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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Dedication of Westminster Abbey 2018

May we commit ourselves to dedicate our lives to the service of God in Christ and to the service of his people.

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 14th October 2018 at 10.30 AM

Earlier this month, on 2nd October, I dedicated a new stained glass window here in the Abbey. It is on the west side of the north transept. So those of you seated to my right can see the window. Its purpose is to celebrate the reign of The Queen, already the longest-serving Monarch in our long history. The window was designed by David Hockney and made by Keith Barley and Helen Whittaker with their colleagues at the Barley Studio in York. The stained glass was made using the oldest traditional methods in Bavaria, Germany. We have had many positive reactions to the new window and a few negative ones as well. But maybe that is not surprising. It is much bolder and stronger than most of the coloured glass in the Abbey and it depicts a particular scene.

Some years ago, when David Hockney had returned for a time from Los Angeles to his native Yorkshire and was painting scenes in the isolated places of the Yorkshire Wolds, he produced an exhibition that was shown at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, a celebration of the Yorkshire countryside and in particular a celebration of the hawthorn blossom that appears for only a few days and then disappears again as quickly. He described the hawthorn blossom as like champagne poured over everything. A red road leads the watcher through the hawthorn bushes and wonderful colours to the brightest of blue skies, perhaps more redolent of California than of English weather. To celebrate The Queen’s reign we have a new window by the most celebrated artist of the reign depicting the beautiful countryside of this England.

Writing about the hawthorn blossom, Maria Ellis last year said, ‘Hawthorn bursts forth [in early May] covering hedges, scrub and woodlands with abundant creamy white flowers and filling the air with its pungent perfume – you’ll likely smell it before you see it. These blooms are the signal that summer is just around the corner.  Hawthorn blossoms were gathered and used as flower crowns, household decorations and wrapped around the village May pole to signal the start of the season.’ So we have an English celebratory window to celebrate our beloved Queen.

This window is not the only memorial or commemoration I have dedicated in the Abbey these past years. Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, poets, David Frost, television broadcaster, Octavia Hill, who founded the National Trust, Admiral Arthur Phillip, who founded New South Wales, Nelson Mandela, who saved South Africa, the founders of the Royal Ballet, are now there amongst others, alongside the graves of Charles Dickens and George Frederick Handel, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy, William Wilberforce and William Gladstone, Henry Purcell and Charles Villiers Stanford, Charles Barry, J L Pearson and Gilbert Scott, and now Stephen Hawking alongside Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. We dedicated their memorials to celebrate their lives, to celebrate above all God’s gifts to the world through them.

And today we celebrate the dedication of this church, this building, that has given so much to our nation and Commonwealth and to our visitors and worshippers from around the world. Here kings and queens have been crowned, and many of them buried, since the coronation of Harold II on 6th January 1066, when St Edward the Confessor, whose feast we celebrated yesterday was also buried here, and the coronation of William Duke of Normandy as King of England on Christmas Day 1066. The Queen’s coronation here on 2nd June 1953 remains for many of us of a certain age a distant but vivid memory, brightening the nation as it continued to recover from the devastating damage occasioned by the Second World War.

Next year at this time we shall be celebrating the 750th anniversary of the dedication of this the third church building on this site. On 13th October 1269, this church, built at the command and at the expense of Henry III and some of his friends, was solemnly dedicated to the service of almighty God. It replaced the church St Edward the Confessor had built, an enormous Romanesque church in the style of his Norman mother, by far the greatest building in the kingdom, when it was dedicated to the service of almighty God on 28th December 1065, replacing an earlier church probably dedicated in 960 by St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury.

The dedication of a church has a powerful significance. But the word church connotes besides the building of the church itself, the people of the Church, the people of God, the Christian community. And our gospel reading today reminds us that, however glorious the temple might have been in Jerusalem, far more glorious was the life of Christ Jesus himself, who was to die and three days later to rise again. For us to live is to be in Christ, and to die is to be in Christ. He is our life, our model, our example, our guide, our brother, our Lord. Where he goes, we are to follow, through death into the glory of new life in him.

Today in Rome, Pope Francis is holding a solemn celebration in St Peter’s Square at which he is to canonise seven new saints. They have already been beatified, some of them a long time ago; now they are to be canonised and will be given the attribute of sainthood and venerated as saints by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. The first of the new saints is Pope Paul VI, who became pope in 1963 following the death of John XXIII and who himself died in 1978. He presided over the last stages of the Second Vatican Council and did much to reform the Church. The second new saint is Oscar Romero, whom we here have celebrated as a saint since 1998 when his statue was placed on the west front of the Abbey as one of ten 20th century Christian martyrs from every one of the world’s continents. Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated, shot dead, by a government hitman on 24th March 1980 as he celebrated mass in a hospital chapel. He had been a determined critic of a military dictatorship that had oppressed the poor. His final sermon concluded with these powerful words, ‘I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.’ His appeal was too much for the government which could not risk an uprising and had him killed. Today the Roman Catholic Church recognises him as a saint of God and a martyr.

The example set by these new saints is of dedication to Christ, of faithful following, of being willing to suffer and to die for his sake, for the truth’s sake, to uphold what is good and just and right. How do we respond? May we commit ourselves this day, as we celebrate the dedication of this church, to dedicate our lives to the service of God in Christ and to the service of his people. For each of us the service we offer will be different but let us not quail from the task or fall away from the challenge. In the end all we do will be giving back to God what is God’s own: ‘for all things come from you and of your own have we given you.’

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