The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
St Peter's Day is one of special celebration in the annual calendar of Westminster Abbey. St Peter has been our patron from the foundation of the Abbey in AD 960, if not before. When Queen Elizabeth I re-founded the Abbey with its school on 21st May 1560 she confirmed St Peter as our patron designating us the Collegiate Church of the Blessed Peter in Westminster. The normal name, Westminster Abbey, obscures the connection. But St Peter is our patron, our champion in heaven, our example and inspiration on earth. So, every year here, this is a great day.
For the past forty years, St Peter's Day has been important for me personally. For eight years, from 1984 until 1992, I was vicar of a parish in Streatham, South London, whose church was dedicated in honour of St Peter. But the special significance goes back exactly forty years to the day when I became a cleric and was made a deacon in the Church of God by Mervyn Lord Bishop of Southwark in his cathedral church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie. I was ordained to a title, in other words was to serve as a curate, in the parish of St John the Divine Kennington just two miles from here the other side of the River Thames.
It was all very strange, wearing a clerical collar and a new black suit, and trying to get to know a part of London previously unfamiliar to me. I found myself driving down a one way street the wrong way. A car approached. We had space to pass, but the driver stopped and leaned out of his window – potential big embarrassment. I feared abuse, but he was respectful, something as a cleric I have tried not to take for granted. His words were both balm and irritant. 'Father', he said – that was the balm – then the irritant – 'you're going the wrong way.' I would often think of those words in my first few years as a cleric. I was going the wrong way down that one way street but I have never come to believe that I was going the wrong way by offering myself for ordination. I have often had good reason to question my ability to live up to my calling but never doubted my call by God to be a deacon and priest in the Church of God.
My ordaining Bishop Mervyn Stockwood in 1978 giving a long address to his clergy on his own call to ministry, focused on the call of Isaiah, which had also been important for me when at the age of seventeen I finally said, 'Yes, Lord; if that's what you want.' The prophet Isaiah, who lived in Jerusalem in the 8th century before Christ, described the wonderful vision of the Lord God he had received in the year that king Uzziah died. He had seen the Lord, high and lifted up with his train filling the temple and surrounded by the angelic seraphim. His vision convinced him of his own unworthiness to see let alone to serve the living God. A seraph, however, brought a live coal from the altar to cleanse his lips and prepare him for his work as a prophet. Isaiah then described hearing the Lord ask, 'Whom shall I send and who will go for us?' He said, 'Here am I; send me.' Or as Mervyn always said, 'Here am I; send me' with the emphasis on the send.
The clergy are sent by God, as are all God's people, not choosing but chosen. As our Lord Jesus said, 'You did not choose me; I chose you.' The word 'send' in Latin gives us the English word 'mission'. The Church is sent by God, has a task to fulfil the Mission of God. The Church is, must be, apostolic (the same idea in Greek: sent out) or as people say these days 'missional.' If the Church, then also the clergy as a whole: apostolic, missional.
We see this so clearly in the life of St Peter: called; inspired; sent. In the synoptic tradition we see the call first of Simon and his brother Andrew, fishermen, to be fishers of men. From St Mark's Gospel, 'As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, 'Follow me and I will make you fish for people.' And immediately they left their nets and followed him.' They heard Jesus' call and they followed him.
In today's Gospel reading we heard how Simon, much later, confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the title Peter or rock. Peter had his moment of inspiration and his mission. But he wobbled. The reading left out Jesus saying to him, after he had denied that Jesus would suffer and die, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.' He would wobble again later, when during the trial he denied ever having known Jesus. But the risen Jesus forgave him and restored him, and the Holy Spirit of God inspired him afresh to begin preaching to anyone who would listen that Jesus was alive, that life had conquered hatred, sin and death.
Call, inspiration, mission, failure, restoration: the repeated pattern is familiar to anyone seeking to follow Christ, and in particular those who have a vocation to ministry. We see it in our own lives, a pale shadow of the life of our patron saint, and we see it in the life of the Church. The Church is not perfect, far from it. Only one is perfect.
>Every Persian carpet contains a flaw in the design: a beautiful acknowledgment in the Muslim tradition that only God is perfect. We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, even though Son of Mary, flesh and blood like us, is perfect too. He shows us the way to perfection, offers us the hope of perfection, but woe betide us if we begin to think we can attain perfection this side of heaven. That surely is the way to perdition. We depend absolutely on the grace and power of God if we are to serve him at all. 'A seraph touched his lips.'
Call, inspiration, mission, failure, restoration: we see it here in the history of the Abbey too. We could look at the history of the Abbey in many ways but the history of its building is itself interesting. The great ages of building in the 10th, 11th, 13th and 14th centuries culminated in the magnificent achievement of the early 16th century with the nave completed and the new Lady Chapel built, consecrated 500 years ago next year. Then it was two and a half centuries to the state-funded western towers. What next?
Two hundred years ago, an American visitor to London, Washington Irving, described the hours he had spent in the Abbey on an autumnal day. 'There was something congenial to the season in the mournful magnificence of the old pile; and, as I passed its threshold, seemed like stepping back into the regions of antiquity, and losing myself among the shades of former ages.' He visited the Lady Chapel. 'The silence of death had settled upon the place, interrupted only by the casual chirping of birds, which had found their way into the chapel, and built their nests among its friezes and pendants - sure sign of solitariness and desertion.'
We in our generation are the beneficiaries of great restorations in the latter half of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Abbey's beauty for all to see is alive with visitors, worshippers, prayer and praise. The Abbey's mission, challenging in an age of doubt and uncertainty, to represent faith at the heart of our nation goes forward. May St Peter's prayer and example encourage us work and pray for a continuous restoration of Christian faith in our land and in our own hearts and lives.