Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist for the Translation of St Edward the Confessor 2011

13 October 2011 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Last month, we commemorated here the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York. Candles were lit, and laid with a wreath of remembrance at the Innocent Victims’ memorial in the forecourt. Ten years ago this autumn, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, politicians and commentators were searching for an answer to the question why these assaults had taken place and what should be the political and institutional response of the nations of the western alliance.

There was an extraordinary and somewhat hysterical reaction to 9/11 that religion itself was toxic. The government was obliged to develop a response. A new term entered the language and became for a time widely used: ‘community cohesion’. Government agencies began to look for ways in which they could promote community cohesion. Schools were challenged as to how they promoted community cohesion. This idea, laudable in itself, began to develop a theoretical life of its own. If religion was the problem, clearly religion could not be seen as the solution. So what did community cohesion mean and how could it be promoted? The theories began to require people to move out from the security of their own character, identity, group or faith to make connections with people of a different identity. The ties that bound across these divisions would be the basis of community cohesion. Some of this was good. It is obvious and right that people should come to know neighbours and associates with different points of view or ways of life and come to understand and respect both the diversity and the people themselves who hold different views. The intellectual flaw I see as I look back was that there was no real understanding or developed theory of what it meant to be a community - of what in fact binds people together.

The language of community cohesion, being that of a former government, is not often heard these days. Now a new expression has taken its place, though with many similar elements and similar goals: the Big Society. Just as community cohesion would depend not simply on the expenditure of government money but on all manner of local initiatives from men and women of good will, so Big Society theory demands of the local platoons that they rise up and play their part in improving people’s conditions of life and the welfare of society as a whole.

An outbreak in August of rioting and looting, unprecedented in recent decades, took everyone by surprise in some of our cities. Limited though this outbreak was and quickly quelled, it raised similar questions about the ties that bind us. How big was our society? In fact there was an immediate answer from many urban communities, when local people of good will set to with their own domestic cleaning equipment to clear the streets and to restore decency and calm. That suggested that there is community cohesion, that the Big Society exists. Even so, the question remains, what if anything does bind together the communities of our nation and the nation itself, so often portrayed as immensely diverse and multicultural.

Here in Westminster Abbey, on the feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor, we are particularly well placed to remember what used to be the answer. We celebrate today a King of England who chose as the site of his Palace a plot of land next to an Abbey, a community of Benedictine monks, that had been here for almost a hundred years. He chose to place the centre of his life and of his government next to a religious house, for sustenance by the prayers and fellowship of monks. Moreover, he chose to rebuild the Abbey and to enlarge it with an Abbey church of great size and magnificence, dwarfing his own palace. This was almost a thousand years ago, just before the dawn of what we call the medieval period, the Middle Ages. But that period was crucial in developing the English national character and identity, and with it the character and identity of all the nations of the world where the English language is spoken and British patterns of law and governance have been established and maintained. Those were the years that laid down the foundations of the society and culture, the country that we have become. St Edward King and Confessor by his actions shows that he would have had no hesitation in giving an answer to the question what creates community cohesion, what constitutes the Big Society. It is the faith of the country that provides cohesion; the religious beliefs and practices of the governors and the people that bind it together.

Has that answer truly faded away with the ages that are passed? Has the Christian religion, the very basis of our national life and identity, has almighty God himself, lost all power to bind us together? Many commentators would like to say that the power of Christianity has gone, that Britain has become a secular society, multicultural and multi-faith, and that Christianity can have no more influence on national decision-making, on the public life of our nation, and can only retreat to the private lives of individuals until finally it fades away altogether. I say they are wrong. To say so is not to deny or ignore the existence of other faith communities in Britain or to fail to honour them but to recognise them as small minorities, for whom the Abbey offers access to the heart of national life alongside our faith.

Melvyn Bragg in a lecture here yesterday evening, celebrating the 400th anniversary this year of the King James Version of the Bible, reminded us how consistently historians and commentators have in recent years written out of our nation’s story the power for good of faith in God. He made particular reference to the Bible. Though its influence had been fundamental, he said, it was simply ignored by later historians as the key motive force for change. Similarly, commentators in our own time often ignore religious motivation for many powerful forces for good in the modern world, at the national and local level. Just as a great deal of activity for the benefit of all is the work of local churches inspired by the love of almighty God and in the power of the Spirit, so at national level many of the charities and voluntary organisations of extraordinary influence and reach were conceived out of faith and as an act of Christian witness to the truth in Jesus Christ. One example quoted by Lord Bragg was that of the environmental movement. The National Trust, so influential in our land on thinking about the environment, was founded by Octavia Hill and her colleagues explicitly motivated by their Christian faith. That is one example amongst many.

Our task on the feast of St Edward, in honour of our founder and benefactor, is to re-imagine, to conceive afresh in our minds, the influence and reach of our Christian faith within this nation and the nations of our world and to act and react accordingly. Our challenge is not to be deceived by those commentators who, for their own lack of faith, choose to deny the influence of faith in almighty God in our land or to write history without recognizing the influence of Christians inspired by the Holy Spirit.

St Edward King and Confessor himself draws us together in the love of God. St Edward draws us together across church divisions. Just over a year ago, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI prayed at the Shrine of St Edward with the Archbishop of Canterbury, just as had the Ecumenical Patriarch, the leader of the Holy Orthodox Churches, four years earlier. More recently in March, when I had the privilege here of lighting and blessing the torch of St Benedict, we welcomed the Archabbot of Montecassino, the guardian of the shrine of the founder of Western monasticism. This evening it is a pleasure to welcome the Archabbot again with companions from his Abbey and Diocese. St Edward also draws us together in our nation and society, when on many special occasions in the year widely disparate groups of people from our nation and the world come to worship in the church built in his honour in the presence of his Shrine.

St Edward himself binds us together. Tonight we ask for his prayers, for ourselves, for our nation and our world, for all rulers and governors, for the Abbey and church he cherished, for the unity of all people: that we may grow in the love of God and in obedience to his Son our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.