Event Name Sermon given at the Vigil Sung Eucharist of the Annunciation of Our Lord 2017
Start Date 24th Mar 2017 5:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

I expect we all know what happened here in Westminster two days ago, on Wednesday, at about twenty minutes to three in the afternoon. A car was driven quite fast from the far side of Westminster Bridge towards the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square, our nearest neighbours. The car swerved on to the pavement and knocked down forty people, causing the death of three of them and potentially life-changing injuries to several more. The car was driven into the stonework and railings around the Palace of Westminster, causing further destruction. The driver ran with two knives towards the vehicle entrance into New Palace Yard and stabbed and killed an unarmed police officer. He was then shot and mortally wounded. Victims on the bridge – twelve Britons, three French children, two Romanians, four South Koreans and two Greeks – were admitted to hospital. A German, a Pole, an Irish person, a Chinese person, an Italian and an American also suffered in the attack.

How should we think of a terrorist attack of this kind, mounted by a British-born man who had converted to Islam and become a violent extremist? And how should we respond?

A Service Information board at a London Underground station was shown on social media as saying, ‘All terrorists are politely reminded that this is London and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on. Thank you.’ Not bad. In fact it was a spoof. But the point is that London has seen it before and seen worse. On 7th July 2005, bombs exploded on Underground trains and a London bus causing multiple deaths and terrible injuries. And in the days of the Irish Republican terror campaign in London, although warnings were usually given, people suffered severe losses. And the days of the Blitz during the Second World War have never been forgotten. As Winston Churchill said, ‘We will never surrender.’ London kept calm and carried on. So it will now.

Although London is in so many ways different now, a global city, with not only visitors but residents and citizens from almost every country in the world and with every kind of religion and belief, it retains the same resilience and determination to include, to respect. A symbol of this is in a meeting I attended yesterday afternoon at New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, London’s Bobbies. For some years, the head of the London police, the Commissioner, has chaired two or three times a year a meeting of the faith leaders in London, which I have attended. All the nine recognised world religions are represented, Jews, Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians and Baha’is and many of the divisions within religions, including the Christian denominations, and Shia, Sunni and Ahmadiyya Muslims. Our friendly collaboration and our collective repudiation and condemnation of so-called Islamic terrorism have resulted in a degree of preparation for the moment that arrived on Wednesday. Yesterday evening we were all there in Trafalgar Square with a vast crowd of silent participants at a brief vigil for peace, reconciliation and resilience with the police and political leaders. The witness will go on. We stand together. This great Abbey stands for faith at the heart of our nation. We are Christian and indeed Anglican offering daily worship according to our tradition. But we can also and do welcome on many occasions into this ancient sacred space representatives of other denominations and faiths to pray together and to worship the one almighty God, who is creator and Father of us all.

It may seem unlikely but I hope this narrative, and the experience that lies behind it, might help us reflect on the great doctrine we celebrate today. The Annunciation of the Lord marks the moment when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had a plan and a work for her. She was to be the mother of God’s Son. Through her, God’s Son, the eternal Word of God, would be born into human flesh.

But why? Why did God’s eternal Son, with God the Father from the beginning in heaven, united in love with the Father indeed before the creation of the universe, surrounded by the archangels and angels, the seraphim and cherubim and all the heavenly host, why did God the Son have to be born into human flesh and die as a human being? And why did Mary have to find that a sword would pierce her own soul also?

I remember my parish priest when I was a boy telling us about the reality of human sin and the reason why God had to be born as a human being, as one of us. He told us that every human sin was like a brick that had been placed to build up a wall between us and God. Our collective sin, the sins of every human being in history, had built an enormous wall dividing us from God.

Almost sixty years later, I cannot report in detail how he elaborated this idea. Perhaps he said that God could probably have simply knocked down the wall brick by brick, sin by sin. But that would have left human beings literally demoralised, lacking moral fibre, without moral purpose, failing in the will to repudiate sin and unable to do anything good. So, the prophets through history having failed to persuade human beings to reject sin and opt for God and goodness, the only alternative was for God to come himself, not in the guise of a human being, but as a human being, and knock down the wall by his own self-sacrificial act.

I recalled this image as I reflected on the reality of terrorism and our collective responsibility. We tend to consider sin a personal act. It is but much more. It derives from our collective consciousness and it contributes to our collective blindness. Each sin is part of every sin. Each act of terrorism and violence is part of every act of terrorism and violence and part of every act of cruelty and wickedness. These sins work together and divide us from one another. That is why it is vital now in response to so-called Islamic terrorism that the faiths stand together, including the leading representatives of the Islamic communities. And they do.

This collective sin to which we all contribute and on which we all draw, through our personal acts of human selfishness and little cruelties, our foolish ignorance and unconcern for others, our hard thoughts, our spoken and enacted sins, is ascribed to the original sin of our ancestors Adam and Eve, their wish to be equal to God, to know good and evil, to make their own choices in life, and is now indelibly marked in us all.

The Annunciation means that God in Christ is able to knock down the wall, to defeat the divides, to reconcile us with one another and with God. We desperately need the hope of salvation, the hope of deliverance from our selfishness and folly. God in Christ offers us today through his Body the Church precisely what we need to restore the dignity of our human race and to become again the people God calls us to be.

May we and all human beings come to know the gift of peace and reconciliation offered us in this holy feast and made real and effective day by day in this holy Eucharist. We do not need to despair in the face of terrorism and hatred. There is hope in our Lord’s glorious gift.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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