Sermon given at Matins on the Dedication of Westminster Abbey 2012

14 October 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lordof hosts.

The world is a changing place: you have to look no further than the headlines in the press this week.

Shock, horror! Protestants are now in a minority in the United States.

Newspapers were carrying the breathless column inches which charted the supposed demise of religious fervour in the United States. A long pilgrimage, if that’s the right word, from the severe Protestant devotion of the Founding Fathers – those who set off from the Pilgrimskerk in Delftshaven in modern-day Rotterdam, fleeing religious persecution in England - to find freedom in the New World.

But take a closer look and the picture was a little less clear. The recent decline in Protestant Christians has been driven almost exclusively by one group of people: young, white, male college graduates who class themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Other factors also play a part: a quarter of west coast dwellers say they are non-religious, versus 1 in 7 of southerners.

But it’s not all bad news for religion. Perhaps most striking of all, 70% of Americans are ‘absolutely certain’ in their belief in the existence of God and nearly 60% would say that religion places a central role in their lives. For a highly industrialised, developed nation these figures do not sit well with the persistent narrative of religion fading away.

And that’s the theme of these Matins sermons in October when I am looking at how religion is stubbornly persistent in societies around the world and how Western Europe is looking increasingly out of kilter with the global picture. And given that 85% of our visitors to the Abbey come from outside of the United Kingdom, this is something we are very acutely attuned to here in Westminster.

Today, I am thinking about how religious communities express their identities physically by their buildings. And today is a very good day to do this: the reason why this service is said rather than sung by our choir is because at 11.15 am there is a festal Sung Eucharist in honour of the Abbey’s Dedication.

The history is perhaps well-known to some, but not to others. When King Edward, later known as St Edward the Confessor, came to the throne in 1042, England was in turmoil, fighting off Scandanavian invaders. Edward’s choice was to forgo the duty of a pilgrimage to Rome and instead to build a beautiful monastery and create a royal foundation, which has lasted to this day.

Edward was buried in that Monastic Church in 1066 – you can see fragments of it as you leave the service by the Cloister Door: look straight ahead and where you see what looks like a tunnel, you are looking at Edward’s Church. Later canonised as Edward the Confessor his body was re-buried or ‘translated’ to a new shrine on 13th October 1163 - 850 years ago next year!

Around his shrine now stand many of the kings and queens of England – Edward Longshanks is there, so is Henry V of Agincourt fame, Elizabeth I lies with her half-sister Mary, and close by the murdered Princes in the Tower.

In the centuries that have followed, 3,500 others have been buried or memorialised here: poets, politicians, scientists, musicians, surveyors, playwrights, and philanthropists. Not necessarily united in faith, but most certainly surrounded by a cloud of witnesses to that faith.

And if you want a stark insight into the spiritual power of this place, then just take a visit – as I did over the summer – to the Panthéon in Paris. A national shrine to the great heroes of France – Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Marie Curie. The architecture shouts ‘Church’ but it is a place without a soul, devoid of devotion, the walls untouched by prayer. It is a shrine to the separation of the Christian faith from the national life.

But if this great ‘House of Kings’ is an example of how religious architecture was done in the Middle Ages, and the Panthéon is a non-religious response in a secular state, how might this look in the new era we are entering, where religion around the world is still hugely significant, even if is it not monochrome and dominant in the way it has been among the nation states of Europe?

I was pointed in the direction of a good example of this by Dr Claire Dwyer, from the Department of Geography at University College London. She has taken part in a government-funded international project looking at ‘New Forms of Public Religion’.

Dr Dwyer’s research has taken her to the coastal city of Richmond, part of Metro Vancouver on Canada’s western seaboard. On the outskirts of the city lies former agricultural land, which was no longer needed for cultivation, but the city council was unwilling to allow it to become part of a residential or commercial sprawl.

The result was a decision in the 1990s to create a unique ‘Zone for Assembly’ in which faith organisations were encouraged to place their churches, temples, synagogues, and religious schools. In the intervening years, more than twenty different religious buildings have been put up along a three-kilometre stretch of the prosaically named No 5 Road, which is now intriguingly re-christened, ‘The Highway to Heaven’.

The Ling Yen Mountain Buddhist Temple is just across the street from the Richmond Bethel Mennonite Church, around the corner from the Nanaksar Gurdwara Gurusikh Temple, and down the road from the Az-Zaharaa Islamic Centre, the Richmond Jewish Day School and the Hindu Ram Krishna Mandir in the Vedic Cultural Centre. There’s also the Thrangu Monastery, the first Tibetan temple in North America with a beautiful Main Shrine Hall featuring stunning Tibetan art and decorative craft.

So Richmond City Tourist board gushes about the development, which has led to a new form of visitor – a religious tourist, not quite a pilgrim, but someone who wants to experience the breadth of a religiously diverse community within a small space.

And, of course, this is telling us something hugely important about our contemporary world.

In Westminster, the physical geography of Thorney Island on which the monastery was built to the west of London – the West-Minster – gives us a picture of how power is played out in our national life. Around Parliament Square are situated the Houses of Parliament where law is fashioned; Whitehall where Government is enacted day-by-day; the Supreme Court, the final place of the judiciary; and the Royal Church, maintaining the place of religion.

Contrast this with ‘The Highway to Heaven’. While doubtless competing for advantageous spots along Road No 5, the key point is that each of these buildings represents an authentic community. It is not about a historic association or a national prominence, it is an expression of something lively, vibrant, and continuing. At the same time, these communities are fragile, and may well come and go. In other words, this is something organic rather than presumed. And that is the message of faith in the twenty-first century.

Next week I will be looking at how religious communities fared after the collapse of communism, especially in Romania.

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