not uniformity but unity in diversity, when the world will truly see how these Christians love one another.
May St Peter, St Edward, and St Benedict pray for us and continue to accompany us on our several journeys and our joint pilgrimage to the Holy City of God, Jerusalem the golden. There our earthly attempts at harmony will be taken up into the eternally and perfectly musical harmony of heaven.
They stand, those halls of Zion, conjubilant with song,
And bright with many an angel, and all the martyr throng;
The Prince is ever in them, the daylight is serene.
The pastures of the blessèd are decked in glorious sheen.