Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the feast of the Dedication of Westminster Abbey 2021
Building a Beloved Community with Living Stones
The Reverend Canon Carl Turner Rector, Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York, USA
Sunday, 17th October 2021 at 11.15 AM
I bring you greeting from the city that never sleeps, though at the midst of the lockdown in early 2020, New York resembled more a ghost town than a busy metropolis. Soon, the Presidential Decree will come to an end and after twenty long months, we look forward to welcoming the Dean next year and the Friends of Westminster Abbey from both sides of the Atlantic.
Saint Thomas Church stands on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street in the center of Manhattan. It is an oasis of prayer on the busiest shopping street of the world. Father John Andrew, the eleventh Rector and former chaplain to Archbishop Michael Ramsey, describes falling in love with this church in his first book of published sermons with these words: “Most of the English cathedrals were known to me. But I was taken aback by this place, with all its splendor, its familiarity, as if it and I had known each other forever. The mutual recognition hit me with the force of a blow, and I knelt where I was. I got up knowing that life and my life were in some way to be shared. When I came out, I was secretly betrothed.” 1.
Being brought to one’s knees by the beauty of a Church is not uncommon. Although we are about 3500 miles apart, Westminster Abbey and Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue have more in common than you might imagine. Perhaps the most important being that we unashamedly make the worship of God our first priority. And we both do that in a unique way, for Saint Thomas Church and Westminster Abbey are the only two Anglican Foundations that residential Choir Schools in the World (though I think yours is just a wee bit older than ours in New York!)
It is unlikely that you will know the history of Saint Thomas Church; we celebrate our bicentennial of founding in 2023. The current building on Fifth Avenue is the fourth iteration of a church dedicated to Saint Thomas. We have not been very fortunate with buildings since two of them were destroyed by fire, which is possibly why the Vestry decided to build the fourth Church in stone. But what a church they commissioned! And here is the connection with Westminster Abbey across the miles and in spite of the years. The architects, Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue created a Gothic masterpiece as authentic and sumptuous as any of the great Gothic churches of Europe—yes, even Westminster Abbey- because there was to be nothing false about it—stone upon stone, and a ribbed vault that bears its own weight because it was built in the same way a fourteenth-century Cathedral of England or France was built. And, at 95 feet tall, it is almost as tall as the nave of this Abbey Church, and a little bit wider. So, strangely, it can never be described as ‘Gothic revival’ for, as John Andrew famously said, “Not neo-Gothic. Gothic. Mysteriously, the flame of Gothicism had leaped five centuries and four thousand miles, to burn gloriously on Fifth Avenue.”
Listen to these words of Ralph Adam Cram, one of the architects of this church, written in 1914:
“Architecture was, as always, the beginning;
but it was far from being the end.
Stone carving came to floriate shaft and cornice,
pinnacle, panel, and niche;
Sculpture to crowd every aperture with saints and angels;
Painting and gilding to make all burn with radiant fire;
Glass-making to pierce the opaque walls and
set there fields of apocalyptic glory;
Needlework to hang rich arras over cold stone, to clothe altars,
shrines, and priests in iridescent vestments;
Mosaic to sheet arch and vault in burnished gold
and azure and vermilion;
Metal work to fashion screens and candelabra of iron
and bronze and brass;
Joinery to raise wainscot of intricate tracery;
Goldsmithing to furnish shrines and reliquaries and sacred
vessels of precious metals and precious stones;
Poetry to create great hymns and canticles;
Drama to build up a supreme ritual;
Music to breathe the breath of divine life into all.” 2.
And there is the key—another connection across many centuries and many miles—Music to breathe the breath of divine life into all—that fills our sacred spaces and connects us in a kind of organic way.
In the second story of creation in the Book of Genesis, God creates Adam from the dust of the earth and then we read that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2: 8) The word for Adam and the word for dust from the ground are related in Hebrew—the first human being and the first earth are physically related.
In a similar way, the creation of Westminster Abbey and Saint Thomas Church New York out of limestone is related to those of us who inhabit those places. Just as the limestone was created hundreds of millions of years ago from the sediment in the great seas of the earth, so our respective church communities are made up of many diverse people whose combined history creates an epic story of life and death, of struggle and joy, of hopes and fears, of a humanity consecrated to God the Creator. Now, Saint Thomas Church may not have as many famous people buried in our nave in New York, but the pattern of our Christian calling is the same. Perhaps, we can be a living example of the great Cosmati Pavement here.
In the First Letter of Peter, we read this invitation, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” (1 Peter 2: 4–5a)
Just as Adam and the ground are related, so the members of the Church are related in an intimate way with the building that they inhabit. As living stones, we become part of this structure bound together in the love of Jesus Christ who calls us into a new and living relationship with him and with one another. As we heard in Pauls’ Letter to the Ephesians, we are “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2: 20–21)
Our church buildings, therefore, are signs of God’s presence not just in the sacredness of the space, but a reminder that we, as Paul said, are to be dwelling places for God. If we become dwelling places for God then it will affect our relationships with one another and help us create a community that will become ever more attractive to others. I suggested at the beginning of my sermon that Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue and Westminster Abbey have more in common that you might realize. You have a clearly articulated mission here at the Abbey, and it resonates with the mission statement of Saint Thomas Church which is—“To worship, love, and serve our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage.” Worship; love; serve. We hold these things in common even though we are 3,500 thousand miles apart for we are bound together in worshipping, loving, and serving our Lord Jesus and by building a Beloved Community.
There are two images on the outside of Saint Thomas Church that are very important to me. At the center of the image screen that adorns the Fifth Avenue façade, immediately beneath the Rood that adorns the apex of the screen, there is a large image of a King holding a cross. It is the largest image on that façade and it is Saint Edward the Confessor. Underneath his image are carved the armorial bearings of St Edward which, of course, make up part of the Abbey’s own crest. Now, strangely, in the Episcopal Church Calendar, we do not keep the feast of St Edward at all (perhaps it is to do with a certain revolutionary war!) so it is a beautiful irony that he fills the central niche on the front of my church and beneath it are words from the Te Deum—the Song of the Church—Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ.
Just to the left of the image screen, on the Tower is another image that, for once, it predates one of yours! During the Civil Rights Movement the then Rector and Vestry decided to fill four empty niches with images of emancipators: William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln and then, overlooking Fifth Avenue, Mary McLeod Bethune—a daughter of former slaves and one of the most important black educators and civil and women’s rights leaders of the twentieth century who became the highest ranking African American woman in the government of Franklyn Roosevelt. Next to her in his preaching gown, is Dr Martin Luther King Jr who, as you know, is also depicted on the West front of this Abbey Church. Edward the Confessor and Martin Luther King Jr; from different continents and different ages, both stand there for their belief in building the Beloved Community that Jesus gave his life for.
Building a Beloved Community demands radical change, brought about by love. In 1957 Martin Luther King Jr, after being attacked and threatened, was asked about responding to hate with violence. He said this: “Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies.” 3.
My friends, that is the radical love that we preach and live by day-by-day here in this Abbey Church and thousands of miles away in New York. It is the radical love of Jesus who showed us the way to the Father; the radical, no, outrageous love of the forgiveness of sins, which flows from his heart broken for those sins on the cross; broken through hate and evil in our world. It is the same radical love that is at the heart of our respective communities, in both of our Choir Schools, in all our music-making, in our worshipping, in our small acts of hospitality and welcome; in worshipping, loving, and serving our Lord Jesus Christ. It is this way of love that that we celebrate today—look around you—this place is filled with the possibility of it changing the world.
Why do we celebrate the anniversary of the Dedication of a Church? Because, in the words of my Presiding Bishop, “we are called to become the Beloved Community whose way of life is the way of Jesus and his way of love.” 4.
- From ‘Nothing Cheap and Much that is Cheerful’ by John Andrew, 1988, Erdmans, Mich. Page xiii.
- From ‘Church Building – A study of the Principles of Architecture in their relation to the Church’ by Ralph Adams Cram. Second Edition 1914. Pub. Small, Maynard, & Company, Boston. Page 219
- From Martin Luther King’s column in the Magazine ‘Ebony’ - November 1957
- The Most Rev. Michael Curry: Statement on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 in New York.