Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on St Peter's Day, 2021
The life of our heavenly patron St Peter reminds us that even when we get it wrong, the love of Christ will hold us close.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian and Almoner
Tuesday, 29th June 2021 at 5.00 PM
Earlier this afternoon, a group from the collegiate body—the corporate entity which was unique to Westminster Abbey’s refoundation in 1560—was supposed to go and view the archaeology on a site just fifty yards from here, on the Abbey’s North Green. Whilst currently covered, this is the site on which once stood the Great Sacristy, built in 1251 as a storage area for vestments and vessels, and in which the Abbey’s clergy would vest for Mass. The Sacristy was turned into a house in the mid-sixteenth century, and was in a dilapidated state by the time Sir Christopher Wren was complaining about its problematic proximity to the walls of the Abbey Church. The archaeology on this site has proved fascinating. We have a glimpse of the Abbey’s deep structure. There are 11th century monastic graves, fragments of medieval wall paintings, and great chunks of masonry reused from St Edward the Confessor’s church, including the remains of a large holy water stoup, the use of which would have reminded countless thousands of their baptism. The whole Abbey precinct is a palimpsest on which so much has been written, re-written, erased, partially obscured, refreshed. This is a place where fabric has been altered, rearranged and beautified, where communities have found spiritual refreshment and spiritual challenge, where lament has been voiced alongside celebration and rejoicing. A large black slab in the south cloister, installed by the great nineteenth century Dean Stanley, records the burial place of 26 monks of Westminster who died during a previous pandemic, the Black Death, in 1348. They rest near their Abbot, Simon de Bircheston, who died of the same plague a year later, his original epitaph now obscured and replaced by some modern lettering.
When a great church was built here—a West Minster—London already had an East Minster, the Cathedral of St Paul in the East. St Peter’s, here in the West, placed our emerging capital under the patronage of the two princes of the apostles, Peter and Paul; an enduring Christian legacy for our city and our nation which marks out London’s geography even today. A legend is told about the consecration of the first church on this site—a boatman was paid to row an anonymous stranger across the waters of the Thames to this Thorney Island, where the boatman waited only to hear the songs of the angels. The next morning, when the Abbey was due to be consecrated, holy oil was already wet on the consecration crosses which were set into its thick stone walls. The legend became that the anonymous stranger was St Peter himself—the Prince of the Apostles having consecrated his own Church. Archaeology, geography, burial and pious tale, all teach us something about deep structure, about fundamentals. They introduce us to those who have gone before us in Christian mission in this place. Today’s Gospel takes us even deeper. The deep structure of the whole Church is revealed as we celebrate our patron St Peter; a deep structure of Christian faithfulness, hope and witness, which has borne Gospel fruit in different ways and at different times.
Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Jesus asks his disciples, using a heavily loaded Hebrew title to refer to himself. Some of them scrabble around some pretty straightforward candidates, John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah, all laden with varying degrees of first-century messianic hope. But then Jesus decides to take off his metaphorical gloves. Speaking directly to the disciples, he personalises it, and asks “But who do you say that I am?” It is, of course, Peter who leaps in head-first. Peter, who would soon witness the transfiguration, brother of the first-called, the irascible, rough fisherman, later to be a denier, even later to be clasped close to Jesus’s breast as he is commissioned over the smell of a breakfast fire. This Peter, strips everything back—the language, the crowds, the tradition—and simply says to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” We are now right at the heart of the deep structure of Christian discipleship and Christian proclamation, and it blazes with life. As a result of Peter’s exclamation, Jesus acclaims Peter as the rock upon which Jesus’s followers would be built. Knowing the rest of the story as we do, not least with Peter’s denial, it seems a pretty risky strategy. We only know of Jesus because of the bravery and the preaching of Peter and his friends. That’s what it means when we celebrate our commitment to the ‘apostolic’ faith in the Creed. This proclamation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is the deep structure of our faith, around which everything else is built. It is this truth which has sustained the martyrs, which has nourished our forebears in times of plague, desolation, restriction and bombing, and it is this faith which is at the heart of our recovery from the current global crisis which has beset the world.
For some years, now, Westminster Abbey has used the phrase ‘Faith at the heart of the nation’ as its strapline. It’s a wonderful phrase, and perhaps trips off the tongue slightly too easily during the good times. How well we know how revealing of the deep structures of a place, a community, a nation, can be painful and disorientating. We can feel exposed, vulnerable, bereaved. All of those emotions have characterised so much of the last months here as elsewhere. But as we emerge now, we have the opportunity to rediscover the fire at the heart of our faith, and the fire at the heart of this place. In other words, now is the time to look into our deep structure.
Gustav Mahler is often quoted as saying “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” It is this kind of tradition—literally a handing over—to which we are committed. Rooted and grounded in Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of the Living God, this commitment should permeate all parts of the Abbey’s life in a way which is generous, abundant, faithful, and excellent. At every move and in every department, we might ask of our Abbey life and mission going forward, “How does this relate to our ‘deep structure’? How does it preserve the fire?” If the Abbey is a palimpsest, what might we write, and how might we be faithful? The life of our heavenly patron St Peter reminds us that even when we get it wrong, the love of Christ will hold us close. If we attend to the deep structure of things, the Gates of Hell will not prevail. Let us approach the altar today as the place of fire, as these Holy Gifts will once again set us alight, rekindling our hope, and restoring our sight.