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A Memory Forward

The Very Reverend Dr Wesley Carr Dean of Westminster

Thursday, 13th October 2005

As someone points out in Alice in Wonderland, to have a memory that only works backwards is a sad state of affairs.

I feel a little like the boy who was given a book on penguins. Asked what he made of it he replied." It's very good but it tells me more about penguins than I wish to know." This week has seemed a long time coming. But it came and exploded in what felt like a great firework display of Edward the Confessor. For some it might even have told them more than they wished to know. For to concentrate on an Abbey as vast as Westminster on a single character for a week (though we use the religious word "octave") runs the risk of overdosing. And, even more serious than that it can by straining after novelty distort history by making the unimportant important and those enthusing who wish to be original to seek something new, however fragmentary.

But Edward the Confessor, Saint and King, seems to have survived this attention and continues in these final two events - the Eucharist and the Feast - to enrich our lives. With any luck each of us knows something more about Edward, about history and about culture than we did 7 days ago.

The music led by our choir in the first concert, adorned by them at Evensong this week and the joint evensong with the cathedral has provided both the ground for our week and some of its highlights. Who could miss the contrast between the massed choirs of Westminster and the spare 6 voices in a darkened Abbey? And what a fine addition to the repertoire is The Robin and the King.

The young have added their panache with the pageant full of fire and spirit signifying very much something. Learning took place everywhere but especially in the seminar at King's College. Two unfamiliar types of worship, that of the west by the Benedictine monks of Cheventonge in Belgium and that of the East with the cantor and singers from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London showed how liturgy can function. The first provided a context for formal and informal prayer on the Day of Prayer; the latter framed the magnificent lecture by Bishop Kallistos that took most of us into worlds which we had never before encountered - a genuine Magical Mystery Tour. And who can forget the moving and profound opening sermon from our friend His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor? He, like so many this week, had put himself out in order to be with us. We might say, that not in thousand years could we have hoped for such support, enthusiasm and encouragement. It must leave the Abbey a different place.

But does it? This ancient heritage and those who serve it have the marks more of a transit camp than anything else. Visitors in their millions now come and go, worshippers in their hundreds of thousands come, are moved and go, canons arrive and depart on a seemingly almost regular basis, some, just a few, staying for life. And on the transit of Deans I have nothing to say except watch this space. So how are such a mobile institution, and the largely contented people who live in or visit it, affected by what we have just done for an octave? The answer is a mystery. But a mystery is not something hidden and obscure but something which opens our eyes, if we dare look, to something more, something further than hitherto had been beyond our awareness or experience. And the mystery of St Edward this week is the way in which so many facets of the whole institution - buildings and people, furniture and worship, joys and sadnesses, the familiar and the unfamiliar make up what some know as the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster and most as "The Abbey". The way that such a notion is lodged in people's minds is affected by this week. For if you think about it the Abbey is a vast collection of images held in the minds of millions. For some it is that building on the corner that they pass every day. For others it is where such and such a funeral was held or a great national triumph was celebrated. It's where Coronations take place, even though there has not been one for over 50 years. It's where John proposed to Mary and the Dean blessed their engagement. If we did not have religious institutions, we should have to invent them.

But concentration on Edward does this; it makes those of us who are responsible now for this complex idea in people's minds come down to earth and learn again about our basic primary concerns - worship, liturgy, music, drama, learning and much more - in the context of historic holiness and living faith.

Hopefully, like the boy with his penguins, each of us who has been involved at any level in this celebration will be able to say, " It was very good and it told me more about faith than I wished to learn." Some will be stuck there and wish to know no more. But some may have penetrated the mystery and coped with unexpected and unforeseen revelation. In our every day life we can become blase about faith and take it for granted. Some can be overwhelmed by faith and become obsessed by it. By focussing on the Abbey that Edward founded and illuminated by history and tradition, by culture and art, by pastoral care and sovereignty, each can find some way in to an exploring faith which is the mark of a saint.

The great history of Edward turns out not to lie in the past. As Alice in Wonderland puts it "to have a memory that only works backwards is a miserable state of affairs". We need a "memory forwards". This is to take what we have received, experienced, enjoyed as well as disliked or been disconcerted by and make it part of that piece of history for which each of us is responsible until our death: holiness with realism, challenged casualness, questioned certainties and the chance of a revived faith.

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