The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Some images stay with us for a long time. Anyone old enough to remember will for ever recall a series of shocking images from New York and Washington broadcast on September 11th 2001. Even many not old enough to remember will hold in their minds an image of a little girl fleeing from a napalm attack during the Vietnam war in June 1972. And twenty years later powerful images remain with many of us of emaciated Bosnian Muslims in concentration camps and of the terrible slaughter in the wars in former Yugoslavia.
Now we have and will surely retain powerful images from the current refugee crisis: of a Turkish policeman carrying up a beach the body of the three-year old Aylan Kurdi; of a man and his baby cowering on a railway line in Hungary; of people being rescued from flimsy inflatable dinghies; of whole families crawling under razor wire fences; of hundreds and thousands of families and young people walking through the night to reach Austria and being carried on in buses to refuge in Germany.
We are all coming to know the statistics of the current crisis. But refugee crises are not new. Time magazine recently printed images of the refugee crisis in Europe at the end of the Second World War, in which 60 million people had lost their homes or had fled from danger and been displaced seeking refuge in a place of safety.
And the Bible has powerful accounts of refugee crises. The book of Exodus tells the story of the people of Israel desperate to escape the terrible persecution they were suffering in Egypt under a pharaoh who had no memory of Joseph. Led by Moses they spend 40 years on the journey to the Promised Land, years in which they complain bitterly that God has abandoned them to their fate, left them to suffer hunger and thirst in the wilderness, years in which they wonder whether it would not have been better to stay and suffer in Egypt. The manna from heaven and the water from the rock are part of the answer. God has not abandoned his people, even though they have turned away from God and disobeyed his commandments.
What stands out in all these images and accounts of the experience of refugees is the uncertainty, the fear, the confusion, the chaos. For most of us it is unimaginable to have nowhere to lay our heads, no place to call home, no knowledge of where we might eat or sleep in safety tomorrow or even today. The experience of moving home is uncertain enough. From the moment when all our worldly goods are packed up in a pantechnicon to the moment when everything is decently ordered in our new home, the disturbance and discomfort, emotional as well as practical, are bad enough. To have no home or prospect of a home would be terrifying.
Happily we are able to provide a home here in the precincts for Emma and Paul Arbuthnot whom we welcome to the Abbey community this afternoon. For Emma her work in Church House Westminster as a senior executive assistant in the Archbishops' Council's central secretariat will require only a short walk across Dean's Yard, little further than that for Paul to the Minor Canons' offices at 21 Dean's Yard. We hope they will both quickly feel at home here. They come originally from Ireland with substantial experience of life in Belfast and Dublin and most recently from St Albans, where Paul has been Precentor at the Cathedral and Abbey Church, the site of the first Christian martyrdom in these islands. The Roman soldier St Alban was converted to Christianity as he sought to protect a refugee priest fleeing from persecution. He gave his life that the priest might live, that the Good News of Jesus Christ should be spread.
Our Lord himself was a refugee. He with his parents, as St Matthew tells us, sought refuge from Herod's slaughter of the innocents, fleeing to Egypt. He, like the people of Israel under the leadership of Moses many centuries earlier, was to come from Egypt to the Promised Land, once the danger had passed, but not back to Bethlehem, rather to Nazareth in Galilee, where his ministry was to begin. Then he would have nowhere to lay his head, even while the crowds followed him. Later, after the crowds had abandoned him, he would experience for himself the depth of suffering of those despised and neglected, those tortured and abused, those condemned to a lonely and painful death.
The reading for the second lesson was from the Sermon on the Mount, St Matthew's record of our Lord's most radical and challenging teaching. It is not altogether easy. In this afternoon's lesson we are told that 'everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.' 'Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.' If misinterpreted this could be made to sound as though all we have to do as Christian disciples is make a lovely wish and everything we lack, everything we long for, will be given to us. But we know it is not as easy as that. Shut your eyes and make a wish and you will only be in dreamland.
The earthly reality is tougher. And the way for Christians is tougher, as we know from the persecution our fellow Christians have been suffering in the Middle East these last few years, as ever since the martyrdom of St Stephen, Deacon and Protomartyr, in the first days of the early Church. Jesus acknowledges this as true, just as he had known it and would know it more fully himself. 'Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.'
If we ask to follow this tough way, and determinethat we shall, then we shall receive, then we shall find salvation, then we shall know life.
Paul Arbuthnot joins the clergy team of the Abbey, which includes the Minor Canons and the Dean and Chapter, as well as our volunteer clergy, the priests vicar and duty chaplains, with a particular roleand task. His role has been described in the pew leaflet and in the installation ceremony itself. Above all, as a priest here, he is to serve and enhance the worship of almighty God offered in the 28 statutory daily services each week and in the many special services and religious ceremonies each yearand to support the Abbey staff and volunteers who play a vital role in making it happen.
The worship of God, the opus Dei, is our central task. Nothing else that the Abbey does is to be compared with this in importance. Without the centrality of this work, all else, and there is much else,would fall to dust. And the joyful and wonderful worship of almighty God, offered through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is glorious through suffering, prepares us to pass from this life, where we are in truth all refugees, to that place where we shall know as we are known, our true homeland in heaven.
'Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end.'