Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Dedication of Westminster Abbey 2012
14 October 2012 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
‘In Christ the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.’ [Ephesians 2:21]
Yesterday we celebrated the feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor, king of England from 1042 to 1066. We kept the anniversary of the day in 1163 when the body of the newly canonised saint was moved, or translated, from its grave in front of the high altar to a new and more prominent shrine. On that same day, 13th October, in 1269, the body was translated again in a new church, the very building in which we worship today, to a new and more glorious shrine, behind the high altar, where it is today. That day also saw the dedication to the worship and service of almighty God of this new church. Today, we observe the anniversary of this Abbey church’s dedication 743 years ago.
Dedication! To help us reflect on this theme of dedication we have heard today the wonderful story of the cleansing of the temple, as told by St John. The Jews see that, when Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives out of the temple the people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers, pours out the coins of the money-changers and overturns their tables, it is not simply that he is angry at the noise and confusion. He has a deeper point to make. They ask, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Our Lord’s answer seems to make little sense, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ His hearers certainly make no sense of it. After all, ‘This temple’ as they say ‘has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But St John tells us that Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body, which would die on the cross and on the third day rise again. [John 2: 18-21]
Can we see the point that our Lord Jesus Christ is making? Perhaps we should start by reminding ourselves about the temple and why it had been under construction for forty-six years. We can see the remains of that temple now, in its western wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall, where Jews from all over the world come to pray at what is left of the building that had been, until its destruction by the Romans in AD 70, the centre and focus of Jewish worship in Jerusalem. The first temple was built by King Solomon who prayed that God’s eyes might ‘be open night and day towards this house, the place of which you said, “My name shall be there”, that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place.’ [1 Kings 8: 29] Solomon’s temple was destroyed in the sixth century by the Babylonians and a second temple built fifty years later under the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius. King Herod, who died around the time of our Lord’s birth, began a renewal and expansion of the second temple. That was the construction work to which the Jews referred. For them, the building mattered above all as the place where God would hear them, the place of which he said, 'My name shall be there'.
Our Lord Jesus, in St John’s account, turns all that aside and in a marvellously radical sweep, as he drives away all the paraphernalia of animal sacrifices, claims that God’s name dwells not in a building made with hands, but in himself. ‘Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.’ Don’t think for a moment, Jesus says, that all this animal sacrifice is pleasing to God, that anything we can do and offer is the means by which we can find God’s favour. None of that counts. It is in our Lord Jesus Christ alone that we find salvation, that we enter a true relationship with God. Christ is the temple, the living temple, not made with hands. We cannot earn God’s favour. It comes to us as a gift through the full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice on the cross of Christ himself. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.’ [Ephesians 2: 8]
So our Dedication Festival points us away from a focus on the building of the Church and leads us to think rather of the means by which the true Church, the Body of Christ, under the headship of our Lord Jesus Christ himself and in the power of the Holy Spirit, is alive and well and active in the world today. ‘In Christ’ as St Paul wrote to the Ephesians, ‘the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.’
So I ask you, how do you see the Church? How alive and well and active in the world today is the Church, the Body of Christ? Your answer may well depend on where in the world you come from. In many countries, the Church grows strongly and is becoming, and remaining, of fundamental importance to people, offering them life and hope. Even where, perhaps especially where, the Church appears to be under threat from hostile forces, it flourishes. Here in the United Kingdom as in much of Europe we find many people seeing the Church as in decline, under attack, as much from within as from without, and simply failing to attract people and confirm them in their faith as once it did.
The picture is in fact much more nuanced than that. Here and throughout Europe there is much vigour, much new growth. Those who thought that Christianity would inevitably die out as education spread and people had freedom to think and to make up their minds have been disappointed. There will always be religion. But any fair historical perspective teaches us that there are peaks and troughs, times of decline and times of new development.
This very building provides a helpful metaphor as we think of the fluctuating fortunes of the Church. This Abbey church’s fortunes have fluctuated wildly over the past thousand years with times of decline and neglect to an extent almost inconceivable today.
I am indebted to Professor Richard Jenkyns in his recently reissued paperback, called simply Westminster Abbey, for this quotation from the writing of an American visitor to London Washington Irving who in Jenkyns’s words ‘extracts an agreeable melancholy from the Abbey’s silence.’ Irving, writing in 1820, says of his visit to our Lady Chapel,
Nothing impresses the mind with a deeper feeling of loneliness, than to tread the silent and deserted scene of former throng and pageant… the silence of death had fallen upon the place, interrupted only by the casual chirping of birds which had found their way into the chapel and built their nests among its friezes and pendants, sure signs of solitariness and desertion.
It seems likely that the Dean of the day, John Ireland, spent much of his time away from the Abbey in the Oxfordshire village of Islip where he was also Rector. The great revival in the fortunes of the Abbey came some thirty or forty years later. This is but one story of many that could be told. Today we thank God for the energy and commitment of so many people to the renewal of this building and the vigorous life of this Abbey community.
Dedication! The dedication of the Church is also about our own personal dedication. Last week, in Rome, during celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, the Pope inaugurated a Year of Faith. In a wonderful ecumenical gesture he invited the Archbishop of Canterbury to address the celebrations. He said, in effect, if we pray for a new age of faith, as we do, we must let it start with us. Dr Rowan Williams did not set out a series of actions that would persuade a disbelieving world of the truth of the Christian gospel. Instead he spoke of the face Christians must seek to show our fellow human-beings. He quoted St Paul writing how ‘with our unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord’, we are transfigured with a greater and greater radiance. This is only achieved, the archbishop said, through contemplation of God. But remarkably he set it in the context of Christ’s contemplation: his work not ours. He said,
All contemplating of God presupposes God’s own absorbed and joyful knowing of himself and gazing upon himself in the trinitarian life. To be contemplative as Christ is contemplative is to be open to all the fullness that the Father wishes to pour into our hearts. And the face we need to show to our world is the face of a humanity in endless growth towards love, a humanity so delighted and engaged by the glory of what we look towards that we are prepared to embark on a journey without end to find our way more deeply into it, into the heart of the trinitarian life.
Thus the archbishop in a profoundly rich address. I conclude with this. The face we contemplate, the glorious face, the radiant face of love shining upon us is none other than the face of our crucified Lord.
‘In Christ the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.’