The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Saturday, 16th November 2019 at 3.00 PM
A month ago, the Abbey celebrated – 750 years. Which makes the Abbey older than Amsterdam. But, in Westminster we know that, when Henry III began the building we sit in, two previous Abbeys had already come and gone. Now, in the Abbey, if there is some history, well then we will add footnotes. I have had charming letters of welcome that tell me, ‘You will be my seventh Dean’. Like an elephant, Westminster never forgets. So, on the high altar, when we celebrated 750 years, there was the grant of land, given by King Edgar to Archbishop Dunstan, for the first Abbey, round about the year 960. That is more like it, makes us older than France. One history, notice, nodding to another.
No surprise that the Dean that day, John Hall, spoke about longevity, continuity. There is a history here. And today, installing me as Dean, you make that history mine.
Friends know that I am already a historian. I spent my childhood visiting castles and cathedrals. In the mid-sixties, in my shorts, I would not have been able to tell you about the Kinks, Herman’s Hermits, or even Spurs strong midfield, but I could have told you about Edward the Confessor. Relatives probably wished to hear about Spurs. One of the people who taught me history - he is here today - visits old churches so often that his family have a name for it - a-b-c ing - ‘Another bloody church’. My wife would never do that, but she does count. On holiday, as I push open the door of yet another basilica, a firm voice behind me says ‘six’ or, embarrassingly, ‘fourteen’. I have spent a life in history. Today is a solemn day, it is a serious thing we do now, but just in case you cannot see it, beneath all my new scarlet, and in the midst of all this stamp and circumpomp, that little boy - who can remember the first time he came here - is turning somersaults of joy.
Let’s stay with Edward the Confessor. In the Abbey, we talk about him as our saint, our website describes his ‘piety’. That’s our story - a shrine, pilgrimage, holiness. It is a good story and not wrong. Another friend, another historian – also here today - can tell you that when Henry III built this Abbey he was working to a different script. He also wanted to talk about holiness, but he needed everyone to know it was the holiness of a king. In his bedroom, in the Palace of Westminster, (over there) King Henry had a painted mural of the coronation of the Confessor. He slept under that. Not just that he told people this was the room the Confessor had slept in. When Henry died he had his body interred by the shrine - in life and in death lying alongside the royal saint. This was passionate devotion. In 1238, Henry celebrated the translation of Edward’s relics with special liturgy and candles - 500 of them. Then he called his first born ‘Edward’. Do you see? He told the story and he lived it.
This Abbey was not just built as a church or even as a shrine. It was built to proclaim that story the one about sacred kingship, holiness and power. The Abbey does not just have a history, it has a story to tell, the Abbey speaks the story. Michael Mayne wrote once about telling the story of the Abbey to visitors
Although I use words with which to tell its story, it is invariably the space that speaks
The Abbey tells the story and we start living it, it gathers us in and builds all kinds of relationships. Michael Mayne was my Vicar in Cambridge, he was a friend and a teacher, Alison Mayne is here today. We all find our place in a history, hand it on, we review, and we revise. When a new Dean arrives he inherits a story, inhabits a story and begins to tell it afresh.
Last May I tipped at the Conference of Deans. Now, believe me, a Conference of Deans is a thing of beauty, but that day, I struggled a bit. I had heard that morning, that I was going to be the next Dean of Westminster. I had also been told, with great courtesy but very firmly, that absolutely no-one could know this news. The Tower of London was not mentioned, but it was implied. So, I was tight-lipped with the future going off inside me, like a grenade. Rowan Williams spoke at the conference. He talked about the day he was enthroned in Canterbury Cathedral. He had to wait in the crypt, where he was surrounded by the tombs of his predecessors. He looked at them, feeling much like I felt twenty minutes ago the other side of my ordeal by Latin, and realised, with relief, that all that history was a kind of permission. It was an inheritance, but they did it differently those predecessors, they were different from him, and one another. History is not prescription.
That is part of the gift of our history. There are seasons, there are departures and there are arrivals, like today. There is a charter of 960, a rebuild in 1269, and then much, much more. An inheritance and a new commitment.
So, here, now, we have to name the task we will share in this season. We are going to tell the old story afresh. We will tell the story afresh and we will speak truth.
As an election gets into gear around us we can see, more clearly than ever, that we have poisoned our own wells. Our political parties now have to be reminded that they should tell the truth. As if there was an alternative. Beset by disinformation, we must acknowledge we have kicked truth into the gutter. Self-determination is the name of the game – say it loud, say it strong, and let the devil take the consequence. We crown assertion, we canonise aspiration. Be grand, be ear-catching, and don’t worry whether or not it is actually true. Debate is just people shouting across a street. We are divided, atomized, and we are so angry.
Our duty on this ground, our shared task, is to remind ourselves, and others, of the story these stones speak. The shrine, the burials of our monarchs, the Cosmati pavement it is all a commentary on power and faith. It assumes and it asserts that one thing can follow another, that we can see a narrative through. Over and again this Abbey has provided the space and the narrative and a liturgy where a divided nation could meet and find a common language, a history they could share. This royal and sacred space offers us our Common ground. Faith at the heart of the nation is the catchphrase here, the faith that gives us heart and dignity.
That is the gift the Abbey confers. Here, in Yeats’ phrase - all’s accustomed, ceremonious. It has been and still is, the genius of this place, in custom and ceremony, to bring us together in a truth we can share. We have to do that. That is a truth we must teach.
Not just custom and ceremony notice, it is truth we need. We can and must teach out of the grit and substance of our history.
On this hill
At a time’s turn
Not on any hill
But on this hill.
That’s David Jones and it is a point about history. We have to teach the bone and substance of the faith. Literally, that is what the cross is – bone and substance. It is not spirituality we peddle, or cheerful aphorisms about everything turning out fine in the end. The history of this place, the scars and arguments of our dead, are part of a history that turns on Golgotha, on the fact of man dying. It is not negotiable, not just another opinion. We must teach out of our history that there are truths we can share, language we can trust, promises we will keep. We have to commit again to that enterprise that there is a truth to be shared.
A common story, a shared truth and unity
We heard a reading from Colossians, earlier and it was precisely this point that was made there. It was a letter written to a people easily deceived, caught up in contesting philosophies. Colossians insists first on the truth and second on unity. No confusion, just one story in which we all have a place. So
let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.... And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus
One story for us all. A generosity of invitation is part of the life of Abbey rejoicing in an invitation to other faiths. There is more work to do, our generosity still does not look as diverse as it could be and we must wonder what hospitality we offer to those who need it most.
This must be a place that thinks that community could be bigger and better. All around us are the monuments of lives so different from ours. In this democracy of the dead we have to acknowledge that we do not own what we have here, we must share what we have been given.
It is a big ambition and within it there is a temptation. I have been told many times in the last few months that I am coming to a peculiar. Peculiar can be good, but peculiar people make uncomfortable company. We must not turn inwards, we must not be caught holding a mirror to better admire our peculiar dignity. It is no accident that we hear the voice of the Bishop of London and the Bishop at Lambeth in this service. We will indeed, be a peculiar people, but we be good friends.
A common story, a shared truth, unity and friendship. One last challenge for us all. Wonderful, utterly wonderful as it is to come to the Abbey and find a story here, this is not the end of the journey. The Abbey’s greatest vocation is to point beyond itself. Never our destination, this must be a glimpse of the Kingdom, a hint of a glory far greater than anything you will find even here. Shrine and Sanctuary, of course, but signpost most of all, pointing to the truth and unity that are only found in the glory of God.
For now, though, thank God for our shared inheritance in this place, and thank you for your welcome. I feel as though I have come home. Together we will interrogate and celebrate this inheritance and we will make it speak the truth across all divisions. And do you know? I think the my poor wife can stop counting, I will stop looking, it is here that the story must be told.
An audio recording of this sermon can be heard on AudioBoom.