The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 13th October 2017 at 5.00 PM
At the end of this month, on the eve of All Saints’ Day, alternatively known as All Hallows’ Day, we shall not here be celebrating Hallowe’en but the moment five hundred years ago when an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, published 95 theses critical of the Catholic Church of which he was a member.
What Luther began on 31st October 1517 led to the Reformation of parts of the Church and the division of the Church in Germany, hitherto loyal to the Pope. Each local ruler of the many small states would have to decide whether his local Church would remain part of the Catholic Church or join the Protestant Reformation. And the Reformation spread throughout northern Europe and left its permanent imprint on the Church.
The Reformation took a little time to reach this country. Henry VIII had been on the throne for eight years when Luther published his theses, and he was still hoping for a male heir from his queen Catherine of Aragon, who after four failed pregnancies had finally the year before given birth to a child. She was a girl, the princess Mary, who would later succeed to the English throne, the first queen regnant. But Henry VIII only broke the connection between the Church in this country and the papacy when the petition of the English parliament to the pope in 1530 failed to persuade him to annul the marriage of Henry and Catherine. It was the English Church on its own that annulled the marriage, allowing the king to marry his second wife Anne Boleyn, herself much influenced by the teachings of Luther. Gradually Luther’s teaching was gaining ground here, though Henry VIII himself resisted substantial change in religious practice.
Looking back five hundred years later at the Reformation and at the so-called Counter Reformation that followed in the Roman Catholic Church, we see the terrible loss of life through martyrdom on both sides of the divide. We wonder at the bitterness and also at the courage and determination of those who would rather die than deny their version of the Christian faith. And we thank God that, on 31st October this year, the leaders of all the Christian denominations in these islands will be present together to mark the quincentenary. At that great service we shall pray that the Churches can together proclaim more confidently the beautiful story of the love of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ.
Westminster Abbey was inevitably much involved in the story of confusion and division in those years. There were moments when the uncertainty was so great that those involved in the life of the Abbey then feared for its survival. Through the 1530s, Thomas Cromwell was raging through England dissolving the monasteries. Many of them were simply razed to the ground; others became country houses for the great; a few became diocesan cathedrals. The Abbey became in 1540 the cathedral of a new diocese of Westminster. It could easily have been otherwise. The great abbey at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, the burial place of St Edmund, the 9th century king and martyr, was destroyed.
In 1540, we stood at the brink; we faced a cliff edge; we could have dropped into oblivion. But this was by no means the only moment in the long history of the Abbey, of the Church more widely, even of our nation.
We mark today the feast of the translation of St Edward, king and confessor, the anniversary of the date when, in 1163, two years after his canonisation, and again in 1269, his remains were moved to a new shrine. In 1538, the monks facing dissolution were concerned that the remains of the saint might be violated by the reformers. They dismantled the Confessor’s shrine and buried the body secretly. It was only after Mary Tudor had re-established the monastery in 1556 that the monks who had buried the body returned and rebuilt the shrine as we have it today behind the high altar. They stood on the brink; they faced a cliff edge.
So too did the Confessor himself. In 2005, here at the Abbey, we observed the millennium of his birth in the village of Islip, north of Oxford. Edward’s early years were blighted by Viking invasions and raids and he was taken for safety to Normandy in northern France before the reign of the Danish king Cnut. He only returned from exile when Cnut’s son Harthacnut had died in 1042. His death in 1066 was followed by months of turmoil and in October the Norman invasion. That was the end an era and the beginning of a new era.
It is not hard to identify many moments in our national story when we stood on the brink, on a cliff edge.
Take for example 1649, the death of the king, Charles I, by beheading, the culmination of the English civil war. What would become of us? For eleven years, much that had been held dear here in the Abbey was lost. But in 1660, the monarchy was restored and the worship of the Church in the Anglican tradition was restored here too.
Take another moment, much more recent, 1940, when we stood on the brink, alone, facing invasion from Nazi Germany. Much of Europe was subject to dictatorship. And friendly powers stood apart. We survived. Others joined the battle. The war against oppression was won.
Many of us in our personal lives have felt at some time or another that we too stood on the brink, on a cliff edge. Illness or the loss of a loved one or unemployment or confusion about ourselves or family break-up or physical or sexual abuse: all these can leave us uncertain, feeling as though the ground is opening before us and we could easily drop into the abyss.
And many of us in the United Kingdom are aware that nationally we too stand on the brink, face a cliff edge. And we may not be the only nation feeling uncertain about our future.
Our church history, our national history and our personal story should teach us resilience. Everything may have changed. But we have survived. Life has gone on. One of the strange blessings of ministry in a place like this is seeing people who have been in deep mental turmoil recovering, again in their right minds, and strengthened by their experience of fresh healing and wholeness.
Our faith teaches us that nothing can defeat us if we trust in God. We believe in the revelation of God the almighty Father through his Son our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. And ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ The life, death and resurrection of our Lord reveal to us the ultimate truth that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
During the distribution of Holy Communion, the choir will sing a psalm that teaches us ‘Blessed are those who fear the Lord and delight in his commandments. The righteous will not fear.’ Fear God alone. Let us not be afraid. Whatever demons we see in our own lives, whatever we face as a universal and local Church, whatever we confront as a family, as a community, as a nation, when we face the cliff edge: be not afraid.