A Reflection on closing down

Friday, 20th March 2020

A Reflection on closing down

by The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, Dean of Westminster

On Thursday evening, I sat staring at a computer screen trying to find the words that I could use, first for my colleagues and then for Westminster Abbey’s website. I needed words that would explain why we had to close the Abbey. I was installed as Dean of Westminster just four months ago. There was a splendid service that day. I preached at it and I told the congregation that the Abbey has a story to tell. The very building speaks, I said. Now, here I was, closing the doors. I was announcing that silence would fall.  

A few hours later, I was in that silent, and deserted Abbey. In truth though, it was not quite deserted. The Abbey community, those of us who live here (many of us priests), have determined that the services will continue. Early on Friday, we assembled for a very particular service, a requiem mass, for a member of our community. Only a few of us, observing the new protocols we live with, sitting apart, but together, as God’s people. The service over, we walked through the building, processing the coffin out to a waiting car. The silence, and the stillness, and sense of space in a building usually so bustling and busy was startling.

On Thursday night, at my laptop, I was subdued and emotional. If I am honest, I was close to tears. It is a hard thing to be closing the building where a nation gathers in times of joy and times of anxiety. On Friday morning, some confidence returned. I had the familiar words of the liturgy to say, rehearsing the promises of God. I also had some scripture in front of me.

The gospel reading came from St John, chapter 6. Gathering for that Requiem Eucharist, in bereavement, and at a time of national crisis, we heard Jesus say ‘I am the bread of life’. Celebrating our Eucharist, we were doing what Jesus told us to do. He issued very few commands. A lot of his teaching was suggestive - hints and nudges. The bread and wine though are a requirement. ‘Do this’, he said, ‘in remembrance of me’. Celebrating our Eucharist, we were making a remembrance. We called a moment in the past to mind. We were back at the Last Supper, close to Christ’s betrayal and his death. We entered the shadows of that night and heard Christ tell us that he is with us at the darkest hour; with us even in death.

We were also being given a gift. That is what the Eucharist is. It is the gift of Christ’s self-giving. When we talk about going to church, or saying our prayers we can sound as though we think it is all about our actions. We need to remember that we do not make the Eucharist happen. Even in Westminster Abbey, where we are forever bossing the challenges we face, we do not make this. We receive this. It is a gift. It is not ours. It is his.

There were words of thunder tucked into the short gospel we heard,

this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me

God acts and God will not fail us. He will never lose us. Even in our anxiety, we must recall that nothing is lost to God. God loses nothing,

With that promise in front of me, I turned to a poem that has been in mind for a few days now. It is a poem, by Rilke, called simply Autumn. Inevitably it describes leaves falling. Then, it becomes a poem about how it can sometimes seem as though everything is falling, going wrong and slipping away. It is a good poem for us in the midst of this great crisis of public health

We are all falling. This hand’s falling too —
all have this falling-sickness none withstands.

So, a poem, about loss, and anxiety. A poem for today. But, listen to how it ends

And yet there’s One whose gently-holding hands
this universal falling can’t fall through.

Nothing is lost; all is held.