Sermon given at A Service of Thanksgiving to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Alleyn’s School

It is a pleasure to welcome the students and staff and the wider community of Alleyn’s School to the Abbey to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Edward Alleyn’s educational trust that has given rise over the centuries to three significant and successful schools in Dulwich.

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Friday, 18th January 2019 at 2.30 PM

Things have been a little busy in Westminster this week. You might have noticed. On Tuesday evening, while the meaningful vote was happening in the House of Commons, great crowds were gathered in Parliament Square, watching a large screen with a television feed and reacting noisily to the speeches. The normal protesters outside Parliament were there too, but their sound was drowned out by the larger crowd. In the meantime we held here in the Abbey a memorial service for a former canon who died last year, Dr Anthony Harvey, who incidentally arranged in 1998 for the ten 20th Century Christian martyrs to be memorialised on the West Front of the Abbey. Rowan Williams gave the address, as the noise outside rose and fell. Anthony Harvey had been deeply concerned for decisions being taken in Parliament and for the Abbey’s engagement with its wider world, as we are ourselves. So, despite the disturbance, it felt somehow appropriate to share concern for decisions being taken about our national relationship with our nearest neighbours.

But today, it is a pleasure to welcome the students and staff and the wider community of Alleyn’s School to the Abbey to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Edward Alleyn’s educational trust that has given rise over the centuries to three significant and successful schools in Dulwich.

It is a fascinating speculation to wonder whether the actor Ned Alleyn had any idea 400 years ago what would be the impact of his gifts these four centuries later. He must have hoped that he would be remembered with thanksgiving. But he cannot possibly have imagined that his trust fund for twelve poor scholars and twelve poor old people in an alms-house and a chapel could have led to all this.

Actors had been pretty disreputable people. But they began to flourish in the reign of the first queen Elizabeth. And Alleyn was clearly a successful actor, who benefited from his own achievement and from the wealth of his wife. As we know, he died at the age of 60 in 1626, seven years after his great benefaction. If he had lived another twenty years, or been born twenty years later, the end of his life would have been radically different, as the Puritans began to outlaw plays and music in public and even in churches.

But Alleyn lived at a good time, in the reign of good queen Bess and the Scottish king, James VI and I, whose motto was Beati pacifici, Blessed are the peacemakers. And he was more or less a contemporary of our greatest English playwright, William Shakespeare, whose history plays continue to shape our understanding of our own history. Henry V is buried here in the Abbey, as are many other kings and queens. So we held a great celebration here on the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt and an actor played the king and his St Crispin’s Day speech.

In the past four hundred years, so much has changed. The context for education is radically different from the context Alleyn foresaw. The changes indeed in the past twenty or so years have created a markedly different context for education. Think of this. In 1999, twenty years ago, in most offices to get the internet, which was still in its infancy, it was necessary to dial up the service provider through a slow and tedious process on a desk-top computer. When you reached the internet, there was little to show for it. Twenty years before that, to achieve the power that we have in the mobile phones in our pockets, it was necessary to create an extensive building with a computer filling an enormous space. So now by contrast we have access to facts and information at a bewilderingly high level, at the touch of a fingertip: news from around the world, data of all kinds, entertainment galore, and the almost immeasurable reach of social media.

I say this is bewildering. Accompanying all the facts we can discover are endless false facts, misleading information, deliberately or merely incompetently presented. What can we make of it all? How can we know that anything is true, anything is honest, anything is of good report? The task of education is still to create a framework of knowledge for each of us into which we can add through our own experience and our own research new knowledge, new information. If the framework of learning is strong and robust enough, we shall be able to discern and discriminate, to reject what is false and adhere to what is true. But the internet allows us so much more easily to direct our own learning as we pursue our own interests; thus we can become independent learners, an important goal for each of us. But first, we need the framework.

What else is necessary in this bewildering world where knowledge expands so massively year after year? It is worth reflecting that in the 17th century, one of my predecessors as Dean, Lancelot Andrewes, was said to read seven ancient languages and to speak almost all the modern languages spoken in Europe. He knew more or less everything there was to know. That would be totally inconceivable now.

Therefore, another vital component of education is the development of character, the building of a robust, honest and true personality, someone who can discern what is true and thus engage in a positive and generous way with his or her fellow men and women. Character education has become ever more vital in a context where facts and interpretation are so contested.

Schools like Alleyn’s should be and I am sure are leading in these areas: building a robust educational framework and developing character. I am touched by the school motto, God’s Gift. Alleyn himself must have seen his good fortune, his success as an actor, his achievement as a business man, his growing wealth, all as God’s Gift. How much better should we all be if we saw everything we achieved, everything we gained, indeed our very selves, as a gift from God: gifts not for us to exploit for our own benefit, but, as Alleyn himself saw, to be handed on to others, to share, to enable others to benefit and achieve, as he had achieved.

May we see all that we enjoy, all that we have, all that we can achieve as God’s Gift. May that be Alleyn’s great gift to your generation.