Very Reverend John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 29th June 2007
Ezekiel 3: 22-end; I Peter 2: 19-end; Matthew 16: 5-17
One of the curiosities I have discovered about being Dean of Westminster is that I am expected to be vice-president or vice-patron of quite a wide variety of different organisations in and around Westminster. In the past I have been asked to be patron of various charities concerned with education. One thing unites all these experiences: none of the organisations has ever had clear expectations of me. When I ask what I can do to help, they suggest I might attend their AGM and they wouldn't object to a donation.
I can't say I mind. Nor am I in a position to object. For eight years I was General Secretary of an organisation with a distinguished patron and had little idea what that might mean in practice, apart from an annual exchange of correspondence.
Today is about the Abbey's patron, our proper title being the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster. Most people who have heard of Westminster Abbey have no idea that St Peter is our patron. That is not surprising, since we rarely use the title. But I wonder how many churches have a clear idea what having a patron saint might mean.
In an attempt to fill out the meaning, I offer two implications for any church, or come to that any individual, of being under the patronage of a particular saint or group of saints. I shall follow those general comments with two brief reflections on St Peter and this, his Collegiate, Church.
The first implication is about inspiration. The patron saint offers the church of which he or she is patron an example of heroic and virtuous Christian living and an example to follow. This powerful example should inspire the church and individual members of the Body of Christ to a deeper commitment to paying the price of following Christ and greater heights of achievement in the spiritual life and in practical charity. This is all very well but it seems to me that this is not enough. We are not very good at following heroic examples. Left to ourselves, we either fail or achieve nothing better than a sense of self-satisfaction or pride, undermining the very achievement itself.
I might well admire and be inspired by the technique and brilliance of a great violinist. This inspiration might help me to apply myself to the necessary practice to achieve the highest standards of playing. Frankly, unless I have the necessary gifts, I am likely to be disappointed. I might well admire and be inspired by the dedication of a selfless campaigner for justice. This inspiration might help me to give up hours of my time and all my practical resources to campaigning for justice. If I am successful and luxuriate in the plaudits of the media or of those I have helped, the worm of pride rots the apple.
If the first implication for a church or an individual Christian of having a patron saint on its own is not enough, it is backed by the second implication, intercession. This does not mean the church or individual praying to the saint as if the saint were the fount of virtue. It means asking the saint, who constantly worships the Father, to join our prayers with his and offer them in the nearer presence of God, whom as St Paul says he now sees face to face. The idea of asking the saints to pray for us is not a dangerous invention but rooted in scripture. Paul in his letters asks for the prayers of his fellow Christians. The epistle of James makes it clear that the prayer of a righteous person can save the sick and that the Lord will raise them up. Therefore, he says, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another. The Revelation to St John the Divine shows us an angel mingling with incense the prayers of the saints before God. In Christ, all Christians are part of one Body, on earth and in heaven. We are as close to the saints as to our fellow Christians on earth and can ask them to pray for us and others just as we ask each other.
So, a patron saint inspires us and intercedes for us. We who work and worship at the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster are richly blessed in our patron saint. We know of him that he was intensely human, readily jumped into situations and easily got things wrong, but in the end he was faithful. Three times he had denied he knew Jesus; three times he professed his love for him. In the end he accepted a martyr's death in Rome rather than deny his beloved Lord. We are inspired by his example of faith whom Jesus called the rock on which he would build his Church. We are encouraged in our journey of faith by his powerful intercession to whom Jesus said he would give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
This Petertide, as we celebrate our patron's entry into heaven, let us ask for his prayers and be inspired by his example, that we too, intensely human and fallible, easily getting things wrong, so often denying Jesus in our thoughts, words and deeds, might nevertheless persevere and finally see our patron opening wide for us the gate of heaven.