Address given at a Service of Thanksgiving to Mark the 410th Anniversary of the Granting of the Emanuel School Charter
21 November 2011 at 14:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
I would like to welcome you home. That may seem an odd thing to say, but since the school was established for all those years just up the road in Tothill fields, this is a home-coming. Your roots are in Westminster. Your ties are with the Abbey. So strong are those ties that it was a former Dean of Westminster, one of my predecessors George Granville Bradley, who on 17th December 1882 opened your school in Wandsworth. So in welcoming you all to Westminster Abbey, I welcome you home.
Of course the Abbey may feel a little too elaborate and large to be very homely. No doubt, after they left the temple in Jerusalem to go back home to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph had little sense that Jesus would want to stay behind to talk to the temple’s teachers. And yet, there he was when they found him, at home with the people of God, the people who could help him understand more about God, the one he had come to recognise as his heavenly Father.
For over a thousand years this Abbey has aimed to point people to their true home with God. It was no accident that when the present church building, at least the third Abbey church here, was put up in the 13th century, it was designed to have great height and with its huge windows great light. It was planned to lift people’s spirits from the mundane and everyday and to prepare them for the worship of almighty God, for an experience of heaven. Day by day, God is worshipped here, at four daily services, at five Sunday services, and on special occasions. Monarchs and future monarchs are married here, crowned here and many have been buried here. But this is not just a house of kings. We are proud to welcome people from all over the world: people seeking hope or understanding and people wanting to celebrate a particular milestone.
Last Wednesday we held a special service to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh came to the service, as well as the Prince of Wales, the royal patron of the King James Bible Trust. The Archbishop of Canterbury in his address suggested that, powerful and influential though the King James Bible had been, no translation could ever be perfect and in any case the particular words in which we read the Bible only begin to open the mystery and majesty of the words and meaning of the Word of God for us. We need to continue to be attentive to the Word.
The readings today are in a translation by a former pupil of Emanuel School J B Phillips. His work felt very modern when it was first published. But that was over fifty years ago. I wonder how it felt to you this afternoon. Now to me Phillips’ translation feels quite dated and shows us how quickly the language changes. No one would now write, as in the passage from St Paul’s letter to the Romans from today’s first lesson, ‘Let us have real warm affection for one another as between brothers, and a willingness to let the other man have the credit.’ The latter phrase feels to me very Fifties and the former would be regarded nowadays as sexist. In some ways though it is close to the King James Bible verse, which reads, ‘Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another.’ In a more recent translation, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the same verse reads, ‘Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.’ You may remember James Middleton reading those words at his sister’s wedding here in April – now The Duchess of Cambridge.
Another more familiar passage shows little change between the translations. St Matthew’s Gospel tells of the birth of Jesus and goes on to explain that this event had fulfilled the expectation of the prophet Isaiah. Phillips has it, 'Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel'. He goes on to explain that "Immanuel" means "God with us." The King James Version has, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.’ The New Revised Standard Version reports, ‘‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him 'Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.'’’
The meaning is clear. At the centre of the Christian faith is the great narrative truth of the love of God in action. It is for love that God creates the universe, the world and humanity: the human and material creation we mentioned earlier. It is for love that God leads his people into a Promised Land and prepares them to recognise him when he comes close to them. It is for love that God in Christ is born into flesh and comes to share our human life and experience. It is for love that God in Christ shares our human suffering and dies on the Cross. It is for love that God defeats the power of sin and death and raises Christ to new life. It is for love that God through the Holy Spirit enables and empowers humanity to live in Christ and to foreshadow a new world order of peace and justice and good will.
Translations of the Bible do become dated. But the story it tells can never be dated. The Word remains constant. God’s love for us never changes. God is with us. He is our homeland. Home is with God and God is with us. This Abbey church points to that eternal truth. Emanuel. God with us. That is the eternal truth Emanuel School was founded to proclaim. That is what we celebrate today. Emanuel. God with us.