Choristers’ farewell

13 July 2008 at :00 am

2 Samuel 7: 18 - end; Luke 19: 41 - 20: 8

This Abbey Church was consecrated on 13th October 1269 in the presence of King Henry III, whose idea and inspiration it was to rebuild the Church, as a fitting shrine for his sainted predecessor to whom he had a great personal devotion. The King himself bore the remains of St Edward the Confessor to the new shrine behind the high altar where they rest to this day. He was accompanied by three other bearers: his two sons Edward, later King Edward I, whom he had named after the saint, and Edmund, known as Crouchback, who died young and whose elaborate tomb is immediately to the north of the high altar, and his brother Richard Earl of Cornwall.

The image I have is of a solemn and peaceful occasion, a great ceremony of state. Such it surely was. It was also the culmination of 24 years’ work, since the rebuilding of the Abbey Church had begun in 1245. And yet nothing was finished. Only part of the nave had been built; the great chapels around the triforium had been only just begun. And the country was in turmoil.

The King was determined to move St Edward’s body to the new shrine on 13th October, because it was on 13th October 1163 that King Henry II, in the presence of Thomas a Becket, his new Archbishop of Canterbury, had enshrined the saint’s body in its second resting place. That translation of Edward the Confessor’s body in 1163 took place just two years after his canonisation. And it had to be in 1269 because, it seems, the liturgical calendar that year exactly and rarely matched that of 1163. Both these occasions were no doubt solemn and magnificent, speaking of order and peace. And yet, the country was in turmoil.

So it was on 13th October 1265 when King Henry III attended in regal state a solemn celebration of the Saint’s feast in this Abbey still to be consecrated – a moment of peace in the midst of turmoil. 1265 was a brief respite in a civil war between the King and his Noblemen, prominent amongst whom was his own brother-in-law Simon de Montfort. The war, which saw him and his family harried and almost defeated and for some time imprisoned, after eight years culminated in a final battle at Evesham with the brutal death of de Montfort and his followers.

Of course things had not been exactly easy on 13th October 1163, when the body of St Edward the Confessor had been moved for the first time. The story of King Henry II and Thomas a Becket is far better known than that of Henry III and Simon de Montfort. Becket had been Henry II’s chancellor and boon companion and had supported him in his rows with the Church over whether the clergy had the right to avoid tax and live under church laws. Henry, having seen the need to appoint a new archbishop as an opportunity to harness the Church to his will, appointed his friend Thomas Becket. But Thomas changed in 1262 when he doffed the chancellor’s robes and donned the archbishop’s mitre. Now he turned against his friend and defended the Church. Only seven years later his former boon companion King Henry II would utter the fateful words, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” to four of his knights who went on to strike down and murder the Archbishop in his own Cathedral on 29th December 1170. The country was certainly in turmoil then.

Peace in the midst of turmoil; calm in the storm: I sometimes wonder whether that is one of the great attractions of worship here in the Abbey Church. So many people leave the Abbey after Evensong with clear signs of emotion: moist eyes, heartfelt thanks. They have found some rest in busy lives, some quiet and peace in the midst of struggle and turmoil, some sense of order in prevailing chaos. The music plays a vital part, but a said service too makes its impact. People desperately need holy places, shrines, oases in the desert, where they can be refreshed and restored, where they can know again the loving presence of our God and Father. We all need such places. Such a place is the Abbey.

This reflection leads me to two particular inclinations as I prepare, on behalf of the Dean and Chapter and of the whole College, to send eight boys leaving our choir and choir school on their way with our prayers and good wishes and with God’s blessing. The first inclination is this: to thank you all who are leaving, William Fairbairn, Benedict Kearns, William Kitchen, Benedict Morris, Cameron Roberts, Nicholas Trapp, Ashley Waters and Shaun Wood, for all you have contributed through your wonderful music-making to the worshipping life of the Abbey, and to wish you all joy and hope in the future. The second inclination is to say to you all: remember the Abbey in your prayers; remember your need for oases in the desert, rest in the turmoil of life; see the Abbey always, throughout your lives, as your spiritual home; return frequently to the Abbey for spiritual refreshment.

That could be enough. But another thought occurs, of more general relevance, at a time of some turmoil in the world and in the Church of which we are a part. This Abbey and its great Church were constructed in the midst of national conflict, a war between the King and his Barons, a struggle such as would be repeated later in our island history. This beautiful place of order and peace arose out of chaos and tumult.

Nothing worth building, nothing worth achieving, is easily won. That which is of true worth is worth a struggle. Moreover, that which emerges from the fire is truly reliable: as St John in his Revelation said to the Laodiceans, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich” and as St Peter said in his first epistle, “You rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

When the Second World War was proving costly and difficult for the British, on 27th April 1941, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, quoted from a poem, written by Arthur Hugh Clough, first published in 1855.

For while the tired waves vainly breaking
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look! the land is bright.

We should not expect our path to be easy, nor will those of you leaving the choir today always find it so. But it is a royal road, as John Donne said in a sermon in 1627/8 of the end of the journey:

“Into that gate shall they enter, and in that house shall they dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and Identity; no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity.”

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