Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist for All Souls' Day 2011

2 November 2011 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Two days ago we held, here in the Abbey Church, a memorial and thanksgiving service for Sir Simon Milton, a remarkable public servant, who had died tragically young. He showed early political promise. At Cambridge, he had been president of the Union. Later, for eight years, he had been Leader of the Council in the City of Westminster, had become chairman of the Local Government Association, and had gone on to become deputy Mayor of London and chief of staff to Boris Johnson. He had been knighted by The Queen in recognition of his public service. He had been expected to go on to attain higher office. In many ways therefore it was entirely normal and unremarkable that there should be a memorial service for him here.

On the other hand, Simon Milton was not a Christian but a Jew. During the service, his civil partner recited in Hebrew the Jewish mourning prayer, always pronounced by a relation of the departed person, the Kaddish, celebrating the gift of life, which begins with the words 

Let us magnify and let us sanctify in this world the great name of God whose will created it.  May God’s reign come in your lifetime, and in your days, and in the lifetime of the family of Israel – quickly and speedily may it come.

I do not know but suspect that might be the first time in the thousand year history of the Abbey that the Kaddish has been prayed publicly here.

Yesterday was All Saints’ Day and I preached a sermon centred around the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, the moment when our Lord Jesus Christ cast out not only the money-changers but also the stalls of those selling cattle, sheep and doves, thus demonstrating, I said, that the Jewish system of animal sacrifice was ‘decaying’. I said that the Jewish ritual sacrifices had needed overturning. They were exclusive. They had no positive effect. They achieved nothing. What did avail, make the difference, what opened the way to God for all people, was the once-only sacrifice of Calvary, when Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, gave his life on the Cross for the salvation of humanity.

I juxtapose these two moments this week – the recital of the Jewish Kaddish here on Monday and my sermon on the necessary act of redemption by our Lord Jesus Christ yesterday – to invite you to ask the question whether you see this juxtaposition as a compromise of the Christian faith and of the particular character of Westminster Abbey.

The Pope recently gathered in Assisi ecumenical representatives and those of the great world faiths. The faith leaders assembled for prayerful silence for world peace but did not pray aloud together. The Pope would have sought to avoid offering any indication that it would be remotely possible or desirable to meld all religious belief into one great religion. The distinctions in belief between Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists are not a matter of indifference. To suppose that there are endless paths up the mountain to God, that it is only through fate, chance or our own preference that we find our way to one route or another, and that it does not matter since they all get you there seems a denial of the unique work of Christ. Moreover, the idea of universal salvation, in other words that everyone is saved and goes to heaven no matter what their life and faith, runs the risk of compromising the justice and goodness of God. These are all genuine difficulties.

And yet, deep within the Christian tradition is a story, an idea almost, not often considered in our own day, that seems to me to have powerful meaning, that argues strongly for respectful mutual exchange between the faith communities, and that offers consolation to those of us who on this All Souls’ Day mourn friends and relations who have died without an explicit faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. My first step is to take you with me on a small journey.

We are going to Venice. With our backs to the Basilica of San Marco let us walk together through the Piazza avoiding the temptation to turn aside to one of the myriad tables. Let us drift through the South-Western exit from the Piazza, possibly heading in the vague direction of La Fence. Soon after leaving the piazza, we shall pass a rather dull church with an extraordinary west front and an amazing dedication. This is the church of San Moïse, Saint Moses. He is not recognised as a saint in the Book of Common Prayer, nor in this Abbey Church, though he is held out to us for admiration in the great west window and on the altar screen behind me. But there he is, in Venice, with his own church: San Moïse.

If this seems to us very odd, it is worth turning our attention to a phrase about which we rarely think, I suspect, but which here we repeat day by day at Evensong when we recite the Apostles’ Creed: ‘He descended into hell.’ Contemporary Christian thinking makes little of this article of belief. But surely its interpretation is clear. Between Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Day, the Apostles’ Creed says, he descended into hell. In other words, he visited the condemned souls of former generations and eras and, by implication, brought them up to share with him in the benefits of the resurrection. You remember strange and slightly embarrassing words from St Matthew’s account of the moment of the death of Jesus. ‘Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.’ [Matthew 27: 50-53] The bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep could only refer to the heroes of the Old Testament, the great people of the Jewish tradition, of the history of Israel.

This recognition was lively in the Middle Ages, certainly in York. The Saddlers’ play, the 37th in the York cycle of Mystery Plays, is called the Harrowing of Hell. Towards the end, Jesus says,

Adam, and my friends all here,

From all your foes come forth, with me.

You shall be set in solace and cheer

Where you shall never sorrows see.

And Michael, my own angel clear,

Receive these souls all unto thee

And lead them now as you shall hear:

To Paradise, with joy and glee.

There is a wonderful depiction of this very event by Duccio dating from 1308. Jesus, holding in his left hand the symbol of his Cross, his foot pinning down a powerless demon, takes Adam by the right hand and leads him and Eve and the patriarchs and King David from hell into life with him.

In every celebration of the holy Eucharist, we recall the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross, we invoke its eternal power and receive its benefits, and are sustained as part of the redeemed community. The Christian tradition teaches us that it is not wrong to hope that 

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy

like the wideness of the sea.

For the love of God is broader

than the measure of man's mind;

and the heart of the Eternal

is most wonderfully kind.

In our minds and hearts, this afternoon, as we come to receive the bread and wine, which are the Body and Blood of Christ, the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice, we bring as it were to stand beside us the souls of all those we love and see no longer. If we listen carefully, we can hear the words of Jesus to Adam, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.’