Sermon given at Holy Communion on the Feast of the Dedication of Westminster Abbey, 2022
What does it mean to talk about being dedicated today?
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle MBE Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 16th October 2022 at 6.00 PM
The 13 October 1269—two coffins lay side by side on the high altar of Westminster Abbey. One was a reliquary, it was a holy thing. It had held the body of Edward the Confessor for the last hundred years. The other was a magnificent new coffin. The body of the saint was moved, from the old reliquary, into the coffin and then it was carried, on the shoulders of princes, into the newly built shrine behind the screen. This was the Dedication of the new church in Westminster. Ever since, the Sunday following 13 October, is our feast of dedication. In Latin dedicare—to devote, to consecrate. Today, the community at Westminster Abbey is a devoted people, a consecrated people, in a dedicated building.
Devoted to what? What does it mean to talk about being dedicated today? The answer is strangely restless. It was an unfinished building. It was a project. And the project was Edward the Confessor. Henry III wanted Edward to have a new shrine. Henry III built that shrine because he was devoted to the Confessor and wanted us to join in with that devotion. It was though all a bit restless, all a bit curious. Devotees are usually careful of the precious memory, they keep it safe. Devotion is usually rather conservative. Let’s just suppose that, back in the 1970s, I was devoted to the music of my youth. Let us imagine that I was a fan of the Bee Gees. What would I have done? I would have collected their records. I might have had a scrap book, pictures on my wall. I might have had mementoes. I would have held the Bee Gees close. Now before we all get carried away and spread rumours, can we be clear that, in my teens, I read poetry and I collected fossils, there was not a Bee Gee in sight. I am just trying to remind you that a devotee is often someone who holds on tight and preserves things. But, not Henry III. He was devoted to Edward the Confessor, a king and a saint. Edward the Confessor who had built the great church of St Peter in Westminster in 1065. When Henry III came to the throne, Westminster Abbey was the last surviving great religious building from before the Norman Conquest. Westminster Abbey. It was the memory of the Confessor set in stone. And Henry III, in his devotion, tore it down. In a sustained act of demolition he took down the church that Edward built and gave us his version of the memory of the Confessor.
This was a devotion that wanted to tell a story. Henry wanted us to see, he wanted us to hear. We are here today, we are a dedicated people because he had something to say about kingship. We should notice he wanted to say that here in Westminster and not in Winchester, or Wendover. Here beside the royal palace, by the exchequer, by the court of common pleas and right by parliament—just as parliament was learning to flex its muscles. Henry was saying something about power and community. His was a lesson in having faith and being a nation. That is the devotion we have inherited. That is the dedication we explore just ahead of a coronation—how do you think about faith when you know you have to do it together, as people and nation.
Henry III always wanted us to think big. The Abbey was built on a massive scale; built to beggar the imagination. It was full of image and idea, eager to tell you a story. There were prompts, and clues, and lessons to be learned. Devotion here was never about preserving, it was always about joining in. Henry III wanted us to see and hear. We need to see and hear. The Abbey can all too easily be misunderstood. I think we see it as old, stately, venerable, and the sort of thing that needs to be preserved. That is not the Abbey Henry gave us and dedicated. He thought this building should be poking you in the ribs, tugging at your sleeve. ‘Look’, ‘Listen’, ‘Pay attention’.
The thing that Henry wanted us to see was a human life, the life of the Confessor, the life of man caught up in the issues of power and politics that we know to be so very challenging. He wanted us to see a power that lived in holiness, a faith in national life. The community we could be, not the community we are. The Abbey was built indeed when this nation was at war with itself and Henry III fought for survival. The Abbey was propaganda and some of that propaganda suited Henry III very well. The point though is still good. The Abbey, this church, is dedicated space, coming here we join in the story that is told of her. The buildings clamour for our attention and beg us to become the people we should be, a dedicated people.
There are so many distractions for us. There are so many distractions in national life. Power is so very complicated and not above pushing its own propaganda. Yet always and forever Westminster Abbey, the house of kings and queens, the place of coronation, holy ground invites us to live the holiness of the saints and to imagine what it might be like to become a new community where the kingdom of God is always breaking. A community where gifts are exchanged and holiness issues out in glory.
Westminster Abbey was not built as memorial. The task is not to preserve it, and our dedication is not to be careful, cautious, because our religion is fragile and must be protected. We are not here to stop the world infecting us and spoiling everything. Our dedication is to learn the summons and share it with that battered, compromised world stewing in the worst kind of propaganda. We are consecrated to proclaim the hope, to be the people we can be, the community of a nation that lives with possibility. To inhabit a shared faith. To be entirely dedicated to the absurd possibility of life lived fully and joyfully.