The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
We celebrate today the dedication of this church, its setting apart for the service of almighty God. On 13th October 1269, this great Abbey church was consecrated. It replaced an earlier church built by St Edward the Confessor and consecrated on 28th December 1065. And that church replaced an earlier building dating from the year 960 on land given by Edward the Confessor's grandfather King Edgar. This current church was built on the instructions and by the generosity of King Henry III, who reigned from 1216 to 1272, the son of King John, whose Magna Carta of 800 years ago we have celebrated this year. So, 960, 1065, 1269. And yet only part of this building was complete. The nave was only begun a century later during the reign of Richard II (1377 to 1399) and only finished at the beginning of the 16th century when Henry VII was king and the abbot John Islip. The west towers were added in 1745.
Great buildings of monumental beauty are only a part of the story. When churches celebrate the anniversary of their dedication, they give thanks for the work done by benefactors and builders, but they should also celebrate the life of the people of God who have been able over the centuries to enjoy worshipping in the church, to be inspired by it, and encouraged to live their lives to the full in the light and by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. A dedication festival without thinking about the dedication of the people would only be about bricks and mortar. And even though a church may have been built entirely to the glory of God, and not to the glory of the benefactors or builders, it is even so the dedication of lives to the service of God and their fellow men and women that really matters.
In truth, the story of Christian lives here is much harder to tell than the story of the building. It is a complicated tale. Just a sketch then. Westminster Abbey was a Benedictine monastery from 960 until its dissolution under Henry VIII in 1540. Then after twenty years of chopping and changing, while the kings and queens of England worked out whether they wanted to adhere to the papacy in Rome or not, and in the end they did not, we became what we are now, a collegiate church, ruled so far by 38 Deans and the Canons in Chapter. Through all that time from 1066 until 1953, and ever onwards, kings and queens of England and of the United Kingdom have been crowned here and many of them until 1760 were buried here. Great men and women of our island story have been buried or memorialised here. And the tradition of the daily worship of almighty God in this place has with small intermissions through those one thousand and fifty five years been maintained.
And throughout those years, men and women, and children too, have erred and strayed like lost sheep. They, we, have followed the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against God's holy laws. We have left undone those things that we ought to have done. And we have done those things that we ought not to have done. It would be right to say without exaggeration that there is no health in us.
It is only by God's good grace that disaster and destruction have been averted. And they have been really close at times. The process of the break with Rome between 1532 and 1536, and later of the dissolution of the monastery in 1540, so few years after the consecration in 1516 of the beautiful new Lady Chapel, must have felt to many here like the end of time. The days of the Commonwealth, or interregnum as we call it, after the beheading of Charles I in 1649, must have been very trying, with Oliver Cromwell keeping his horses stabled here. And then the early 19th century must have seemed a very low time for the entire Church of England. Dr Arnold, head master of Rugby in 1832 wrote to a friend, 'The Church of England no earthly power can save.'
So, the true story of dedication is not the dedication of a building, however beautiful, or the dedication of the people who have worshipped almighty God here over the centuries—which in the words of the prophet Hosea is like the morning mist or like the dew that goes early away, like chaff that swirls from the threshing-floor or like smoke from a window—but the dedication, the compassion and goodness, of almighty God.
No building will endure for ever. No commitment of a human being will be for ever reliable. We are all terribly prone to failure, apt to sin. God's love, God's compassion—on that alone can we rely. 'The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great goodness.' God is faithful, and gentle, and long-suffering.
The Benedictus features every day at Morning Prayer, the song sung by the father of John the Baptist, at his birth. Zechariah recognises the tender mercy and compassion of God through the ages of old. 'Through his holy prophets, God promised of old to save us from our enemies, to show mercy to our ancestors.' Again and again, God's ancient people had fallen away from the worship of God, the obedience of God, and followed their own way. We see it from the beginning, when Cain slew his brother Abel. We see God's anger against the wickedness of his creation at the time of Noah; and we see the generosity of his compassion in the rainbow and the promise that never again will he destroy his people, however they turn away from him.
The preface to one of the Eucharistic prayers in Common Worship makes the point clearly. 'Lord God of truth, you are worthy of our thanks and praise. You fashioned us in your image and placed us in the garden of your delight. Though we chose the path of rebellion you would not abandon your own. Again and again you drew us into a covenant of grace. You gave your people the law and taught us by your prophets to look for your reign of justice, mercy and peace.'
In the Benedictus, Zechariah goes on to reflect on the meaning of the birth of the forerunner of the Messiah. 'You child shall be called the prophet of the Most High. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.' God's generous compassion, his loving mercy, is poured out on his people through the gift of his Son, truly a new dawn breaking.
Jesus pours out his love and his compassion for all who are poor and suffering, healing the sick and blind, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead. He suffers with those who suffer. He transforms sorrow into joy. In all this he shows us who God is, he reveals the Father, whose enduring love, whose generous compassion, is shared with his people in the life of his Son. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews makes clear, 'we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.'
Today we celebrate God's gracious, generous, unending love, his dedication to saving his people, to giving us abundant life. Let us rejoice and give thanks to almighty God!