Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist with Inauguration of St Margaret's Choristers
This is wonderful, but it is also a little awkward.
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle MBE Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 1st October 2023 at 6.00 PM
This is a bit awkward. Mainly, this is wonderful, but it is also a little awkward. Let’s start with what is wonderful and why it is wonderful. Tonight, there is rejoicing in heaven. Tonight, we hear the St Margaret’s Choristers singing in this church, in the precincts of Westminster Abbey for the first time. Why do angels rejoice? Because the angles know that heaven is the sound of many voices. Everything we know about heaven—about being in the presence of God—tells us that it is a crowd, it is a company. Heaven is the City of God, the Kingdom of God, places where there is hustle and bustle, conversation and community. We are meant to hear many and different voices. We are meant to hear the voices of girls and the voices of women. So, with this choir, we have taken a step closer to heaven tonight. That is important, that is why it is wonderful. We are nearer heaven now this choir is singing here.
So why is it awkward? To be honest, it is only really awkward for me. You see, if you want someone to talk about great singing you would not really want it to be me who has to do that. The truth is that I sing like a walrus. I can only ever sing alone, in the shower, in the bath. In the words of Artemus Ward ‘I am saddest when I sing, so are the people who hear me, they are sadder even than I am’. When I worked in Gloucester Cathedral, Radio Three came to record Choral Evensong. They had not been for a few years; it was a big deal. Just as we lined up to process into the service, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the Dean, ‘David’ he said, ‘Your silence is really important to us tonight’.
So, I am not the best person to talk about how well this choir sings. But you don’t need me to explain, we know this is excellent, already the reports are glowing. This is a wonderful thing to be doing and it is being done wonderfully well.
I cannot talk about how they are singing, but I will say something about what they are singing—and then I will say something more about heaven.
The anthem tonight (you will hear it during the communion) is O How Amiable are thy Dwellings. It is by Vaughan Williams and there is a bit of a story behind it—the sort of story that could not happen now. Back in the 1930s (this piece of music was written in1934), the novelist EM Forster was living in the Surrey Hills in a village called Abinger. Forster is the man who wrote A Passage to India and A Room with a View. He had a sharp eye and he had a sharp pen. He did not like snobbery and the bad behaviour of the upper class. He turned some of the people who lived round about him in Abinger into characters in his novels. They did not like that. Indeed, they did not really like E M Forster. It tells you something that they had a great and riotous party for him… when he announced he was leaving.
Even so, Forster wanted to do his bit for the village and its church. He wrote a pageant that could be performed as a fundraiser. So, a tiny village found itself with the national press all arriving for The Pageant of Abinger, by EM Forster, music played by the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment Band conducted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who also composed the music. The pageant is a hoot it starts with sheep and then with Ancient Britons, Romans, Saxons and Normans all rushing in and out. There is bad King John, there are Canterbury Pilgrims and quote ‘the unpopular Bishop of Winchester’. The Armada is defeated and (quote again) ‘There is a country dance’, ‘Gathering Peascods’, and the scene closes to the strains of ‘Twankydillo’… To get the measure of ‘Gathering Peascods’, and ‘Twankydillo you probably needed to be there.
That explains why our choir can sing Vaughan Williams, ‘O How Amiable are thy Dwellings’ this evening. A bit odd but, Forster and Vaughan Williams had a serious point to make. Both of them, in their different ways were thinking about the future and a vison of heaven. Forster thought that heaven would look much like England, or the England he liked. Here he is at the end of that Pageant,
Restaurants and flats, arterial roads, by-passes, petrol pumps, and pylons—are these going to be England? Are these man’s final triumph? Or is there another England, green and eternal, which will outlast them?
It is pretty clear what Forster thought. Heaven is a walk in the Surrey woods. And no pylons and petrol pumps.
Vaughan Williams is a bit more reliable. He described heaven by quoting scripture. O How Amiable are they Dwellings is Psalm 84 and O God our Help in Ages Past is a loose translation of Psalm 90. Psalm 84 and 90 tell you that heaven looks just like being in the Temple in Jerusalem. Listen carefully, and the anthem is about altars in God’s house. Heaven, in the anthem, is an eternity going to church
It is a curious thing about Christians that they want to tell you about heaven, but somehow, they don’t quite manage to make it sound really convincing, really desirable. Heaven knows, I like a walk in the woods and I like going to church. But, to do that all day, every day, for eternity? Really? We will surely need to be a little more imaginative than that. There is more to heaven than autumn leaves, or coming here to listen to me preach.
What we need is that second reading, from the Book of Revelation where John sees,
The holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21: 10)
We are back to where we began. This is a vision of heaven and it is a city, it is a place of activity, conversation, community. More than that it is a city we already know, it is Jerusalem. Actually, it is Jerusalem made prefect, with the radiance of a jewel. That is a better picture of what we should hope for—a future in which the past is made perfect, the familiar made whole. The future as a place where the conversation finally works and is not people shouting at each other across the street, a place where company feels like peace and our first instinct is to rejoice.
Tonight, we get a little closer to heaven as we hear these young women’s voices lifted into worship. We come closer to reconciliation, a shared hope and the city of God. This is what our hope looks like. This is what the future looks like. It really is wonderful and, who knows, in that future even I might sing.