The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 4th May 2014 at 3:00 PM
When a few minutes ago I placed the Reverend Christopher Stoltz as our new Minor Canon in his stall, his allotted seat, in the Quire of Westminster Abbey, I used the words the Dean always uses, and has used for the past 450 years, when installing a new member of the College of this Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster. They are in Latin and there is no translation in your order of service. So, let me interpret them for you: Take this seat, with the intent to minister holy things and to celebrate the praises of God, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We all responded Amen. So be it.
Those of you unfamiliar with the Abbey will perhaps be intrigued to know what a Minor Canon is and what a Minor Canon does. The explanation is rooted in history. The Abbey founded in 960 as a Benedictine monastery and rebuilt twice, in 1065 and 1269, has also been dissolved twice. The first dissolution in 1540 was managed by King Henry VIII’s vice-gerent Thomas Cromwell. But to preserve the coronation church, the King made it the cathedral of a new diocese. This would also give a role to those of the former monks fit and willing to stay. After only ten years, King Edward VI re-amalgamated the new diocese in the diocese of London and this church continued as a co-cathedral with St Paul’s. Some of the former monks remained here.
This was a time of great turmoil in English history and only six years later, Edward VI having been succeeded as Monarch by his half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen, the monastery was re-founded and the Dean of St Paul’s John Feckenham became the abbot. Some of the monks stayed; others left; others of the former monks came back. Mary died on 17th November 1558.
Her half-sister Elizabeth hoped to save the Benedictine monastery here and offered Abbot Feckenham the vacant archbishopric of Canterbury but he refused and spent the rest of his days in confinement. But the Queen still had the problem what to do with the coronation church. She bided her time until six months after her own coronation and on 10th July 1559 dissolved the monastery again.
Finally on 21st May 1560, the Queen issued a Royal Charter erecting the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster, governed by a Dean and twelve Prebendaries, with Minor Canons to maintain the daily pattern of worship and lay staff to support them. Seven of the Prebendaries were suppressed in the 19th century and one is suspended, and their title has changed, so today four Canons govern the Abbey with the Dean and exercise particular responsibilities.
The two Minor Canons – sometimes there have been three – are responsible to the Dean for ordering the daily worship and special services in the Abbey Church, in St Margaret’s Church and in the Palace of Westminster’s Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, also under my jurisdiction, and they take the lead in conducting much of the worship. Today the senior Minor Canon is also the Precentor and the junior Minor Canon is also the Sacrist, responsible amongst other things for the care of the chapels and liturgical vestments and plate. Christopher Stoltz is to be Sacrist and also to be chaplain to the Choir School.
He has some distinguished predecessors. One of the longest serving was Jocelyn Perkins, Minor Canon and Sacrist from 1899 to 1958. He is described on the stone that marks the burial of his ashes in St Faith’s Chapel, where we start our day with worship, as a faithful priest and a forceful Sacrist. How far, we wonder, will Fr Stoltz follow in his footsteps? One of Dr Perkins’s long-serving colleagues, also a character, was Christopher Hildyard, descended from the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, and Minor Canon from 1928 until 1973.
It is not without reason that Minor Canons are appointed these days for five years, with a possible two year extension. It was announced last week that another 20th-century Minor Canon Paul Ferguson, here from 1988 until 1995, is to be Bishop of Whitby; another, Jonathan Goodall, is serving as Bishop of Ebbsfleet. How far, we wonder, will Fr Stoltz follow in their footsteps?
Although I have identified moments of transition, I hope I have also shown the thousand year history of the church here in Westminster as forming a coherent whole. The Rule of St Benedict, still of great importance to the Abbey, says that the Abbot should so ‘temper all things that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak may not fall back in dismay.’ I trust that this brief history will not dismay but strengthen the new Minor Canon’s resolve to strive. He too has had the opportunity in his life to identify continuity within transition.
Christopher Stoltz comes from five years as a chaplain at Trinity College Cambridge, which college Queen Elizabeth I determined should be a partner with the Collegiate Church of St Peter in the work of education. That is still the case: continuity within transition. And since Christmas Fr Ralph Godsall, a former chaplain of the same college, has been acting splendidly as Minor Canon. We are grateful to him for all he does here.
The Abbey is built on firm foundations. That is literally true. The 13th century building in which we sit rests half on an island surrounded by the river Thames and its tributaries and half on riparian gravel: not very firm. So the medieval builders laid a deep concrete raft and the walls have stood steady these 745 years.
The Abbey is built on firm foundations. That is true in a more profound sense, as identified by St Paul in our second lesson. ‘No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.’ The prophet Haggai’s vision we heard in the first lesson was also about firm foundations, secure buildings. ‘I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.’
So, Christopher Stoltz and the clergy of the Abbey should feel installed on a firm foundation; that foundation is Jesus Christ. All of us joining this afternoon in the thousand year history of worship in this holy place should pray that our lives should rest and remain on that firm foundation which is Jesus Christ. Christ is made the sure foundation. He alone can surely protect us and preserve us.