Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist for the Translation of St Edward the Confessor, 2016
Start Date 13th Oct 2016 5:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Many of us who live here are troubled by a higher than usual degree of uncertainty about the future of this country. What will Brexit look like? Will it be hard Brexit or soft Brexit or clean Brexit or something else? If you have no idea what I am talking about, I am tempted to leave you in blissful ignorance. But perhaps I should explain for the benefit of visitors to the United Kingdom. On 23rd June this year, the people of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum by a small but significant majority to withdraw our country from membership of the European Union, which we joined over forty years ago. The process of withdrawal will not happen overnight, but looks most likely to be complete some time in 2019. Uncertainty, I have called it, not turmoil, but there will be big changes.

But we must put them in a historical perspective. Tomorrow marks the 950th anniversary of the best-known event in English history, the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. Now, 1066 was a year of turmoil. Consider the changes that took place within that one year, the year of the three kings. King Edward, known later as the Confessor, died on 5th January 1066 and was buried the next day in front of the high altar of the brand new church he had built on this site consecrated only a few days earlier on 28th December 1065. On that same day, Harold Godwinson, was crowned king of England here as Harold II. He was the brother of Edward’s wife Edith.

The problem was that there were two European rulers with links to England who thought they too had a right to the English throne. They each invaded England. The first was the king of Norway, Harold Hardrada. He was a descendent of Cnut, the Dane who had ruled England from 1016 to 1035. He landed in Scotland and then invaded England in the north-east. Harold II, Godwinson, rushed north and fought Harold Hardrada and his allies at Stamford Bridge on 25th September 1066. Harold Hardrada was killed in battle. But a second threat loomed immediately.

The news came that William, Duke of Normandy, had invaded Kent with a large force. Edward the Confessor’s mother was Norman, so William of Normandy was a distant cousin of the dead king. Harold II rode south and gathered forces as he went. On 14th October 1066, the decisive battle was fought near Hastings on the Kent coast. Harold II was killed in battle, perhaps with an arrow through his eye, and his troops defeated. William of Normandy, now known as the Conqueror, established his position and by Christmas was securely in control of England. He was crowned King of England in this Abbey Church on Christmas Day 1066, 950 years ago.

Two invasions of foreign armies, and two bloody battles, within one year, put our current uncertainty into perspective. We see bloody turmoil elsewhere in the world and have seen many bloody transitions here over the centuries but, perhaps questionably, we see our national life as more or less constant since 1066. Our extensive relations with the nations of Europe have been part of that constancy.

A more obvious symbol of constancy since 1066 has been the Monarchy, and of course the Church. Both Monarchy and Church are focused in this holy place in a very particular way through coronations and royal burials.

The presence of this Abbey Church beside the Palace of Westminster speaks powerfully of the place of the Church within our national life. And it is Edward the Confessor whom we celebrate today that we have to thank for this strong symbol. It was Edward the Confessor, following his accession to the throne in 1042, who decided to build his palace here a mile and a half south of the City of London and to rebuild beside it a monastery, already known as Westminster Abbey.

We celebrate today two moments when the Confessor’s body was moved from its original resting place. On this day in 1163, two years after his canonisation, St Edward’s body was exhumed from its grave and reburied in a magnificent tomb in his Church. Then on the same day in 1269, when the current building was consecrated, his body was reburied in the Shrine behind the High Altar where it rests to this day.

The Confessor built his Palace beside the Abbey so that the Church could be a flying buttress for his reign. Much has changed since then. The Palace has long since become the Houses of Parliament. And the country, in the years since the Second World War, has become in a new and wonderful way open to the world and inclusive of a rich diversity of peoples and faiths. So, does that symbol of Church and State survive? Does it mean anything in the country as a whole? Or is the Abbey now a relic in an alien world?

Certainly the days of the Church’s dominance are long gone. No one is obliged by law to worship God in a particular way, as people were well into the 17th century. And 150 years ago people were writing about the death of Christianity. Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, written in 1851, spoke of ‘the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the ‘Sea of Faith’. His reference to being ‘here as on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night’ could have been written for our current situation.

If our nation was ceasing to be described as Christian even 150 years ago, it was only half that time ago that Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, could say of the Battle of Britain in 1940 that ‘upon it depended the survival of Christian civilisation.’ The theme has survived in times of national darkness and gloom. And the influence of Christianity in this country continues to be significant.

In the Tablet, a religious weekly newspaper, recently, Nick Spencer wrote, ‘The United Kingdom is a deeply Christian place, although we are clearly not especially observant, pious or even believing today. Rather, we are Christian in the sense of having had our national identity, values and self-consciousness shaped by Christianity for over 1,500 years.’

Our national life, our worldview, is being described now not so much as post-Christian but post-secular. Perhaps it is the case that the secular worldview that predominated from the later Victorian era until the end of the 20th century has now given way to a worldview that recognises that religious faith has survived and the world must engage with the persistent reality of religious practice. So much has changed since 11th September 2001.

If that is so, the Abbey, with the Church more widely, has a vital role. We must keep the flame of faith alive. But we must do more. We have a vital responsibility in relation to our nation and the world. We must fan the flame of faith into a living fire, not in order to burn away the other faiths that flourish in our world, but to burn away all that threatens to destroy our faith, our peace, our fellowship, our humanity, our way of life. The Church in our day must do what it has always sought to do in the name of Jesus Christ: to work for renewal, for peace, for justice, to work for the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. The Church must not then curl up in a ball like a frightened hedgehog to protect itself from the world. We must continue to engage with the community, the nation, in which we are set.

In a few moments I shall install a new High Steward, the Duke of Buccleuch. You can read about his role in the service sheet. We might say that a key duty is to help prevent the Abbey turning in on itself, to keep us focused on the community, nation and world God has called us to serve: a high calling and a wonderful mission.

St Edward the Confessor knew, we know, as our blessed Lord said of himself, that the highest calling is to serve. The Church is called, we are called, to serve, ‘just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.’

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure