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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at a Service to Celebrate the 450th Anniversary of the Collegiate Foundation of St Peter: Friday 21 May 2010

21 May 2010 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

It is impossible for us to know what Queen Elizabeth I thought when she signed the Charter but it would not be surprising if she had thought of the turmoil the Abbey had undergone in the previous twenty years. The Charter makes it clear that she intended to end the turmoil. Of this renewed Collegiate Church, the Charter says that it is ‘in all future times to endure and to be inviolably observed.’ And so it has been for the past 450 years. There seems every reason to suppose it will continue as long as there is time on earth.

More than half of us here, though not I, can expect to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Charter. Even the most foresighted futurologist is unable to tell what in 50 years’ time will be the role of the Abbey or of the School. Although much has changed in the past 50 years, a great deal more, of fundamental importance, has abided. So we are secure in preparing for the Abbey and the School to continue to have particular significance in the life of the nation, Commonwealth and world community.

However, that does not mean we should rest easy. My mind has often turned to the story of John Islip, Abbot from 1500 until his death in 1532. During his years, the nave of the Abbey was completed, around 250 years after the consecration of this building. The Lady Chapel was also rebuilt, the flower and summit of the perpendicular gothic style, a ravishing memorial to Henry VII. At Islip’s death, the building was yet incomplete, as it is now. The western towers were not to be added for another 250 years and, 250 years later, we still have an unfinished crossing lantern. Buildings would not have been the only matter on the Abbot’s mind. Did he, I have wondered, have an inkling of the forthcoming dissolution? Did he die in despair, thinking his life’s work would come to nothing? I imagine rather that he died full of hope and confidence in the future. If so, he would have been justified, despite the ensuing turmoil. Like the Abbey Church itself, his Lady Chapel shines more gloriously now, after the restoration of the end of the last century, than it has at any time in its history.

Through the years after Islip, there was turmoil, but there was also remarkable continuity. To take one example, Christopher Brickett was a chorister in the old monastic Lady Chapel choir, which became the choir of the collegiate foundation. He then attended Westminster School, became a choir man in 1549 and continued in the choir until his death in 1596. And, even today, the religious life of the Abbey he would have known continues fundamentally unchanged, with the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and the daily Eucharist the foundation of the life of the Abbey, just as they have been for a thousand years.

We have much to celebrate in the history and current life of the Abbey - and of the School. At similar celebrations to these in 1760, Dean Zachary Pearce, a former King’s Scholar, paid tribute to Elizabeth I. ‘All of us have been benefited by her royal bounty. Thus planted by her, and duly watered, and skilfully cultivated, the school, from being at first like the grain of mustard seed, has since grown to be a mighty tree. The cabinet and the field, the church and the courts of justice, can show you shining examples of such as were formed under this distinguished method of instruction.’ Especially today, the cabinet enjoys the benefit of a Westminster education.

The coronation church, the nation’s church as sometimes described, this glorious place in which we have the privilege to worship, of which each of us here is a vital part, has provided, through years of turmoil and of triumph, a sign of the presence and love of God at the heart of our nation. Here in Parliament Square, the Abbey is a sign of hope and transcendence for Parliament, the Government and the Judiciary.

But the true glory does not belong to this great building, let alone to ourselves. We make our passing contribution, in School and Abbey, and receive untold benefits. We should think of these benefits as themselves obliging us and equipping us for unselfish living, for servant leadership, for vigorous endeavour to the benefit of God’s creation and the advancement of God’s kingdom.  As St Paul said, ‘God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.’ [2 Corinthians 4] To God be the glory!

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