Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 11 September 2011
11 September 2011 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
Many institutions such as schools, businesses, and charities have mission statements - usually consisting of a few sentences which crystallise what the organisation is about.
If you visit the Westminster Abbey website you will find in the Dean’s welcome our mission statement, and it reads thus:
Our mission is:
• to serve almighty God as a ‘school of the Lord’s service’ by offering divine worship daily and publicly;
• to serve the sovereign by daily prayer and by a ready response to requests made by or on behalf of Her Majesty;
• to serve the nation by fostering the place of true religion within national life, maintaining a close relationship with members of the House of Commons and House of Lords and with others in representative positions;
• to serve pilgrims and all other visitors and to maintain a tradition of hospitality.
During this month of September in my sermons at Matins I’m looking at three aspects of our Mission Statement. Last week we focussed our attention on the worship of almighty God and why this is our top priority, underpinning everything else we do as a community.
In two weeks time we shall consider the question of why hospitality is such a crucial part of life here and indeed in any Christian community.
Today though, I want to look at the second part of our mission statement; that we are here to serve the Sovereign; asking why Westminster Abbey in particular has such an important relationship with our Queen.
Westminster Abbey is a Royal Peculiar. We often joke about being peculiar, because of course the common understanding of that word is of something odd or quirky - and some would say we are just that!
But when we refer to a Royal Peculiar, the word is being used in the sense of us being “peculiar to”; in other words, belonging to the Sovereign.
The other Royal Peculiars in England are St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and the Chapels Royal, which are chapels in the palaces such as St James Palace, Hampton Court, and the Tower of London. These, along with Westminster Abbey, are not part of a diocese, do not come under the jurisdiction of a bishop or archbishop, but are directly accountable to the Sovereign.
So how has this come about? Why is Westminster Abbey a Royal Peculiar? To answer this we need to go right back to 1066, but I promise you I shall be brief as we look at nearly a thousand years of history!
At the end of 1065, King Edward, later to become St Edward the Confessor, completed a great abbey church on this site which was already home to a community of Benedictine Monks. Significantly though, Edward had chosen to build his abbey opposite his Palace of Westminster, so creating a special relationship between the Abbey and the Crown and later the Abbey and Parliament.
King Edward died on 5th January 1066 and on Christmas Day that year William the Conqueror, having defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, was crowned in front of the high altar on St Edward’s grave. And every single coronation in England ever since has happened on this spot.
The church we are worshipping in today is not St Edward’s original Abbey. Because in the 13th century Henry III decided to rebuild the Abbey in honour of St Edward and he also had St Edward’s body moved into an ornate shrine behind the high altar. That Shrine is there to this day and over the course of history has been the focus of prayer for millions of pilgrims.
In the centuries following Henry III's death in 1272, Westminster Abbey continued as a Benedictine monastery enjoying good relationships with a succession of monarchs; but in 1540 that was to change. Henry VIII dissolved the monastery here, along with all the others in the land, many of which were looted, then fell into disrepair and eventually became ruins, while others were re-established as new cathedrals.
Westminster Abbey was made a cathedral for a very short time, but it wasn’t really needed because London already had St Paul’s Cathedral.
However the Abbey was saved because it was the Coronation Church and because many of England’s deceased monarchs were buried here. And when Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I came to the throne she issued a charter in 1560 which established Westminster Abbey as a Royal Peculiar governed by a dean and group of prebendaries, later to be called canons, who are directly answerable to the Sovereign.
Westminster Abbey has been organised in exactly the same way ever since. Last year on 21st May we celebrated the 450th anniversary of Elizabeth I's Charter, in a great service with our own Queen, Elizabeth II, present.
But how does being a Royal Peculiar affect our day to day life here?
A question often asked by our visitors is, “Does The Queen come here every Sunday?” The answer is, “No”. The Queen comes here on special occasions, just a few times a year. So, for example, she is nearly always here for Commonwealth Day in March; special royal anniversaries are celebrated here, like her diamond wedding; royal funerals usually take place here - the last one being that of the Queen Mother back in 2002; and of course recently The Queen was here for the wedding of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
However, even when she isn’t here in person a reminder of our special relationship with the Sovereign is the stall in the Quire on the South side of the screen. That is The Queen’s stall and there you can see her coat of arms. You can also see the Dean’s coat of arms in that stall and he is the only other person ever to sit there, occupying it as her representative.
Outside our worship the Dean and Chapter take their responsibility to answer to the Sovereign very seriously and each year a detailed report of all the aspects of Abbey life is given to Her Majesty. That includes contributions from the Dean, all the Canons, and the Receiver General about the work they’ve done over the past year; it describes special visits and projects; and it includes our annual accounts. Although addressed to Her Majesty, it is a public document and you can view it on our website.
But most important of all, and linked with our first priority of being a living church worshipping almighty God; is that every single day we pray for our Sovereign and for the Royal Family, acknowledging the huge responsibilities they carry within our nation, Commonwealth, and throughout the world, and asking God’s blessing upon them.
So today as we have the privilege of worshipping in this Abbey with its thousand-years of history, let us remember in our prayers those who have gone before us, but pray in particular for those with great responsibilities in our world today, especially our Queen.