St Peter the Apostle sermon 2009

29 June 2009 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

This morning in Rome during a papal Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, Vincent Nichols, the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, in the company of twenty two other archbishops from many parts of the world, was invested with the pallium. The pallium is worn by the Pope and by metropolitan archbishops as a sign of the authoritative link between them. It is a circlet of wool, marked at intervals by a cross, which goes over the head and is extended half-way down the chest and back. From front and back it looks like the letter Y. The ceremony takes place in Rome every year on the feast of St Peter and St Paul, at which the gospel reading we heard just now celebrates the authority of Peter. At Caesarea Philippi, after he had confessed his faith in Jesus as the Son of the living God, Simon the fisherman received from his master a new and symbolic name, “You are Peter,* and on this rock* I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

The relationship between Westminster Abbey, whose patron saint is St Peter, and the Bishop of Rome, whose papal chapel is the saint’s burial place, was immensely strong for many centuries. A dispute in 1222 about whether the Bishop of London has any authority over the Abbey was settled to the satisfaction of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, with other bishops. They decided that a charter of St Dunstan in 960 was genuine and remained in force. It gave away every right over the Abbey that the Bishop of London had ever claimed or was ever likely to claim. A further document embodying these conclusions with the attesting bishops’ seals is among the most important of the Abbey’s muniments, with the original charter. So, the medieval Westminster Abbey always answered direct to the Pope. Abbots of Westminster would go to Rome to have their election confirmed. All this was to change in 1540 when Henry VIII dissolved the monastery and claimed his own royal jurisdiction over the Abbey, known as a Royal Peculiar ever since, with its Dean directly answerable to the Sovereign.

Last Wednesday was the 500th anniversary of the coronation in this Abbey Church of the very king who was to make the break. Henry VIII’s father Henry VII had died on 21st April 1509 and was to be buried in the Lady Chapel he had built. Now, on 24th June 1509, the new king was anointed and crowned in this Abbey Church, with his new wife Catherine of Aragon, a few days before his 18th birthday. Many years later in 1534 and in very different circumstances, Henry was to declare himself Head of the Church of England. The royal supremacy took the place in England and Wales of papal supremacy.

The Abbey’s history and this feast together encourage us once again to consider the question of authority in the Church, papal or Petrine authority on the one hand, and on the other, the royal supremacy and the nature of authority in modern Anglicanism. Last year at this Eucharist I developed the theme of the primacy of honour accorded in the first few centuries of the Church to the successor of Peter. I had in mind a distinction between on the one hand the authority derived from the Matthean gospel text mentioned earlier coupled with the authority of Rome itself as the head of an empire and on the other the immediate universal jurisdiction claimed by the Pope in our own day.

We have just passed the tenth anniversary of the death of Cardinal Hume, the 9th Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. In a 70th birthday interview with the Tablet in 1993 Basil Hume spoke of papal authority as a reassurance. He implied that he himself and other bishops did not need to interpret the Christian faith, since the Pope was there to provide the authoritative answer. An Anglican response would be to say that such a view of the papacy gives too little respect to the gifts of the Holy Spirit not only to the Bishops of the Church but to all God’s holy people. The process of perceiving Christian truth especially in times of change is complicated and demanding. We can see that, in the Anglican Communion, over issues of sexuality and, in the Church of England, currently over the question of the ordination of women as bishops. But perceiving Christian truth cannot be left to a single person or a small group of people; it should engage the whole people of God led by all the Bishops. Such a process will never be easy; it pays the price of being inevitably public and messy. It may leave us wondering whether the more centralised authority of Rome is not preferable, even with the constant tension that exists between the Vatican and the Bishops’ conferences.

The Act of Supremacy by which Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534 declared the King rather than the Pope to have supreme authority over the Church of England: “… be it enacted, by authority of this present Parliament, that the king, our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia.” This was not of course the beginning of the Church of England, but the beginning of a new phase in the ancient history of the Church in these lands. Elizabeth I when in 1559 she restored the Act of Supremacy, which had been repealed by her half-sister Mary I, refused the title Head of the Church, recognising that Christ alone is the head of his Body the Church, calling herself instead Supreme Governor, a title held by all her successors to the present time.

Now is not the time, despite the quincentenary, to examine Henry VIII’s motives for the break with Rome, though we have not held a great celebration at the Abbey of the 500th anniversary of his coronation and we continue to pray and work for reconciliation between Canterbury and Rome. It is often said by critics of the royal supremacy and of the Establishment, both within the Church and without, that State rule is an odd way to govern a Sacred Body.

Odd it may be, but it has had two distinct positive effects, and “by their fruits shall ye know them.” The first positive effect relates to the role of the Church of England as a spiritual servant of all the people of this land, about which there is much more to be said than time will allow. The second derives from the gradual democratisation of royal power through Parliament in the past five centuries and with it the involvement of lay people in the governance of the Church. Moreover, since 1919, the Church has taken effective control of its own affairs from Parliament. Every five years, The Queen comes to Westminster Abbey for a Eucharist before the inauguration of the General Synod of the Church of England. The General Synod is an elected body representing the Bishops, Clergy and Laity of the Church that serves for a fixed term of five years. It has considerable power even over the worship and doctrine of the Church, though it may not abolish the Book of Common Prayer. The key point here about authority in the Church is that elected clergy and laity have a role in the process of applying eternal Christian truth in each generation; in the Anglican tradition it is not a matter for Bishops or the Pope alone and the consent of the faithful, stated to be important to Rome, is for Anglicans written into the process.

We shall continue to pray that the Church the Body of Christ will be drawn by Christ into the unity for which he fervently prayed the night before he died. However the Church is governed, whether by Pope and Bishops or by the Bishops with the clergy and the whole people of God, and however dark the outlook might be for Christianity in these islands or in Europe, we look to the Church’s future with confident trust in God. Together with our sister churches, we have the assurance of Christ’s promise to Peter, “I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”


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