The Dean's Sermon

The Very Reverend John Hall Dean of Westminster

Saturday, 2nd December 2006

Jacob was afraid, and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.' Genesis 28: 17

The word installation these days strikes an odd note for the inauguration of a new ecclesiastical ministry. Several people have commented to that effect. It is more familiar for new computer software, or a labyrinthine structure in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, or a central heating system. It occurred to me that I might try to follow the lead of Archbishop Sentamu, who asked churchwardens from the pulpit of York Minster - you might have seen it in the recent TV series - whether they were radiators or drainpipes. The word installation might provide equally vivid reflections on the meaning for Westminster Abbey of central heating, or of software or of labyrinthine structures. The result could have been interesting. But on balance I think you might be relieved to know it was a passing thought.

These modern uses are all metaphorical derivatives from the word's original meaning, that of being placed in a stall. The Sub-dean has placed me in the Dean's stall in choir. He has placed me in the Dean's seat in the sacrarium. Before the service ends he will place me in the Dean's stall in Henry VII's chapel, the Chapel of the Order of the Bath, where I shall say the customary daily prayer for the Queen and members of the Royal Family and for the brotherhood of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath.

Each of these three moments of installation bears for me particular significance as I think of the ministry of the Abbey. Installation in the choir speaks of the centrality of daily worship, sometimes known as the Divine Office, the heart of the Abbey's life. Installation in the sacrarium, before the High Altar, next to the shrine of the Abbey's great benefactor, St Edward King and Confessor, speaks of the welcome the Abbey offers to guests - tourists, visitors, pilgrims - whether they are observers or enquirers, fellow travellers or companions with us on the journey, seeking the food of wayfarers, the esca viatorum. Installation in Henry VII's chapel, the home of the Order of the Bath, where the Sovereign's banner flies over the Dean's stall, which is Her Majesty's when she is present, speaks of the inseparable link between Church and State in England, of which this great place, the Coronation Church, is the most potent symbol.

I shall say something about each of these moments of installation in turn.

One of John Betjeman's television films, broadcast again earlier this year to celebrate the centenary of his birth, showed a country parson tolling the bell for Matins and saying it alone and aloud in his stall, as he did every day. There was no irony or mockery in the film, just a sense that this daily work on behalf of his people was at the heart of what he was there to do. The parson was not only part of an unbroken historical tradition for perhaps hundreds of years in that place but also part of a world-wide web of constant prayer and worship offered to almighty God. He said the daily offices not just for himself but for all those who lived in his, whatever they thought or believed, whether they knew or cared what he did. He was not truly alone. He said the daily offices in the company of all praying Christians throughout the world and throughout the Christian millennia.

In the Abbey, we know that our daily office is not said alone. The presence with us of Christians from throughout the world and of all traditions is a potent reminder of the universal Church, a reminder that we pray in a great living company. The daily sacrifice of prayer and praise has been offered here unbroken since the collegiate church was established in 1560and before that in the monastic community of which this present building is heir, from the foundation of the Abbey by St Dunstan in 960. It should not be an astonishing thought, but somehow it is, of that thread through the ages, linking us with the great company "on another shore and in a greater light".

The worship offered here has always been strengthened and enriched by music, whether the plainsong or polyphony of ancient years still enjoyed today, or the increasingly rich and demanding music of the modern era. The contribution made to the daily worship of almighty God by the Abbey's choral foundation today rightly enjoys unequalled respect in the musical world and in the Church. It is one of the mysteries of this age that church music of every era is enjoying an extraordinary renascence in the concert hall, on the radio and on CD, whilst being increasingly threatened in the very places that alone celebrate its true meaning. I was not surprised during a broadcast of the Proms this year to hear a concert described as a religious experience.

Here the organists and choir offer the commitment of their skill, art and dedication to the glory of almighty God, and in the proper religious context. It is no wonder that cathedrals and the Abbey attract huge crowds for the festivals. If the great English tradition of choral music of which we are heirs could be revived in the parish churches of our land, what a joy that would be.

Westminster Abbey is above all a place of encounter with the living God. Here The truly amazing thought is that the ladder is set up on earth; its top reaches to heaven. Here the angels of God ascend and descend. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

The second installation was in the sacrarium, by the High Altar, after which I went through to pray at the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the Abbey's principal founder and benefactor. Though I am now guardian of the shrine, I also come as a pilgrim to pray in union with the saint and to be encouraged as a wayfarer on my journey to heaven. I prayed at the shrine over a year ago, after the great Eucharist celebrating the millennium of Edward's birth. Then I was in the company of a steady stream of people passing through the doors in the High Altar screen. Some came from churches dedicated in honour of the saint; others for the reason of some personal devotion to the saint. I shall be keen to learn how the Abbey sustains and develops a link with such pilgrims, as well as our own sense of being pilgrims.

The Abbey receives over a million visitors a year. Many come as tourists. We've all had the experience of being tourists in a strange city. We arrive curious. We quickly receive impressions, make judgements. We easily become blaze or exhausted: churches, galleries, palaces, public spaces; all too many; too much to appreciate. We need time and space to cleanse the jaded palate. That is of course true of life, not just of tourism. If we are true to our calling, we shall offer wayfarers solid food for their journey to heaven, helping them on their way as pilgrims.

What others have done will encourage us. The pioneering educational work at St Alban's some years ago has led to a great flowering of school visits to cathedrals and shrines. The national framework for Religious Education requires such visits, helping children learn not just about religion but from religion, and become not just religiously literate but religiously educated. The network of education officers for cathedrals, shrines and great churches leaves few gaps. I am keen to learn the part the Abbey plays.

Much is good. The terrible old hubbub in the nave has given way to a sense of calm as groups and individuals walk round with their audio-guide. The faithful work of day chaplains, a full week's stint, offering hourly prayer and pastoral ministry, enables many to know they are in a place of worship where they can meet God. The experience can surely be truly transformative if the opportunity is grasped for sensitive sharing of the religious life of the Abbey and its wider significance.

The wider significance of the Abbey links to reflections on my third installation, yet to come, in Henry VII's chapel, the chapel of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. This installation will prompt in me thoughts of the Abbey's power as a symbol of the intimate connections between Church and State in the service of Crown and People. This need be no empty symbol; it has the power to be a signum significans, a sign that effects what it signifies. The connection between Church and State is not of course unambiguous or univocal; neither Church nor State is in thrall to the other; it probably never was. In any case the partnership changes and develops with time. But arguments from the Church that the Gospel would be better served through the abandonment of Establishment miss the point that the outcome of a match is better influenced on the field of play than from the touch-line. And similar arguments from some of the Fourth Estate for a secular public space miss the point. First a truly secular state has never been achieved - both the French model of laicite and the United States model of separation are in practice highly ambiguous. Secondly our rich and complex history makes us what we are as a nation; we cannot start afresh elsewhere. Thirdly, human beings' religious instinct properly affects all our lives, our work, our relationships, our public and private commitments.

Partnership between Church and State in education is particularly powerful, borne of almost two centuries of experience. It exemplifies an aspect of the role of the Church of England as the largest but by no means the only partner with the State. Whilst there are almost 5,000 Church of England schools in the maintained system, as Chief Education Officer for the past eight years, I have worked as a close colleague of the Roman Catholic and other churches and faith communities with schools. The Establishment of the Church of England means there is space for religious thought and action at the heart of our national life and room for other denominations and faiths alongside the Church. I would only criticise the increasing tendency of some Departments of Government to treat the faith communities indiscriminately and collectively as minorities within society. A great majority of the people of these islands identify themselves as Christians and feel strong links with their local church.

Westminster Abbey is particularly well placed to serve the partnership between Church and State in the 21st century. In the first place are the obvious historical and geographical reasons: the Abbey has a thousand years of experience in the role; and is where it is. In the second place, the Abbey's status as a Royal Peculiar accords it a subtle detachment from some of the daily concerns of Church and State, though that status should not beguile us into living to ourselves or developing a stance of detached criticism. To fulfil a vocation to serve the partnership, the Abbey needs to be at the very heart of the Church.

There is so much more I could say, and shall in time. I end encouraged by John's apocalyptic vision. He saw "the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city." He saw the tree of life "and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." I commit my ministry as Dean of Westminster to serving this vision and preserving this Abbey, as it has been for a thousand years, as none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven, none other than an open channel of God's gracious power and love, for the sake of Crown and People, for this City and for the healing of the nations.