Event Name Sermon given at The Chapel Royal St James's Palace on Good Friday 2016
Start Date 25th Mar 2016 12:00pm
Description

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Many of us are conscious that we live with fragility. We may feel secure and much of the time we are secure, but there are always risks. This was brought home to me just recently in my role as chairman of governors of Westminster School, where tragically this academic year two young pupils at the Under School have died, one in an asthmatic attack and another of leukaemia. We are also preparing at the Abbey for a service of Solemn Commemoration next month for the victims last year in Tunisia of terrorist violence on the beach: families on holiday, hoping for peace and relaxation in the sun and sand, but 31 lives cut short, loved ones murdered, people injured and suffering trauma. Suddenly, in the middle of a happy moment, tragedy strikes.

This week we have been shocked again with the news of the suicide bomb attacks in Brussels. Again 31 lives have been cut short, reminding us of the suicide bomb attacks in London on 7th July 2005. Flags on government buildings have been flying at half-mast. At least the IRA attacks in London generally gave a warning so that civilian casualties were minimised. Now, it seems there is greater risk. But then I suppose it is no greater a risk than the risk we run every day of being run over by a lorry or finding out that we have a terminal condition. In truth, life itself is a terminal condition. We live with fragility.

'In the midst of life, we are in death.' Henry Purcell, a chorister here at the Chapel Royal and later Organist of the Chapel Royal and of the Abbey, at the same time, famously set those words from the Prayer Book to music for the funeral of Queen Mary II in 1695. 'In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O LORD, who for our sins art justly displeased? Yet, O LORD GOD most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.'

For many of us most of the time, the prospect of death itself feels remote. Part of the reason is that there are comparatively few perinatal deaths, deaths of infants before or after birth, so we are generally unaware of death in the family, perhaps until grandparents or even our own parents die. Another part of the reason that death feels remote is that, although we will perhaps be aware of illness and death in those quite near to us, and also aware of the impact of terrorism and war far away, something in the mind trusts to our own good fortune. Death happens to other people.

Death did not always seem so remote. Later this year we shall mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme with a vigil of prayer through the night on the eve of the battle. The vigil will begin with a service in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen and continue with representatives of all those forces that took part a hundred years ago in the Battle standing guard around the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. In the morning, at 7.30, the moment the men went over the top, a short service will bring the vigil to an end. That service will begin with the blowing of the very whistles that sent the men out of their trenches across into no man's land, and for many of them to their death.

Almost twenty five years ago I went to work in Lancashire as diocesan director of education and as I travelled around the diocese of Blackburn I discovered in a church in Accrington reference to the Accrington Pals. The War Office had developed the idea that groups of friends signing up together might be kept together and work with greater mutual support and loyalty than people from disparate backgrounds. So some hundreds of young men joined the army together and stayed together, training first with primitive weapons and later developing their skills. They were saved from engaging in battle from joining up in 1914 until the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916.

The General Officer Commanding the 94th Brigade wrote of that morning, 'The result of the high explosive shells, shrapnel, machine-gun and rifle fire was such that hardly any of our men reached the German front trench. The lines which advanced in such admirable order, melted away under fire; yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks or attempted to go back. I have never seen, indeed could never have imagined such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination.'

British casualties that day alone totalled 60,000. Of the 720 Accrington Pals who took part in the attack, 584 were killed, wounded or missing. Percy Holmes, the brother of an original Pal, recalled 'I remember when the news came through to Accrington that the Pals had been wiped out. I don't think there was a street in Accrington and district that didn't have their blinds drawn, and the bell at Christ Church tolled all the day.' They knew that day how fragile is life, how great the risks.

Nor does death seem so remote for many of our contemporaries living in other parts of the world. Think of the millions of people who have travelled in fear from the devastation in Syria and the hundreds of thousands who have headed for Europe in the hope of a safer life. It requires of us a great effort of imagination to conceive what it must be like to be bombed out of our homes and leave with nothing but the clothes we stand up in and a few precious objects, above all our children. So many of them have died in the search for dignity and freedom. Their determination in the face of peril leaves us aghast.

The message of hope is that death only appears to be the final conqueror. It is certainly true that the immediate battle for life is always lost. We shall all die. But that is only part of the story. Death could not hold our Lord Jesus Christ. Death appeared at first to have conquered him. But our Lord conquered death. And he harrowed hell, defeating even the 'bitter pains of eternal death.' Death has lost its power over us. Our Lord Jesus Christ by conquering death opened for us all the way to eternal life.

'Do you not know', St Paul asked, 'that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.'

John Donne, who was appointed by James I Dean of St Paul's and served there for ten years until his death in 1631, lived at a time when death stalked the streets and alleys of London. He addressed the issue direct in one of his best known sonnets.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.

From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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