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Our celebration today marks a particular moment in the long history of this Abbey Church.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Tuesday, 15th October 2019 at 11.30 AM
Our celebration today marks a particular moment in the long history of this Abbey Church. Two days ago, on Sunday 13th October, we marked the 750th anniversary of the consecration in 1269 of this great Church. Today we celebrate the Abbey Church itself and its long history of mission and ministry within the life of our city and nation and its world-wide influence.
On 13th October 1269, the great work of King Henry III was brought to a halt. His work of re-building Westminster Abbey had begun in 1245 but had come to a temporary conclusion. Why did Henry III rebuild Edward the Confessor’s church? Surely, as a mark of respect for the Confessor himself. He had such devotion to St Edward, who had been canonised in 1161, that he named his eldest son Edward, in honour of the saint. An extraordinary amount of money had been expended on the building, the king himself having committed a substantial sum; but funds were stretched to complete the task.
The Sacrarium, quire and transepts were complete and the beginning of the nave. The rest of the nave remained for the time being the nave of Edward the Confessor’s 11th century church. Henry III’s son Edward I had little interest in building, being more concerned to conquer the Welsh, which he achieved, and the Scots, where he failed. So it was almost a hundred years later, during the reign of Richard II, that work was begun on rebuilding the nave of the Confessor’s 11th century Church. The work was taken up from time to time. The nave was not complete until the time of John Islip, abbot from 1500 to 1532. Islip also rebuilt the Lady Chapel. The iconic west towers were only built during the reign of George II, in the time of Dean Joseph Wilcocks in 1745, with money committed, uniquely at that time in the whole history of the Abbey, by acts of Parliament.
Our 750th festival this year celebrates the consecration of this the third Abbey Church of which we know on this site. On the altar today lies a copy of the grant of land of King Edgar in about AD 960 to Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury and former abbot of Glastonbury, who sought to re-establish Benedictine monasticism in the land. St Dunstan then presided over the building of a monastery and Church here on Thorney Island.
The end of the first Millennium after Christ saw the beginnings of a Church and Community here. Over a thousand years later, we look back with thanksgiving, as we move further into the third Millennium after Christ. Three sketches, then, of how the Abbey is now.
The first sketch recognises that never in the history of the Abbey have so many people come to worship in the Abbey as worship here now; nor have there ever been so many people visiting the Abbey during the day. And they come from all over the world. For those who come to worship, in particular at Evensong or at the various services on a Sunday, many we imagine will find this a strange experience. We hope and pray that what they encounter will be both captivating and precious and that they will come to know the beauty of holiness. We hope and pray too that all those visiting the Abbey as tourists or pilgrims will find, through the beauty and history of the Abbey church and through the ministries they are offered, a path that leads them towards the beauty and love of God.
The second sketch recognises that, for many decades now, the Abbey has been proud to welcome here representatives of the faith communities. Almost every nationality in the world is represented in the United Kingdom and there has been great growth in the presence of people of the world faiths. We have marked, with various communities, sad and happy anniversaries. We invite the widest range of faith leaders to the annual celebration of the Commonwealth on the second Monday in March. These occasions have led to real friendships and effective dialogue between faith leaders.
The third sketch identifies our growing links with Government offices and other public offices in Whitehall and environs, through the Westminster Abbey Institute we founded in 2013. Lectures, seminars, public debates and discourses, and private gatherings of senior civil servants, have allowed us to explore questions of spiritual and moral principle underlying the making of public policy. The role of the Abbey Institute has been to identify questions and propose issues for discussion. Institute Fellows in the middle of their careers from Government offices and local public organisations are mentored for a year by senior members of the Council of Reference, coming together for lectures and mutual support. Many continue a lively connection with the Abbey and pursue the thinking they have explored.
These post-war developments build on our fundamental commitment to the service of almighty God and the service of The Queen, our country and the Commonwealth.
So what of the future, not just for the Abbey but for the nation we seek to serve? The Abbey stands with the Palace of Westminster, Whitehall and the Supreme Court at the heart of our nation. We speak of the ministry of the Abbey as faith at the heart of the nation. So, how is religious faith now in our nation? Three brief thoughts.
First, the Government should be more consistent in its positive engagement with the faith communities and its practical support and encouragement for their development. May I take one particular example? One third of our State funded schools have been founded by the Church of England and the Catholic Church and they flourish in our system of maintained education. But too many Muslim children are being educated in poorly funded independent schools. There should be a clear duty on Government to encourage excellent State funded Muslim schools. Irish immigrants in the 19th century were able to study in emerging Catholic schools. That community is fully incorporated in our society. A substantial number of State funded Muslim schools would contribute to similar incorporation, to mutual engagement and flourishing.
Second, the world faiths need to collaborate, to discover more clearly what we have in common, of which there is so much, and develop means of mutual respect and understanding. The model is now well developed of the relations, between the Christian denominations, of unity in diversity; let that model influence relations between the world faiths. Work here at the Abbey also models good inter faith relations.
Finally, many and loud have been the predictions for more than a century that religion will gradually fade away and cease to be relevant to people, that our nation and world will gradually be free from the shackles, as some see them, of piety and religion. I see no evidence of that. The place of the Church and of faith in our national life has waxed and waned. Revival comes in various guises. True, clear faith is catching. We must always be modest but also confident.
The longevity, the continuity, of our national life, without substantial revolution or invasion since 1066, though sorely tested at times, is surely unique in the world. So our United Kingdom can and must continue to be open and generous in serving the wider world community. I pray that we shall never lose our national commitment, not only at home but in the Commonwealth and in the wider world, to being and doing what is good.
Listen to the Sermon (audio file on an external website)