Sermon given at the Westminster School Leavers' Service 2014
1 July 2014 at 19:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The Queen’s Scholars and other members of College leaving this year very kindly gave me a copy of Ben Macintyre’s recent book about Kim Philby, a former Queen’s Scholar. He was by profession a spy and, with Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and others, a traitor to his country. When his guilt was proved, he was allowed to flee into exile in the Soviet Union. I was interested to read that Philby’s most treasured possession in Soviet exile was his Westminster School scarf, which he then gave to his wife when she finally left him following her discovery of his betrayal of her with the wife of a friend.
Edward Gibbon, the eighteenth-century historian, spent a relatively brief time at Westminster where his impecunious aunt ran a boarding house, at first in Great College Street and afterwards, as her wealth grew, a larger house, in Dean’s Yard. He wrote afterwards, ‘I shall always be ready to join in the common opinion, that our public schools, which have produced so many eminent characters, are the best adapted to the genius and constitution of the English people. A boy of spirit may acquire a precious and practical experience of the world; and his playfellows may be the future friends of his heart or his interest. In a free intercourse with his equals, the habits of truth, fortitude, and prudence will insensibly be matured.’
Some of you may be hoping to become a spy. That is an ancient, honourable, and necessary profession. E M Forster famously said in 1938, ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ I hope you will never betray your country, your friends or your spouse or partner, or indeed, and perhaps above all, yourself. I hope you will, though, treasure if not actually your Westminster scarf (do you have one?) at least your memories of Westminster, both School and Abbey, and the ‘friends of heart and of interest’ you have made. Still more I hope that ‘habits of truth, fortitude, and prudence have insensibly’, or perhaps even better sensibly, ‘been matured’ in you through your years here.
You emerge from your school days with very great advantages in life but the adult world into which you emerge suffers multiple confusions and is subject to many threats. You may well face the next stage in your life with some uncertainty, even some anxiety, about the future. But the knocks you have taken, the resilience you have acquired, the character you have developed, will stand you in good stead. You should face the future with confidence.
But today you are justified in looking back: look back on years of achievement here, on what you have gained, what you have learnt, the friendships you have made, your spiritual, moral, mental, and physical development. You may well have a feeling of nostalgia – but above all I hope you look back with pleasure, with satisfaction, with a sense of thankfulness. And I hope you will always feel a sense of connection, of loyalty, both to the School and to the Abbey.
When the Head Master was reading the second lesson a little time ago, you might have supposed that we had smuggled into the Bible some contemporary words relevant to the Head Master himself. ‘Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more … in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.’ But the words were dictated originally by St Paul himself, in the very Greek of the Head Master’s reading, almost certainly when he was under house arrest in Rome in AD 61. He wrote principally to thank a group of Christians in Macedonia, whom he knew well, for a gift they had sent him, and to give them comfort and strength in a time of trial. He himself faced uncertainty. He had appealed as a Roman citizen to the Emperor for his protection and judgement. The result would not be as he might have hoped. In the persecution of Jews and Christians under the emperor Nero after the fire of AD 64, both St Paul and his fellow apostle St Peter, patron saint of this Abbey church, would perish. Christians would continue to be persecuted from time to time in ancient Rome until Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313 gave religious liberty to Christians and indeed people of other religions.
In our own day, Christians, just as many other people of faith, are at risk in many parts of the world, and people of faith are putting at risk the lives of others. But the threat of persecution is likely to affect none of you and I am pretty confident that Dr Spurr as he heads for retirement will not be at any risk of incurring the same threats and fate as St Paul.
Even so, the command the Lord gave his people Israel as they prepared to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land will I hope echo for you all today, ‘Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’
The promise of God’s presence with you cannot and does not assure you of protection from danger, from risk, from threats of all kinds. It doesn’t mean that life will be smooth and easy; that we can avoid suffering; that everything will go our own way. It does mean that in Christ nothing can defeat us. Again St Paul, this time writing to the Romans,
‘I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ [Romans 8: 38f]
I said earlier that you emerge from your school days with very great advantages in life. That is true. You who are leaving, pupils and masters, have received immeasurably from your experience of Westminster School. You have also given a great deal to the life of the School. What you have done stands for all time as part of the story of Westminster School over many centuries. Some of what you have done has perhaps been for ill. Overwhelmingly it has been for good. So in wishing you all every blessing, success and happiness for the future, please accept my thanks, on behalf of the governors and the community here, for all you have given, for your achievements.
Above all I wish to express our thanks to Stephen Spurr for his spectacular leadership of the School and his extraordinary achievements during nine years as Head Master. You who have been pupils here have enjoyed a truly golden time in the history of the School and you have had every opportunity to grow and mature, spiritually, morally, culturally, mentally, and physically.
I say this to you last of all. May your lives reflect what you have received in generosity and goodness to others, in service of the community, and in appropriate care for those who do not enjoy the advantages you have perhaps too easily taken for granted. As our foundress Elizabeth I intended, may your education here serve to the ‘greater honour of the state’ and indeed for the benefit of our world and our common humanity.
May God bless you as you travel on and throughout your life.