Dedication Festival Eucharist 2008
19 October 2008 at :00 am
During the days when I was the Church of England's chief education officer, I was contacted by one of the leading advisers to the government. This man was a former professor of education who had once advised the Department for Education on improving standards in our schools. Now he was more widely responsible for ensuring that the government were delivering as far as possible on all their commitments, expressed as targets, especially in health and education. No small task. He was of course finding it difficult; perhaps he was looking for allies. When he came to see me, he simply proposed a thesis about the role of the Church in England and asked me a question.
His thesis was that the Church in England, and especially the Church of England, had at one time provided most of the glue that gave cohesion to society, that brought together and bound communities. His question was whether the Church would still have the power in the 21st century to have that role in society.
It seemed to me an interesting thesis and I very much wanted the answer to be Yes. I wanted to say that the Church had been glue for communities and that it still was, or at least had the power to be. On the day when we commemorate the Dedication of this great Abbey Church, it is no bad thing to turn our attention to the role of the Church in our society. It could help us focus on the role and purpose of Westminster Abbey and of the great church in which we are worshipping at the heart of the Abbey community. So let us consider the question.
A moment's thought will lead us to recognise that the answer will be different for various parts of the country and various communities. Let's consider first a rural community, far from any town or city, a community of farms and scattered houses and hamlets. Such a community will almost certainly have a church; it is much less likely to have a school, or a village shop with a post office, for they are fast disappearing; more likely to have a public house. In the most picturesque of these villages the amenities will gather round a village green with a pond. That gives an ideal picture of rural England. But only the village church is more or less guaranteed, and the chances are that they will share their parson with six, seven or more other villages. At the other end of the scale is another sort of community where the church is quite likely to be the only non-domestic building. There are vast 20th century housing estates on the outskirts of towns and cities, almost all of them built in the wake of the Second World War in order to give the dwellers in the slums of the great cities houses with bathrooms and gardens. These noble aims were not often matched in the 1950s and 1960s with adequate community provision in terms of shops and pubs, libraries and assembly halls, art galleries, cinemas and theatres: all the rich variety of resources to which we are accustomed in the great cities of the world. The result is often boredom, crime, devastation. All too frequently the parish church is the only service to the community apart from schools and medical and social centres; certainly the only one where the professional involved lives on the estate.
In these two contexts, it is often the case that the church provides as well as any other organisation and better than most the glue that binds the community. It is frequently an uphill struggle and a thankless task and there is often failure, but the church is there, perhaps feeling marginalised and unloved, but often in fact of greater importance than can easily be seen from the numbers of people regularly committed to attendance. If a diocese proposes the closure of a church, or indeed the church council proposes significant changes, there is often an outcry of surprising proportions. I was told recently by the editor of Country Life that a guaranteed means of increasing his circulation is to put a picture of a church on the front cover.
In city and town centres the church's role is often rather different and more obvious; in the suburbs its character is different again, as it is in communities where there are large numbers of adherents of other faiths. In any case, the scope of the question - whether the church can still provide the glue to bind communities - is beyond this sermon to answer satisfactorily. Three points however are worth noting. First, the proportion of people in this country who enter or attend a church through the course of a year to attend worship or for any other purpose is higher than the proportion that enter any other kind of non-domestic building, almost nine out of every ten people. Second, surveys suggest that active Christians form the bulk of people engaged in community service of various kinds. Third, as a direct result of particular church and charitable initiatives there are more parish churches open to the community day by day and making active provision for community events now than there have been in the recent past.
This should be encouraging. The very word itself "religion" seems likely to have come from the Latin word "ligare" which means to bind, coupled with the prefix "re-" meaning perhaps "again." So, etymologically, according to the derivation of the meaning of the word, religion's basic purpose should be to "bind together", to be the glue in the community, in the community of faith and between the individual and God.
It is time to apply this discussion to Westminster Abbey. During the past week, the Abbey community has been observing the feast of St Edward the Confessor, who reigned as King of England from 1042 to 1066 and re-built the Abbey beside his new Palace of Westminster. His motive was clear: to create a powerful symbol at the heart of national life of the Church binding together his Kingdom. There was already an Abbey here founded a hundred years before by St Dunstan the Archbishop of Canterbury in 960 during the reign of King Edgar. There might have been a church and a religious community here before that, but whether or not that is the case is lost in the mists of time. But we know for certain that Edward the Confessor's church was consecrated here on 28th December 1065. It continued to be important for the Church to bind together the Kingdom, when two hundred years later, King Henry III built this great Gothic Church and Abbey, to replace the Romanesque Church and Abbey Edward had built. This current Church, with its glorious shrine of St Edward the Confessor, consecrated on 13th October 1269, refreshed the symbol of the Church binding together the Kingdom.
Through the last seven centuries, Westminster Abbey has continued to have such a role. If the anointing and coronation of the Monarch here is the symbolic high point of that role, the burial and memorialisation here of all the greatest men and women of our national story is another powerful sign, as is the frequency with which I receive requests that the Abbey commemorate undoubtedly worthy men and women or hold special services of commemoration and recognition of an anniversary or an event.
Westminster Abbey is still, as it always has been, at the very epicentre of our national life, symbolising the public role of the Christian religion within our national discourse, focussing the truth that our faith and religious life can still and indeed do provide the glue that binds together the community of our land.
May I ask that together we thank God for the opportunities this provides and pray for strength that the Abbey might continue to fulfil our distinctive role and high calling, to the glory of Almighty God and for the good of the Church and People of this City, Nation and Commonwealth?