Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on St Peter's Day 2017
Start Date 29th Jun 2017 5:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

In a few minutes, when we have professed our faith together, it will give me great pleasure formally to install Martyn Atkins as a member of College. You may wonder what on earth that means. Since 21st May 1560, the official title of Westminster Abbey has been the Collegiate Church of the Blessed Peter in Westminster. A collegiate church has a collegiate body or College, by which is meant a community of people literally who read or study together. The College comprises twenty eight people, the Abbey clergy and some senior members of our community of staff and volunteers. Nine years ago, I invited two clergy of other denominations whose great churches are our neighbours, Westminster Cathedral and Methodist Central Hall, to join College. The Administrator of our Roman Catholic neighbour Westminster Cathedral Canon Christopher Tuckwell is a member of College. Today, the Superintendent Minister of Methodist Central Hall the Reverend Dr Martyn Atkins takes the place first occupied by his predecessor nine years ago.

I should add that in addition to College we are blessed with Greater College which includes the lay vicars and Abbey choristers and the forty Queen’s Scholars of Westminster School, very much part of our community. At the moment the Queen’s Scholars are all boys, but in September I shall, with the permission of The Queen, install as Queen’s Scholars, in addition to eight 13-year-old boys, four 16-year-old girls admitted to the School 6th form. So, in an ancient institution, innovation is possible. And of course innovation is necessary in a changing world.

We are all no doubt familiar with the hymn in which we plead with almighty God to abide with us since the darkness is beginning to surround us.

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Later in the hymn, we plead with the unchanging God, ‘Change and decay in all around I see. O Thou who changest not, abide with me.’ The hymn ends with confidence in God, ‘Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee. In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.’

So, should we regard all change as decay? I think not. We should interpret the hymn in the light of its having been written during Henry Francis Lyte’s fatal sickness in 1847, a short time before his death. The hymn is full of the hope of immortality even as it recognises the darkness the author himself, and so many people, encounter in this life.

We can set against this reference to change as decay, a far more positive and hopeful reference in the writings of another 19th-century churchman, in this case an Anglican priest who became a Roman Catholic and finally a cardinal and who has since been beatified by Pope Benedict XVI, John Henry Newman. In his essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, written two years before the death of Henry Francis Lyte, Newman said, ‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.

We need to change, to innovate, to adapt as circumstances change, to be flexible, responsive, engaged, not to be aloof and unbending. This is a serious lesson for the Church in our own day as it has always been a serious lesson for the Church.

We see the effect of change and the embrace of change in the ministry and mission of St Peter himself, whose feast we keep today, the Abbey’s patron saint from the beginning and for always. He may have been confused and uncertain at times and reluctant to embrace change but he got there in the end. In this, he is a wonderful example and model for us to follow.

Take two moments in his life. The first of these two moments featured in our gospel reading. Simon Peter was the first of the apostles to recognise Jesus as the long-expected Messiah and the Son of the living God. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is.’ Some said one thing; some another: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah reborn. Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ This changed perception was no doubt a gift of God but remains for us a moment of brilliant insight and remarkable change. Jesus is not to be regarded simply as teacher, friend and miracle worker. He is nothing less than the full revelation of almighty God, the Son indeed of the living God.

The second moment of embracing change was this. Again we should understand it to be a direct gift of God. Cornelius, the Roman centurion, was a Gentile, that is not a Jew. He was inspired to seek out Peter in Joppa. In the meantime, Peter was on the roof of the house where he was staying and fell into a trance. He had a vision of animals and birds the Jews regarded as unclean and therefore inedible, or at least not to be eaten. He heard a voice, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times. The message was clear. The Gentiles, whom Jews might regard as unclean, nevertheless could receive the gifts of God. When Cornelius and his household arrived, Peter witnessed them receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit. From then onwards, he was fully open to spreading the mission of the Church, its apostleship, well beyond the confines of the Jewish world. And he was to die, crucified upside down, in the persecution of the emperor Nero in Rome, where he had been preaching the Good News to the Gentiles.

How far and in what way the Church should change in our own day is a constant and sometimes agonising question. Not to change is not an option. But how far? In recent decades the Church of England has embraced the remarriage in church of divorced people and fully embraced the ministry of women as deacons, priests and bishops. Neither of these decisions was uncontroversial, although they seem obvious and right to the great majority of people now. Over the next few years the Church must and I believe will come fully to terms with same sex relationships and marriage. Not to do so would be to separate the Christian community from the prevailing mind of most of our fellow countrymen and women.

And now, following years of conversation and a developing covenantal relationship, another change is proposed for the Church of England and the Methodist Church together, an ecumenical advance. Although John Wesley was a life-long Anglican priest, the ecclesial community he founded, known as the Methodist Church, later divided and then reunited, continued separate from the Church of England. Fifty years ago, serious proposals for reconciliation between the two Churches failed. But the search for reconciliation has never been abandoned. On 1st November 2003, the Anglican-Methodist Covenant was signed in Methodist Central Hall in the presence of The Queen and the ceremony continued with a short service of thanksgiving and dedication here in Westminster Abbey.

A report published this week, called Mission and Ministry in Covenant, highly opportune for our celebrations today, proposes that ‘our churches are now ready to take a new step towards full visible unity in a relationship of communion with one another, sustaining shared commitments regarding episcopal and presbyteral ministries.’ In the formal language of the report, structural unity is not proposed, nor an end to our distinctive forms of church polity but a framework that will enable new and creative initiatives in mission and ministry.

We must change and we must live for the time being with anomalies if the urgent prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ is to be fulfilled. The night before he gave up his life for us all, Jesus prayed to his Father, ‘I ask … on behalf of those who will believe in me … that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’

Our patron St Peter heard his words and embraced the people of the Gentiles. May we this day commit ourselves afresh to work tirelessly to embrace our fellow Christians who are divided from us, and indeed all people of faith and goodwill.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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