May we all be encouraged by the saints to become ourselves fully.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Thursday, 1st November 2018 at 5.00 PM
Forty years ago today I was licensed by the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, as parish priest of All Saints’ Church South Wimbledon. I was 29 and was to serve in the parish for almost six years. It was above all a very happy time, full of purpose and interest. And of course I learnt a great deal about the ministry and work of a parish priest. Amongst many other things we rebuilt our First School, now a Primary School, and took the large choir of young people away on a week’s holiday to Swanage every year. Many of the people I served became long-lasting friends.
It would be presumptuous in one way to say that the saints became my friends too but I was thrilled to be in a parish dedicated to All the Saints. I came to think of the saints in a fresh way. So often St Paul refers to the Christian community he is addressing in his epistles as the saints in a particular place. St Paul is writing to the saints, the Christians, in Rome, ‘I am going to Jerusalem’, he says ‘in a ministry to the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. So, when I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will set out by way of you to Spain.’ So, all God’s people in a particular place should be considered to be saints. That certainly is how St Paul thinks of them.
You might think it a little unrealistic. After all, we know, don’t we, that we are sinners, unworthy of the love of God. But if that is true of us, it is almost certainly true of the people St Paul was thinking of: a mixture of people with a great devotion to our Lord and people with a great concern for the things of this world, such as how to get and spend, how to survive in a difficult and demanding world order. So, perhaps we should think of ourselves as saints and sinners: maybe, called to be saints, but aware of being sinners; sinners hoping to live up to the expectation that we really ought to be and in a sense are already saints.
Of course, there are also particular saints, people who have been canonised after their death, whom the Church holds out to us as examples of godly living, models for our own lives. But it is interesting how people come to be regarded as saints, entitled to have the title saint before their name. For many people in history the process has been entirely local and informal. The local church, the Christian community in a particular place has come to think of one of their own beloved dead as a saint, more exemplary, more remarkable, more inspiring than the rest of us; and that person has come to be revered. A martyr would instantly be recognised as a saint. Others might take a little time. The process of formal recognition by the whole Church of a particular saint by canonisation comes much later in the history of the Church.
At Westminster Abbey, we are inspired by the example of a particular group of 20th century martyrs, commemorated in statues on the west front of the Abbey Church since 1998. Not all the martyrs have names that are familiar to us, since they were chosen from every continent in the world. Some of them though are really well known. Think of Martin Luther King Junior, assassinated in 1969. He is there. Or Janani Luwum, archbishop of Uganda, assassinated on the orders of Idi Amin, the president of Uganda in 1977. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, martyred in a concentration camp in 1945, is commemorated there. And St Maximilian Kolbe is there, who offered his life in Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941 to save a family man whom the Nazis had targeted. Who else is there? Wang Zhiming, killed during the Chinese cultural revolution in 1972; Lucian Tapiedi, in Papua New Guinea, who was killed in 1941 during the Japanese invasion; Esther John, a Presbyterian evangelist in Pakistan killed by a Muslim extremist in 1961; Manche Masemola, killed by her parents in 1928 in South Africa, for wanting to become a Christian; grand duchess Elizabeth of Russia, killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. They are all there. And there is one more: archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, murdered while celebrating mass in a hospital chapel in his diocese on 24th March 1980. He has been celebrated as a saint and martyr at the Abbey since 1998. He was canonised by Pope Francis in Rome on 14th October this year alongside Pope Paul VI and five others, in a solemn ceremony. He is now officially a saint and martyr of the Holy Roman Church. We shall hold a special Evensong in his memory at the Abbey on Saturday 17th November at 3 pm. Cardinal Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, will give an address.
The Church of England’s process for recognising a particular Christian as a saint is far more informal. The revision of the Church’s prayer book in the early 21st century led to a process in General Synod that led to a number of names being added to the Church’s calendar. This was the first time any new saint had been added to the calendar since the 16th century.
I would like to add another local name to the list of saints for veneration at least at the Abbey. His name is John and he is known as John Islip, although his family surname may have been Giles. He came from the village of Islip, north of Oxford, where in the early 11th century Edward the Confessor had been born. But John Giles was born much later on 10th June 1464. When he became a novice monk at Westminster Abbey on 21st March 1480, at the age of 15, he took the name Islip after the place of his birth and has been known as such ever since. John Islip filled various offices, such as domestic chaplain to the abbot, a great figure in the land, then sacrist, and finally prior, when he was 34, already the second most senior person after the abbot himself. Finally, on the death of his predecessor, George Fascet, he was elected abbot on 27th October 1500.
A great deal happened during his 32 year reign as abbot of Westminster. First, he was a serious builder. The Abbey Church had never been finished. Even though it had been consecrated as the third church building on the site in 1269, the old nave of Edward the Confessor’s 1065 church had only gradually been knocked down and replaced. John Islip finished the process and built the west towers up to the height of the roof of the nave. He also decided to rebuild the Lady Chapel, replacing the 13th century Lady Chapel to the east of the Shrine of St Edward, in the hope that it could become the shrine of Henry VI. In fact the pope never agreed to canonise Henry VI so he was left in Windsor. Even so, John Islip persuaded his friend Henry VII to pay for the re-building of the Lady Chapel and the old chapel was knocked down in 1503 to be replaced with the glorious perpendicular gothic Lady Chapel we enjoy to this day. The king spent £20,000 of his own money on the project, which was almost complete when he died in 1509. The Chapel was finally consecrated in 1516. John Islip also added a north wing to the abbot’s lodging, now the Deanery, with a balcony and prayer room overlooking the nave of the Abbey.
Inevitably Islip was drawn into the controversies of the day. He was a member of the House of Lords by virtue of his being an abbot, and he was for a time president of the Benedictine communities in England. In Rome in the office of the Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archive I have seen a document signed by the archbishops of Canterbury and York and other bishops, lay peers and the abbots of England in 1530, petitioning the pope to allow the annulment of the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. John Islip’s signature, John Westminster, is first amongst the abbots. The king referred to him as his ‘good old father.’
Despite the suggestion that the Benedictine communities were in decline, the abbey flourished in his day, even though it would be dissolved at the command of Thomas Cromwell in 1540. By then our saintly hero had been dead and buried, in the chapel of the Holy Name, north of the high altar, following his death on 12th May 1532.
I believe John Islip worthy to be enrolled amongst the saints and propose that we elevate him to the altar here in the Abbey, among the saints of God, giving thanks for his example and inspiration.
May we all be encouraged by the saints to become ourselves fully and in every way saints of God and heirs of his eternal kingdom.