Event Name Sermon given at the Evensong with the London Mayors
Start Date 16th Oct 2016 3:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

As every family celebrates birthdays, wedding anniversaries and the anniversaries of the death of loved ones, as well as more public and private religious or political or civic festivals and occasions of celebration, so it is with every Church, and certainly here at the Abbey. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost mark the great turning points of our year, the pivots on which the whole pattern swings. Our patron is St Peter and his annual festival on 29th June we celebrate with a great service and something of a feast. Then there are other fixed points every year: Commonwealth Day on the second Monday in March, when we are blessed with the presence of The Queen; Anzac Day on 25th April, when the Abbey is full of New Zealanders and Australians remembering the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War; and Remembrance Day in November. Then there are many other particular commemorations. This year, we have marked the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme in the presence of The Queen. Last week we marked the beginning of the work of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, with a wreath-laying at the grave of William Wilberforce in the north transept, in the presence of the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Next month we shall mark the 60th anniversary of the Duke of Edinburgh founding his Award, known popularly as the D of E, for young people, in bronze, silver and gold standards.

But these few days in October mark a great domestic occasion for the Abbey, something of a birthday, an occasion we have been celebrating for hundreds of years. I can be more precise. 747 years ago on 13th October 1269, the current church building had reached a satisfactory point in its development, and it was consecrated or dedicated, in other words set apart, for the worship of almighty God. Much more building work would go on for another 500 years and we are still thinking of more to do, and much had gone on for 300 years before that. Even so, today we mark the anniversary of the Dedication of this Church. And for many decades now, we have been inviting the first Citizens, the mayors and chair-men and -women, of the various London Boroughs, the patchwork of local authorities which together make up Greater London, to come here to a service to celebrate London and to celebrate the Abbey.

We do so this year at a time of change, of transition. Of course, there is always change. London has changed dramatically during the years since the Second World War. The changes have been physical, from the early years of the 1950s when London was beginning to recover slowly from the widespread damage wrought by the devastation of bombing in that war. This building, like St Paul’s Cathedral, only survived through the constant care of fire-watchers. And during that same decade, the 1950s, London began to welcome, not always whole-heartedly at first we must confess, people from the Commonwealth, and eventually from the whole of Europe and the wider world, who brought their own traditions and energies, and contributed substantially to the wealth and welfare of the people of this great cosmopolitan community of London, now perhaps the wealthiest and the most diverse city in the world. That our citizens are now comfortable with our rich diversity has been powerfully demonstrated by the election of Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of a great world city, whose election we warmly welcome.

So, there has always been change. But now we find ourselves in a time of transition as we contemplate withdrawal from membership of the European Union and the renewed threat of the break-up of the United Kingdom. Not only this, but transition and change are found in the rest of the world, almost inevitably having an impact on our community life here in Britain. The current elections in the United States, the civil war in Syria with the involvement of Russia, the continuing impact of Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa and now in Europe: all this leaves us feeling anxious. Change can be wonderful, and we have to change if we are to grow, but it can also be terrifying.

How should we address these anxieties? How learn to make the most of our circumstances? One means is to give ourselves a wider perspective, to remind ourselves of times of change and transition that have been weathered, survived, through which people have grown.

It is worth remembering the events in this country that took place 950 years ago this past week, that is in 1066. The Battle of Hastings on 14th October that year was the turning point of history in this country. William, Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, invaded this country and defeated its king Harold in battle. The Normans overran the Anglo-Saxons, themselves a mix of people from other parts of western and northern Europe, who had invaded in the past few hundred years. The Normans imposed their way of life and their language and their style of building on the people here and removed all the power and authority of the Anglo-Saxons. In the end that was undoubtedly for the good of our country, which has always benefited from our links with the nations of Europe. But it was a bloody and painful time, as had been the Roman invasion a thousand years earlier, and as would be the transitions 500 years afterwards at the time of the Reformation, when we flipped and flopped backwards and forwards for 20 years seeped in blood, and 100 years after that in the Civil War, with such massive loss of life.

This historical perspective should remind us that leaving the European Union is unlikely to involve much shedding of blood and even the threat of religious fundamentalism and associated terrorism has to a large degree been kept at bay here, thanks to the effective work of our experienced and dedicated security services. We must never be complacent, though, or self-satisfied.

The readings we have heard from the Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London and the Lord Mayor of Westminster also offer us a helpful perspective as we face threatening change. The first lesson, from the prophet Isaiah, presupposes that the people who are being addressed have been through a time of terrible suffering. They have been in exile in Babylon for fifty years, with the whole pattern of their lives disrupted, their way of worship at the temple in Jerusalem destroyed. Now they are back and rebuilding. The prophet tells them that they must not be selfish. They are not to go their own way, serve their own interests or pursue their own affairs. They are to loose the bonds of injustice, to share their bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into their own homes. This is a powerful message, and not easy to follow. But in the second lesson from the gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ also tells us that ‘those who love their life lose it’ and ‘whoever serves’ those in need God ‘the Father will honour.’

It is so easy at a time of worry or anxiety to turn in on ourselves. But we must always turn away from our own needs to the needs of others. If our civic society, our communities, could be built on that principle how much happier and better we should all be.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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