Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist to celebrate the Feast of the Dedication 2013

20 October 2013 at 10:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

The Church of England has over 16,000 parish churches, serving the people of England, currently 53 million people. Over 12,000 of the churches are listed as having architectural or historic significance. There are also 42 cathedrals. There are 20,000 ministers licensed by Church of England dioceses, including clergy, readers and Church Army officers: one minister for every 2,500 people in England. The total does not include more than 1,600 chaplains to prisons, hospitals, the armed forces and in education, nor over 7,000 retired ministers still to some degree involved in active service as ministers.

Three church and cathedral locations are World Heritage Sites: in Durham the cathedral and castle, in Canterbury the cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey & St Martin's Church, and here at Westminster, this Abbey and St Margaret's Church and the Palace of Westminster, home of the meetings and offices of the two United Kingdom Houses of Parliament.

A week ago, we kept the feast of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor, the annual celebration of the king and saint who in the 11th century rebuilt the Abbey church and its ancillary buildings and also built the first Palace of Westminster, not as the houses of parliament, which did not then exist, but as his own principal palace.

Last week I reflected on the significance of St Edward wanting his home and his great church to be neighbours – the spiritual and religious underpinning his earthly rule of this difficult kingdom – and the impact of that decision over the years in this country. I spoke of the continuing reality and the significance of the Establishment of the Church of England through history. You can read that sermon on the Abbey website.
Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the current church building, which in fact took place in 1269 on 13th October. The first church we know of for certain here was built in the year 960. The second was built by St Edward the Confessor and consecrated on 28th December 1065. In six years’ time we shall be celebrating the 750th anniversary of the dedication and consecration of the current building in which we are now worshipping, though it did not achieve its current extent and shape until the year 1745 – 500 years of building.

Consecration or dedication means setting apart for service: consecration means making holy; dedication handing over in the sense of proclaiming or devoting. So, this building, and the thousands of cathedrals and parish churches in this land are set apart, dedicated, to the service of God and the service of God’s people, to be places of the worship of almighty God and places of encounter for the people with the living God who is worshipped. Of each it could be said, as Jacob said at Beersheba, ‘This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’

The people of this country may not be as committed to regular worship as once they were in a different age. But still the parish churches and cathedrals of this land continue to attract large numbers of people for worship and other purposes. 85 per cent of the population visits a church or place of worship in the course of a year, for reasons ranging from participating in worship to attending social events or simply wanting a quiet space.
Every year, around 12 million people visit Church of England cathedrals. Three of England's top five historic 'visitor attractions' are York Minster, Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Last year more than one and a third million people visited this Abbey, this place of worship, as tourists or pilgrims, and each week some five thousand people attend acts of worship here, half of them on a Sunday. At Christmas and Easter, the numbers attending worship in the Church of England rise considerably. In London, over four people in every ten attend an act of worship at Christmas every year.

So, in the very diverse communities of our country, the Church continues to reach and serve in various ways a large proportion of the population. In the 1960s it was commonplace to suppose that the Church would fade away to a small sect of self-selected oddities. For those atheists and secularists who hoped for such a disappearance, the current reality must be a disappointment. Faith, Christian faith, is alive and well, and the Church continues to offer significant service to the people of this land.

Last week I spoke of the historic significance of Establishment, of the engagement between Church and State, mutually buttressing, mutually challenging, sometimes the Church achieving some significant advance in affairs of State, or in the moral standard by which people in this land live, and at other times, the Church receiving benefits from State involvement, benefits which at the time it might not have appreciated. Today I reflect instead on the meaning of Establishment in terms of the service the Church is able to offer to the people of this land.

At the heart of that reality is the fact that in England everyone lives within a parish of the Church of England: the parish is not a notion, or a gathered congregation, but a geographical reality, lines on a map, which signify the parish church community to which every single person of whatever faith or no faith belongs. The clergy of the Church of England understand themselves as having pastoral responsibility for everyone who lives in their parish. This understanding is often complicated and stretched especially in the great urban and suburban parishes of our towns and cities; it is stretched in the often geographically enormous rural benefices combining several parish churches together. Nevertheless the understanding remains. And in an increasing number of parishes this means now that services are being offered to the community on the basis not of assessment by commitment but by need: food-banks, housing advice, social clubs, work with children and young people, employment schemes, social enterprises of all kinds.

This is the heart of the Establishment. The Establishment of the Church of England is not about privilege but about the service of the community in the name of Christ. There is much more that could be said: of chaplaincy to hospitals, prisons, the armed forces; of daily prayers in both Houses of Parliament, of prayer for local councils, of chaplaincy to Mayors; of thousands of schools and universities established and still sponsored and to some degree maintained by the Church and strong in Christian teaching; of links created by the Church at every level, national, regional and local, with those of other denominations and other faiths, leading to a growth in mutual understanding and respect; of local and national political and community activism; and uniquely and wonderfully of Her Majesty The Queen as supreme governor of the Church of England. All these are ways of working out the commitment of the Church, the Christian community, to serve the wider community in the name of Christ.

This could be said to be one aspect of the particular genius of Anglicanism, of the Church of England. This is not always well understood, but I am clear that it is translated in various ways into the life of the Anglican Church in the nations of the Commonwealth and of the English-speaking world and beyond, wherever the Anglican Communion has been planted and still flourishes. It is for example significant that in the United States of America there is a so-called National Cathedral in Washington DC at which, much as here at Westminster Abbey, great occasions of state are celebrated, such as the inauguration or the funeral of a president, and it is not only the national cathedral but also the cathedral of the Episcopal, that is the Anglican, diocese of Washington.

In this age-old tale, constantly renewing itself in each generation, is a freshness and a power and a great beauty: the freshness, power and beauty of God’s eternal unwavering love for his people. We who are privileged to serve and to worship in this holy place, this dedicated city, this house of God and of kings, this gate of heaven, are called by word and deed to spread the good news of God’s love to all around us: in words from the hymn we shall sing at the end of this morning’s service, to be ‘a royal generation, telling the tidings of our birth, tidings of a new creation, to an old and weary earth.’