The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 15th October 2017 at 10.30 AM
The image you see on the front of your service paper this morning is of a beautiful pavement that you can also see in person. It was laid in what we call the Sacrarium, the sacred place in front of the high altar of this Abbey church. The year was 1268. The Abbey in those days was a Benedictine monastery and the abbot Richard de Ware had been in Rome, perhaps in order for the papacy to confirm his election as abbot. The church was being rebuilt and abbot Richard wanted it to be the most beautiful church in the land. He liked what he saw in Rome, with new pavements being laid in the great churches, and wanted the same for the new Abbey church which was funded by the king Henry III and his friends. To quote from the Abbey website, ‘The workmen came from Rome, with a man called Odoricus at their head. The pavement belongs to a type of inlaid stone decoration known as Cosmati work, after one of the families of craftsmen who specialized in it and the technique is called opus sectile, 'cut work'.’ A few years ago, we restored the pavement and exposed it again after a hundred and fifty years to people’s view.
A year after the pavement had been laid, on 13th October 1269, the Abbey church was consecrated, set apart for the service of almighty God. So in two years’ time, on 13th October 2019, we shall mark the 750th anniversary of the consecration, the dedication, of this Abbey church, the third church on this precious site. We hope to have then a great series of celebrations, when we shall look back at the church’s long history here and, I hope, look forward as well. In fact, looking back in order to look forward could be said to be what we do here most characteristically. We mine our history in order to form a brighter future.
Let me give you an example. In my first few months here as Dean, in early 2007, we held a special service to mark the anniversary of the act of the United Kingdom parliament that abolished the trade in slaves. For many decades, ships had left British ports, such as Bristol and Liverpool, and sailed to Africa, where they were loaded with young men, women and children who had been captured and sold as slaves. They were kept in appalling conditions as they were carried across the Atlantic. In the West Indies or in America, they served the rest of their lives as slaves working without pay and mostly without decent care in the cotton and sugar plantations largely owned by British citizens. The slave trade has left a permanent blemish on our history. But one man above all those who cared and laboured for abolition had for decades sought to abolish the trade. That was William Wilberforce, who is buried and memorialised here in the Abbey.
That special service in 2007 marking the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was attended by The Queen and the Prime Minister and two thousand other people, many descended from slaves or from the abolitionists, and it was televised live by the BBC. We did not simply hold the service to remember a great act in the distant past and to celebrate the work of those who strove for abolition. We certainly wanted to highlight the great work, but as an encouragement to people in our own day to take up the cudgels against injustice and cruelty. We were also too well aware that slavery has never in practice been abolished. So we wanted to highlight the incidence of modern slavery.
Last year, the anti-slavery commissioner, appointed by the British government, Kevin Hyland, launched his first annual report here in Westminster Abbey. The Prime Minister, the archbishop of Canterbury and the cardinal archbishop of Westminster, amongst many others, attended the launch. On his website, we are told that over 40 million people live in slavery today and 13,000 potential victims of slavery live in the United Kingdom at this time. The launch of that report would not have happened here if we had not mined our history at that service in 2007 in order to form a better future. We are thinking hard about how we can further engage with this terrifying issue. The people who have been trafficked are often hiding in plain sight and there must be more that can be done. We wish to play our part.
So, typically, here at the Abbey, we excavate or mine our past in order to form a better future. And we have such a past that there is no lack of riches to mine for the benefit of the future. As the past president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, said to me when he was here at the Abbey on a state visit six years ago, ‘Here you have the history not only of England and the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth but of the whole English-speaking world.’ There is a great deal of truth in what he said.
But in fact mining our past in order to form a better future is not just characteristic of the Abbey but of the life and mission of the Christian Church. We look back to the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ 2000 years ago in order to learn from him, his life, his teaching and his mission, and to be inspired to live more like him but more especially to work in the power of his Holy Spirit to serve the vision of the kingdom of God which he proclaimed and to help to make it a reality in the parts of the world we inhabit: our own lives, that of our families, our community, our nation and the wider world.
When we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of a church, we are not thinking only of the old stones that make up the building. They are part of God’s creation going back millennia, that have been excavated and rough-hewn and transported in order to form the building. But what is 750 years against 150 or so million years? We can celebrate the hard work of the architects and builders, the master masons and the carpenters, and those who have beautified the building with organs and monuments and pictures over the centuries and we do. But there is more to a dedication festival than that.
Writing his letter to the Ephesians in a passage we heard a short time ago, St Paul used the metaphor of a building to describe the people who make up the Church. Christ Jesus himself is the corner stone. The apostles and prophets form the foundation of the building. We who believe and trust in him, we who form the life of the contemporary Church, he says, are no longer aliens or strangers but fellow citizens with the saints. We are even now members of God’s household. And we are being built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. It is we ourselves who are the Church. God the Most High does not dwell in places made by human hands, St Stephen said to the Sanhedrin before his martyrdom. It is in human beings, in us, that God dwells, and it is we who form the Church and we who must live out our vocation to grow into a holy temple in the Lord and to represent him to the world around us.
So we mine our past to form a better future, in other words to serve the coming kingdom of almighty God. And the better future for which we strive is not for ourselves but for all those whose lives are blighted by cruelty and inhumanity, all whose opportunities in life are blunted, all who suffer and have suffered injustice, torture, abuse, deprivation, starvation, banishment and dispossession. So the better future for which we strive is directed by God, in companionship with our Lord Jesus Christ and inspired and motivated by the Holy Spirit.
We may be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of religious faith, of the Church, of our communities, nations and world. What we need, though is neither optimism nor pessimism but hope that then inspires us to do all we can in the power of God to transform lives and to renew the Church and to reform the world order. It is our task under God. And a dedication festival is above all a time to renew our commitment to serving these ends.
As we give thanks for our history and mine our past, so we dedicate ourselves to forming a better and brighter future, to spreading by word and deed the good news of God’s all-powerful and transforming love.