Sermon at Evensong with Installation of Headmaster and Admission of Choristers

Generations to come will look back at the music of our rich and creative times.

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 8th September 2019 at 3.00 PM

It has been a pleasure this afternoon to welcome and install new members of the Abbey Choir and the new Headmaster of Westminster Abbey Choir School.

Perhaps first I should offer a little more information about the two groups of boys installed this afternoon. When a boy is appointed to the Choir School at the age of 8, he enters Form 1 and spends a year singing and playing a musical instrument and enjoying the full benefits of a boarding education at our unique Choir School and he attends but does not regularly sing at the daily services. That begins a year later, when he moves into Form 2 and becomes a singing boy. It was the Form 2 boys, 9-year olds, who received their white surplices this afternoon, and were welcomed and admitted as singing boys. They will now regularly sing at the Abbey’s daily services. Then, two of the boys entering Form 4, at the age of 11, were admitted as Choristers; others will be admitted as they progress.

Boys leave the Choir School at the end of Form 5, when they are generally 13 years old and move on to their senior schools. Even then, they do not lose their link with Westminster Abbey; they join the Brotherhood of St Edward and as such become from time to time altar servers, many continuing to be altar servers well into old age. They are also members of the flourishing Westminster Abbey Old Choristers Association. I mentioned that the Abbey Choir School is unique, and it is so in this country. The cathedral choir schools all admit boys or boys and girls who are not destined to sing in the cathedral choir as well as those who are. The Abbey Choir School only educates boys who are to sing in the Abbey Choir. There are therefore about 30 boys in the school and a full complement of teachers of all the school subjects and every musical instrument, almost as many teachers and tutors as there are boys. And the Choir School is led by a Headmaster.

This afternoon we welcomed Peter Roberts and installed him in the seat of the Headmaster of the Choir School in the Abbey quire. He succeeds Jonathan Milton, who has retired after 17 very dedicated and successful years as Headmaster. Peter Roberts, like his predecessor, is not only a professional educator but also a dedicated musician. He has joined us from St George’s School Windsor Castle, which educates the boys in the choir of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle but also offers a general preparatory school education to about 400 boys and girls. Peter Roberts was himself a pupil there and a member of the Chapel choir before moving to Winchester College and then to King's College, London, where he gained a first class combined honours degree in Spanish and Portuguese. He then became Queen Mother's Scholar and a barrister of the Middle Temple before becoming in-house lawyer at Hyperion records, which has worked with the Abbey Choir for many years. After a year’s study at the Institute of Education, he taught at Tidemill Academy in Deptford before returning to teach at St George's School. He has been much involved in church music, as a choral scholar, and as a member of the Holst Singers, and he continues to be the Administrator of the Edington Festival in Wiltshire, which has taken place annually since 1956, a week’s festival of music sung in the liturgy, in the village’s 14th century priory church. Peter and his wife Emily have two sons. We are delighted to welcome him and his family to Westminster.

Peter Roberts’ role is the education and formation of the Abbey choristers, whilst the role of James O’Donnell as Organist and Master of the Choristers is to direct and conduct and train them as professional singers and to form them into a wonderfully effective Choir for eight services a week during term and special services through the year.

The Abbey Choir has deep roots in history. Next month, we mark the 750th anniversary of the consecration of this current church building on this site. We know for sure of two churches on this site before that date, the first built at the instigation of St Dunstan, who in 960 became the archbishop of Canterbury. His Abbey and church survived less than a hundred years. The next church was built at the command and through the generosity of St Edward the Confessor, who reigned as king from 1042 until his death in 1066. His church was consecrated on 28th December 1065 and replaced two centuries later by King Henry III with the church in which we sit now.

From the 10th century for almost 600 years, the Abbey was a Benedictine monastery with fifty or so monks and later by many other servants and associates. Amongst the associates, from the latter part of the 14th century, were the boys and men of the Lady Chapel choir.

In the 13th century, devotion to Mary, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, honoured simply as Our Lady, was growing, so, early in that century, a Lady Altar was dedicated in the Abbey nave. However, quickly it was felt that there should be a proper chapel dedicated to Our Lady, and such a chapel was built to the East of the main church. We know nothing of that 13th century chapel. King Henry VII in 1503 decided to re-build the Lady Chapel, which was consecrated in 1516. It is a beautiful, and indeed astonishingly striking, perpendicular Gothic Lady Chapel.

Back in 1380, during the reign of King Richard II, who began re-building the Abbey’s nave, the Abbot decided to provide a complete set of services in the Lady Chapel to match the monastic offices in the main Abbey church. Boys and men were recruited to sing the services in the Lady Chapel. That choir, after the dissolution of the monastery in 1540, became the Choir of the Abbey church and has continued as such, with an eleven year intermission in the 16th century, ever since. 640 years on, the Abbey Choir flourishes as perhaps never before.

In the second lesson this afternoon, we heard Jesus addressing the people who had not accepted him and who were willing to condemn him. Jesus criticised the Jews because, although they searched the scriptures in the hope of finding there the key to eternal life, they had failed to see that the scriptures testified to Jesus himself. They had refused to come to Jesus to have life. But the one who offers us the gift of life in all its fullness is above all our Lord Jesus Christ. As St John tells us, Jesus came that people should have life and have it more abundantly.

Part of the abundant life our Lord offers us is the liturgical and choral music of the Church, which we enjoy here at the Abbey. It enriches our worship, it uplifts our spirits, and it enraptures our hearts. Music is a wonderful and precious gift; I trust it will ever here flourish and abound. The current Abbey church is only 750 years old. I see no reason why the great tradition established here should not continue for many hundreds of years. I am confident that, as we look back at the work of Tallis and Byrd, of Palestrina and Victoria, of Bach and Handel, of Schütz and Mendelssohn, of Stanford and Parry, of Langlais and Dupré, generations to come will look back at the music of our rich and creative times.