Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at an Evensong to celebrate the Feast of the Dedication 2013

20 October 2013 at 15:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster 

London is one of the largest and one of the most diverse cities in the world. The population of London in 2011 was counted as 8.17 million and forecast to exceed 9 million by 2021 and to be almost 10 million by 2031.

And it is diverse. More than 4 out of every ten Londoners (42 per cent) identify themselves as from a group other than white British. Around 3.3 million of London's population are described as Black and Minority Ethnic and 4.9 million are White. London is one of the world's most ethnically diverse cities - 50 non-indigenous groups have populations over 10,000. London has the largest concentration of Bangladeshis, at over 200,000, anywhere outside Bangladesh.

48% of Londoners describe themselves as Christian; 42% of Londoners attend church at Christmas. That is not far short of a half. One Londoner in eight is Muslim, one in 20 Hindu, one in 55 is Jewish, one in 66 is a Sikh and one in a hundred Buddhist. One Londoner in five says he or she is of no religion.

This means that our wonderful, thriving, vibrant city, with its joyful and rich diversity, is not a sad and secular place but is strongly rooted in religious belief and practice. So we are happy on this occasion to welcome the mayors and first citizens of the cities and boroughs that make up our greater London to the very heart of our city and to a place where worship has been offered to almighty God, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, for over a thousand years: almost every day without ceasing since the year 960. I make that over 380, 000 days of worship.

The worship offered has varied from time to time, but the particular act of worship in which we are sharing this afternoon is more or less unchanged since 1552 and has been offered more or less in this form more or less every day since then. There was a brief intermission at the time of the Civil War and the Interregnum in the middle of the 17th century. But I would be surprised to learn of any year since 1662, even during the world wars of the last century, when the daily offering of the Church’s Evening Prayer or Evensong did not take place. This act of worship, immeasurably enriched over the past hundred and fifty years by some great music, is very typically Anglican and is offered daily in the 42 Church of England cathedrals as well as in many parish churches.

Most of the music we have heard this afternoon was composed in the 20th century, though the opening hymn was sung to a tune by the celebrated 17th century English composer Henry Purcell, who was organist and master of the choristers here at the Abbey. Sir William Walton composed famous music for the Coronations in this Abbey church of King George VI in 1937 and of The Queen in 1953. But his setting of the two Gospel canticles, the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, was composed for Chichester cathedral, for first performance in 1974, to celebrate that cathedral’s 900th anniversary. Sir Edward Elgar, who contributed music for the Coronations here in 1902 and 1911, composed the anthem Great is the Lord, a setting of psalm 48, first performed here at the Abbey on 16th July 1912.

So, our worship this afternoon is enriched by what has gone before us in this place. We stand on the shoulders of giants. We cannot, nor would we wish to, ignore the tradition which has formed us and which roots us in our history. That is true of members of the Church of England and of the other Christian denominations and of all the faith communities. It will also be true of humanists and secularists and those who live by other lights. To lose our tradition would leave us at sea, confused, without a compass or light to steer by. But our tradition does not limit us or constrain us. It enriches us and strengthens us and enables us to reach out to those of other traditions with confidence and without fear. Being strong in ourselves gives us the power to reach out both to those who are weak and also to those who are strongly rooted in different traditions.

Last week and earlier today I preached sermons reflecting on the centrality of the Church of England in our national life, as the Established Church under the authority of The Queen as Supreme Governor. I remembered last week the history of Church/State relations in this country as having been often difficult but wonderfully enriching. This morning I remembered the wider service the Church of England offers to communities and civic life up and down the country, often vitally important, and based not on commitment or adherence but on need.

This afternoon, I wish to conclude this short series of sermons with remarks about the space the Established Church, and in particular this holy place, creates at the heart of our national life for other denominations and other faith traditions. Much of this we take for granted. Elgar was a Roman Catholic and wrote beautiful music in that tradition as well as for Anglican worship.

More richly, for the past forty and more years, every year on Commonwealth Day, the second Monday of March, The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth attends here a service which reflects the diversity of the Commonwealth and includes in active participation representatives of the great religions of the world, praying, singing, offering thoughts from their own religious tradition.

This inclusive service is reflected in other particular celebrations. Next month, in company with representatives of the Jewish communities in London, we shall hold an inclusive service on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Jew and Christian worshipping side by side in both traditions.

We are actively but quietly working to promote fruitful dialogue between Christian and Muslim.
Religious worship opens our hearts and broadens our minds. There is one God, whom we all worship in our various ways. May almighty God bless us as we grow in mutual understanding and respect! And may peace and goodwill flourish in our great city!