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Sermon given at the Dedication Festival Sung Eucharist

Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of this third Abbey Church, which took place 750 years ago last Sunday.

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 20th October 2019 at 10.30 AM

Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of this third Abbey Church, which took place 750 years ago last Sunday. At that time, we celebrated the translation to the new Shrine, behind the high altar, of the mortal remains of St Edward the Confessor, who had been king of England from 1042 until his death on 5th January 1066 and who had built the second Abbey Church we know of on this site. Since last Sunday, we have continued the celebration. On Tuesday a special service was attended by The Queen, our Visitor, with the Duchess of Cornwall.

Our focus has been very strong these last days on the Abbey and our own Saint Edward, king and confessor. This has meant that we have failed to pay attention so far to a happy moment a week ago in Rome.

Last Sunday, while we celebrated 750 years of the current Church, the Pope celebrated a mass in St Peter’s Square, during which he canonised five new saints. One of them was a former Anglican priest, who in 1845 became a Roman Catholic and was quite soon re-ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. Before the end of his life, John Henry Newman had been made a cardinal. He ended his life in England at the Birmingham Oratory which he had founded as a Roman Catholic in 1848. The Oratory was the first in the world dedicated after the example of St Philip Neri. Others followed. There is an Oratory in Kensington, the Brompton Oratory, and another in Manchester and one in Oxford, with a further Oratory in development in York.

Newman is important for us as Anglicans, since he was the most significant and imaginative leader of what is known as the Oxford Movement. This Movement began in 1833 and led to a transformation in the nature of the ministry of the Church of England and of the Anglican Communion. Gradually, as a result of the Oxford Movement, through the 19th century, churches began to use candles on the altar, and vestments, and incense; and the Eucharist was to displace Matins as the main Sunday morning service. Three priests in Oxford, John Keble, professor of poetry, Edward Pusey, regius professor of Hebrew, and John Henry Newman took the initiative, led by Keble when he preached a sermon in the University Church to the assize judges. Keble and Pusey remained Anglicans. Newman in 1845 became a Roman Catholic and was separated from his Anglican brethren in the parting of friends. But the Oxford Movement and Catholic revival continued in the Church of England.

Last Sunday, the Prince of Wales attended Newman’s canonisation in Rome and beforehand wrote this, ‘At a time when faith was being questioned as never before, Newman, one of the greatest theologians of the nineteenth century, applied his intellect to one of the most pressing questions of our era: what should be the relationship of faith to a sceptical, secular age?  His engagement first with Anglican theology, and then, after his conversion, Catholic theology, impressed even his opponents with its fearless honesty, its unsparing rigour and its originality of thought.’ The Prince also wrote, ‘Newman stood for the life of the spirit against the forces that would debase human dignity and human destiny.’

At the canonisation, the Pope quoted St John Henry Newman’s words, ‘The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not. The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming, has no pretence, with so little that is unusual or striking in his bearing, that he may easily be taken at first sight for an ordinary man.’

That is a powerful thought. As Christians we are to be extraordinary, but in every sense to appear ordinary. I suppose he meant this to be until people get to know us, when they discover that we are not exactly run-of-the-mill. The list of epithets is itself striking. Kind, gentle and courteous might be thought to be characteristic of anyone with a basic decency. Unassuming and unpretentious are slightly tougher acquisitions, I think, but obviously important in terms of moving amongst people, engaging with people of all kinds.

The saint also expects us to be cheerful, easy and candid. I suppose these characteristics to be slightly harder to acquire. Can we always be cheerful? I remember being told of Edward Pusey, that, after the death of his wife, he always walked with eyes cast down and never again looked at a flower. Being easy too seems to me oddly hard to acquire. But being candid raises fearful problems. Do we always have to tell someone candidly what is wrong with them? I hope not. The word ‘candid’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘white’, as in the white garment worn by a newly baptised person, a candidate for holiness. So perhaps in the end what the saint means is that we should not spend time telling people what is good or bad about them, but generally being open, honest and true.

Dedication Festivals tend to be about buildings, about the consecration and dedication of a new church and then the annual celebration of its place in its local community. But this year, as we are being reminded of one of the saints of our joint Anglican and Catholic history in this country and more widely, we are led on to think of ourselves, after the example of the saints, being inspired to become more saintly, more holy.

Our biblical readings today remind us that buildings, even church buildings, should not dominate our thinking or our attention, however beautiful or historic they turn out to be. In St John’s Gospel account of the cleansing of the temple, which the other three Gospels place at the beginning of the last week of our Lord’s life, there is an additional element to the account. Here we are not simply told of Jesus sweeping away all the tables of the people changing money from Roman to Jewish coinage in order that pilgrims can use Jewish money to buy the animals to be offered in the temple for sacrifice. Nor does Jesus simply condemn animal sacrifice as not the way to bring people into communion with almighty God. Here we are told that what really matters is not the temple and all its false animal sacrifice, but the body of Jesus himself, that will be crucified and buried but will rise from the dead on the third day.

And St Paul bases what he says on our Lord’s teaching, as we heard in the second lesson. We are being built spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. St Paul turns the metaphor of the temple as the body on its head and refers to the Body of Christ, the Church and all its members, as being built into this spiritual temple, this holy temple, this temple not made with hands. This is a powerful and beautiful image. God dwells in us. We should not simply think of God as dwelling in the temple in Jerusalem, or even as dwelling in any particular church building. God dwells in us. So, we are called and enabled to be holy, as the saints of God are holy. We find within ourselves the holiness of the living God dwelling in us. God inhabits our lives, transforms us into the very stuff of heaven, into the immortal life, the eternal life, we are destined to enjoy beyond this life.

St Paul assures us that we are not to think of ourselves as strangers or aliens but as citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. We are already here on earth in a position to take up our eternal destiny in heaven. We are part of God’s intimate family, his household. What could be more beautiful, more wonderful, than this glorious reality: we are the Body of Christ.


Listen to the sermon (audio file on an external website)

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