Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Translation of St Edward the Confessor 2013

13 October 2013 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster 

You join the community of Westminster Abbey for worship this morning on one of the greatest and happiest days of the Abbey year. We give thanks to God today for a good man who reigned as king of England almost a thousand years ago. More than that, he was a generous and committed benefactor of the Abbey, who built the first great church and abbey buildings on this site, replacing the simpler buildings of the first Benedictine monastery here, erected a century earlier. And he built his Palace here beside the new abbey. Add to that the fact that he was recognised by the Pope as a holy man and was canonised a hundred years or so after his death. Better still, he is buried here, in a beautiful shrine behind the high altar. So we believe we have good reason to celebrate. He is not our patron saint. That is St Peter, the prince of apostles. But St Edward the Confessor is our saint and we rejoice in him.

Let me briefly sketch the facts. Edward became king in 1042 and quickly decided to develop a base for his reign next to this abbey church in Westminster. He built his palace here and he rebuilt the church, the greatest building in the country when it was consecrated on 28th December 1065. Edward died a few days later and was buried in front of the high altar, on 6th January 1066. He was canonised in 1161 and on this day, 13th October, in 1163, his coffin was moved or translated to a new shrine above ground. A hundred years after that, on 13th October 1269, this church was consecrated. We celebrate the Feast of Dedication next Sunday. Today we are concentrating on the saint, making a pilgrimage to his shrine again today as so many people do each year, and discovering what he means for us, what message he might be giving us.

As so often, the message is most powerfully expressed not in words but in deeds. Edward the Confessor was certainly a holy man, pious and generous to the poor. But there is something he did that still makes a difference today: he built his palace next to the abbey church he had rebuilt.

This was his centre of power: his rule, his reign, was to be supported, underpinned, buttressed by the daily worship of almighty God offered by the monks here and by their daily prayer for him and for the kingdom. Whatever Edward had to do as king, he wanted his rule to be both supported by prayer and also offered in tribute and worship to the greater glory of God. That has an important personal message for us: all our lives, all our actions, the decisions we take, the conversations we hold should be upheld and supported by prayer and by our offering them to the greater glory of God.

But there is more: a message to the world. That decision to build his palace beside the rebuilt abbey has had a lasting influence on this nation which he ruled. The palace he built has been through many transformations over the centuries. It suffered in 1834 a disastrous fire and was almost completely rebuilt. It is no longer the home of the King or Queen. But it is still technically a royal palace and is still, as the home of the United Kingdom Parliament, important in the real exercise of power in this land. And it is still beside, and closely connected with, Westminster Abbey. So St Edward’s decision all those years ago still matters today.

The partnership between the Church and the State in this country has been through many tests and suffered many trials through the past 948 years. But there remains a partnership. St Edward’s unspoken but powerful message to us is that there should be a partnership, however difficult it is, between the Church and the State. In England, we call that partnership Establishment, the Establishment of the Church of England.

The Church of England remains by law Established and thus in partnership with the State. Especially in the 19th and again in the early 20th century, many in the Church found Establishment an inexcusable burden and constraint. It has sometimes been very difficult. Sometimes the State has aimed to exercise overwhelming power over the Church and been resisted.

Let me give a couple of examples. At the time of Edward the Confessor’s canonisation, King Henry II was fighting the Church about taxation and about legal jurisdiction and about the appointment of bishops. Thomas a Becket, the archbishop, fought back and lost his life at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral as a result. That was on 29th December 1170. His martyrdom was a pyrrhic victory for the king, leading to Henry II doing penance at his shrine: a goal for the Church.

Another King Henry, 350 or so years later, Henry VIII, bent on re-marrying, split the Church of England from the Pope, and, then furthered his own Reformation by dissolving the monasteries and reallocating their wealth, sometimes to himself. Historians continue to study the enigma of his life and the Church still lives with the consequences: some good, some ill: a goal for the State.

The story becomes ever more complex with the fuller Reformation under Edward VI the return to Roman Catholicism under Mary I and the coming of the ecclesia anglicana under the first Elizabeth. The English Civil War and the death of the monarch, Charles I in 1649 at the hands of the State, the Restoration of his son Charles II in 1660 and the Ejection of Nonconformists from the Church in 1662 continued the testing times for the Church. But these moments of trial fail to tell a clear story of whether it was the State exercising power over the Church or vice versa; there was after all no clear distinction, in a sense no secular power: at least that is until the 18th century, when adherence to the Church and even to Christian principles was seriously challenged. But still the Establishment was maintained.

In the early 19th century there were two moments of great interest in thinking about the Establishment. The first was in 1807, when a Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce achieved the abolition of the slave trade, very much against the commercial interests of many in this country, his motivation being entirely his Christian principles. This had an immense influence around the world. Christian conviction changed the law.

The second early 19th century moment was when Sir Robert Peel the Prime Minister, in 1835 set up a commission to take some of the immense wealth concentrated on a few members of the clergy in privileged positions and use it to set up churches in the multiply deprived communities of the new industrial cities. Leading churchmen were not at all pleased; here the State saved the Church from itself.

During the 19th century, the ties that bound the Church and State were loosened to allow non-members of the Church a place in parliament, government, the law, universities and other professions. In the 20th and 21st centuries, there has been further evolution, loosing State control over the Church and Church influence over the State. That seems inevitable and right to some in a country as diverse as this, which is a Monarchy but also a democracy, with an Established Church whose supreme governor is the Queen - but not a theocracy. But it means that the Christian voice in our land is just one among many.

Next Sunday at the Sung Eucharist and at Evensong, we shall celebrate the Dedication of this Church and I shall have more to say at both services on this theme. I shall explore the degree to which the engagement between Church and State in this country is thick and muscular, to the benefit of those of all denominations and faiths – and those of no faith.

Political leaders, prime ministers and those with leading influence have not by any means always acted wisely or well; many have promoted their personal or sectional benefit. But St Edward the Confessor reminds us that all political decision-making, and all nation-building or community-building, all leadership – even the leadership we ourselves exercise in our daily lives – must look beyond self-interest and self-preservation and be concerned with the spiritual, moral, social and cultural good of all those to be influenced by it.

As our Lord Jesus Christ said to his disciples, ‘Everyone who wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for any.