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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on All Saints' Day: Monday 1 November 2010

1 November 2010 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Matthew 5: 1-12

The windows on the north side of the nave here at Westminster Abbey installed progressively between 1909 and 1962 were designed by Sir Ninian Comper. His ashes are buried in the north aisle of the nave. Each of these windows shows a king with an abbot or bishop. The westernmost window depicts King Edgar with St Dunstan, who as bishop of London in 960 brought monks from his former abbey in Glastonbury and founded, or perhaps re-founded, a Benedictine abbey on Thorney Island. The story goes on: St Edward King and Confessor with the church he built in 1065 and Abbot Edwin; Henry III and Abbot de Ware whose great new church was consecrated in 1269 as a fitting shrine for St Edward; Edward I, who with Abbot Wenlock continued his father’s work; Edward III with former abbot, Cardinal Simon Langham, whose bequest allowed the next pair, Richard II with Abbot Litlyngton, to begin building the nave; and lastly, with Abbot Colchester, Henry V, king for only nine years but who contributed to the work on the nave and whose glorious chantry chapel is by Edward’s shrine. The images stop before the completion of the nave and new Lady Chapel by Henry VII and Abbot Islip and of the building of the west window and towers under George II.

These depictions of collaboration between Church and State are near the heart of the story of Westminster Abbey. Edward the Confessor, when he decided to build his Palace and to build a great Abbey and Minster to the west of London, surely wanted his reign to be subject to the rule of God Almighty and to be buttressed by the Church. Each successive king glorifying and extending the Church confirmed the same position: State supporting the Church; Church supporting the State.

Comper is a rather recherché taste these days. He has his oddities: for example he depicts our Lord Jesus Christ in glory as beardless and blond. Perhaps he intends to offer us an ideal of the perfect man shorn of particular human characteristics. In that he fails. St Gregory the Great’s famous encounter with English slaves in the market place in Rome, of whom he said, ‘Non Angli sed angeli’ (not Angles but angels), is said to have inspired him to send St Augustine and his companions on an English mission. I have often heard his words interpreted as a reference to the boys’ looking like angels because they were fair-haired. But this is to miss the point that the boys themselves were angels, regardless of how they looked: messengers from God, saying to Gregory, as the man from Macedonia said to St Paul in his dream, ‘Come over and help us.’

And surely Comper misses the point when he depicts the risen Jesus as blond. Our Lord Jesus Christ shares our humanity in all its messy particularity and demonstrates its capacity, our capacity, for unity with God. The wonderful news All Saints’ Day offers us is that human beings like us, weak, wilful, blind and stupid, can follow where Christ has led, by God’s grace, and can share in the glory of heaven. Our Lord Jesus Christ who shares our human flesh opens for us the gateway to heaven. Today’s Gospel offers us a challenge not to live for ourselves, but to follow the way of Christ, the way of the cross, of self-denial, of self-sacrifice.

This presents me with something of a conundrum: on the one hand there is a powerful image in Westminster Abbey of mutually supportive Church and State; on the other hand there is the challenge in the Gospel reading today not to follow the way of the world, of the incompatibility between Church and world.

I was delighted to receive the Pope at the Abbey in September; to experience the strength of his relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury, to sense his delight in the Abbey and to feel his gentle warmth. In Westminster Hall, he spoke of St Thomas More but he also spoke of other heroes of Christian life and of the influence for good of the people of our nation and its ways in the world. He spoke of Great Britain’s gift to the world of the common law and of democracy, of David Livingstone and Florence Nightingale. He emphasised the richness of the tradition of faith in this land in its engagement with public life. His simple message, repeated time and again, was not to lose this rich inheritance of faith that has been so influential in the life of the nation but to recover its significance and to apply it to life in the world today.

In truth, the engagement between Church and State, between the Church and the world, for the individual Christian between the way of the world and the way of Christ, is bound always to be tense, complicated, a matter for negotiation. The irony of the Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar is that his challengers are themselves carrying the hated coinage, symbol of their people’s subjection to Roman rule, in the temple, the very heart and the most powerful symbol of their faith. Jesus’ response means that the citizen owes the State loyalty; this is reflected in the instruction of St Peter himself to his fellow Christians, even those suffering persecution, to honour the emperor.

Most of us will live in an uneasy compromise with the world, despite the romantic attraction of the way of the world-denier. Who can fail to be impressed by St Antony and the monks of the desert or by St Francis and St Clare and their followers, or in their different ways by the martyrs on both sides of the Reformation, by the hermit and the anchoress? They all suffered and in their suffering were united with Christ. As the letter to the Hebrews says, ‘[They] suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. [Hebrews 11: 36-38]’

As we seek to follow the saints, may their prayers help us and their example inspire us to be faithful to the way of Christ on our unsteady journey through this life, and may mutual attention be key to the engagement between Church and State, between the Church and the world.

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