Sermon at the Installation of Tricia Hillas as Canon of Westminster - Revelation 3:14

The Factory Act and The Slavery Abolition Act. A year of change and urgent reforming opinion - firm jaws, glittering eyes.

Sunday, 9th May 2021 at 6.36 AM

1833 – the year of The Factory Act and The Slavery Abolition Act. A year of change and urgent reforming opinion - firm jaws, glittering eyes. Not everyone was convinced, however. The Speaker, in 1833, was Charles Manners Sutton, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and he was no supporter of Reform. He was ‘amiable’ they said and kept a good table. Here in the Abbey, meanwhile things were worse. Dean Ireland was growing very rich indeed on the profits of office. They suggested, he just could not feel the winds of change.

The profits of office were an issue in those days and over the road steps were taken. The Commons, of course, was not so rude as to talk about the Dean. The Commons was much more worried about its Chaplain.

In 1833, a Commons Chaplain was not paid a stipend. Instead, after a reasonable period, say two or three years, there would be a special reward. The Chaplain would be offered the chance to step into the sunlit uplands of a canonry at Westminster Abbey, or (for the less favoured) perhaps Windsor, or Christchurch, Oxford. The profits of office.

The Commons was beginning to think that this was not the way to do things and that there was an unpleasant smell hanging over their Chaplain. The Select Committee on the establishment of the House reported.

Appointment to high and dignified offices in the Church become dependent not upon possession of distinguished learning or piety, but upon the exercise of the moderate duties required by the Chaplain of the House of Commons.

Today we reunite two offices that have been held apart for the last ten years - Chaplain to Mr Speaker and Canon of Westminster. We rejoice and we can note that we have been debating just how this relationship works for a very long time. Today we celebrate a renewed unity of purpose. I am delighted to thank Mr Speaker and his colleagues for getting us to this place and I welcome Tricia to the Abbey.

All those years ago, that Select Committee wanted to be sure that in ‘high and dignified office’ in the church we would see distinguished learning and piety. I can assure you that Tricia has both. She has been tested in an application process and in interview, and she comes to us of course, having already had a distinguished ministry as a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral.

There is a breadth of experience in Tricia - born in Kuala Lumpur but brought up also in Lincoln, a social worker, a parish priest – experience she has seasoned into wisdom. There is a little bit of restless energy too, she has a touch of wanderlust and travels widely. She brings that to the Abbey coupled with her great pastoral gifts. We have named as our Archdeacon with pastoral responsibility in this community.

She has an interest too in how we welcome our visitors and how we handle pressing questions of inclusion. We are so much the stronger for having her here.

And then there is that critical business of her being Chaplain to Mr Speaker and Canon of Westminster. Let’s think about that for a moment with a bit of help from the Book of Revelation which we have just heard read.

Now… what we heard was a letter, a letter to the Church in Laodicea. It was a real letter, to real people in a real place. It was though also part of that very tricky Book called Revelation. Most of us are familiar with letters – we are used to reading letters that look backwards, we get a lot of then at Christmas, telling us what happened when young Tarquin sat grade eight, and how the family spent August in the Bahamas and how the hotel was so perfect and how everyone was eye-wateringly glamorous.

Revelation does not look backward to bask on past success. Revelation looks forward to what should be. The Book of Revelation knows two things. It knows, first, that the worlds is not all that glamorous, evil walks abroad. It knows, second, that there will be a different future for us when God’s righteousness and justice are made known.

This (things as they are) and That (things as they will be) stand in contrast and are radically different. All those years ago, we made a difference by reform, Factory Acts, campaigns and select committees. We worked hard to make the world a little better. Firm jaw, glittering eyes, remember? Those tweaks and adjustments, that effort is not what Revelation talks about. Revelation is interested in radical change, a new creation - angels and fire.

Revelation looks forward because it has seen into heaven and into a future that is more certain and, if you like, more real, than anything we see, around us. Revelation has seen the height and depth, the greatness and glory of God; it has seen what we can barely imagine.

Revelation has seen into heaven. So, it looks around at our compromises and accommodations with a pretty baleful gaze and the Church in Laodicea gets short shrift.

I know your works… you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. Revelation 3:15-16.

The commentaries tell you that water, from local hot springs, arrived in Laodicea neither cold nor hot. Good for nothing in short – you could not drink it and you could not cook with it. It was useless. As the writer of Revelation looked to the future, he called the Laodiceans useless. They were distracted by their wealth, useless because they would not face the future.

Tricia, you are installed as Canon of Westminster, you already serve as Chaplain to Mr Speaker, because you will face the future. You will speak of that future, you will strive for that future. All those years ago, Parliament wondered if what were then the very ‘moderate’ duties of a Chaplain in the Commons equipped you with the voice we would need in the Abbey. Could they give us what we wanted? Times change.

More recently I think there have been those who have wondered if we in the Abbey could ever offer to Mr Speaker what he needs. Today and here there is a renewed confidence that two great institutions in our national life can have a common conversation and that you and others might move between them as a force for good, as a glimpse of the future.

In a pandemic that has unlaced the ties that bind, in debates about race, gender, national identity and global relationships we have all become too used to standing apart. We are a divided people. There is a market place of opinion and so many different people shouting out their wares. What W B Yeats called the ‘arrogance and hatred’ that is peddled in the thoroughfares.

In Parliament, and in the Abbey, we share a common interest in the future, in making our hope live and breathe. We have a common commitment to finding a language that can hold us in conversation and promote agreement. We do our work differently, Parliament and Abbey imagine differently and act differently, but if we are to do anything well we must both face the future and ask what it demands of us.

Note that word us. Revelation wrote letters to seven churches and when Revelation imagined the future it imagined a city, the pace where many people live together. The future is the place we arrive together.

I think it is your calling Tricia to remind us of responsibilities to one another, to relationship, generosity of spirit, the grace of good disagreement, the humour and the gift of friendship. That your two callings can once again be held together is the mark of a renewed confidence that relationship and conversation matter, it is worth the effort.

The hard work is not in fashioning vision and hammering out fine phrases. The hard work is not in sermons, blogs or speeches, not even in drafting legislation or a manifesto. The hard work is in building trust, forgiving error, putting te whole before the self. That we see you as one who can help us both better face the future as one who can sustain relationship is the measure of our admiration for you.

So may God bless you in this place and in the House of Commons. God bless the work you will do alongside Canon Ball the Rector of St Margaret’s. May you be one amongst us who has listened to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. And may God give you grace and joy.