Patronal Festival 2019: Sermon by the Dean of Westminster

High Mass of the Patronal Festival, 17 May 2019

The Very Revd John Hall, Dean of Westminster

I last preached for your patronal festival exactly ten years ago, when I was in my third year as Dean of Westminster; now I am close to the end of my term of office. I mentioned then my personal as well as corporate links with St Dunstan.

My secondary school was St Dunstan’s College, founded in your neighbouring parish of St Dunstan in the East in the 15th century, and revived after many years of lapse in Lewisham in 1888. I can say that the College flourishes, although its parish church sadly languishes as a city garden, no doubt bringing its own refreshment to the community.

But that is not of course St Dunstan in the West. When I was last here I had discovered on your website, and still there, a wonderful fact. I have repeated the story to every succeeding generation of Westminster School’s Queen’s Scholars. The story is that in 1666, the Dean roused the then King’s Scholars to carry buckets of water to Fleet Street to protect this church from the ravages of the Great Fire of London. This church was preserved, although of course re-built in the 19th century. Incidentally, the forty Queen’s Scholars have now become 48, with the addition of four girl scholars in each of the Sixth Form and Remove. Whether the current generation of Queen’s Scholars would be inclined to bring buckets of water from Westminster School to Fleet Street to save St Dunstan’s Church I somewhat doubt. But I would encourage them, if necessary, to do so.

My corporate links are not here. We now regard St Dunstan as the founder of Westminster Abbey. There are of course key moments of re-foundation. One is the consecration of the second Abbey church on the site on 28th December 1065, the church re-built at the order and largely at the expense of King Edward the Confessor, who would be canonised in 1161. Another date of re-foundation is 13th October 1269, when the third building, that of Henry III, was consecrated. That building of course survives, though it was extended in the 14th century and again in the 16th century, and the west towers were only finished in 1745. We might add another date of re-foundation, following the end of the abbey as a Benedictine monastery, 21st May 1560, when Elizabeth I established the abbey afresh as the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster.

The date of St Dunstan’s original foundation of the first church and monastic building, on Thorney Island a mile and a half south-west of the City of London, we take to be 960, or thereabouts; 960 was the year of his enthronement as archbishop of Canterbury, following his brief periods as bishop of Worcester and bishop of London. We know very little of that building. There are legends that king Sebert built the first monastery in the early 7th century. But they are not I believe true.

It makes sense to me that St Dunstan was the abbey’s founder. He had after all committed his life to the re-foundation and restoration of Benedictine monasticism in the land, just as he had himself restored Glastonbury Abbey as a Benedictine monastery after some years of devastation. He was clearly a man of unusual commitment, living for some time in a tiny cell in Glastonbury, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as kings favoured or disfavoured him, and finally triumphing, only to be set back again. His greatest period of achievement was in the reign of king Edgar, whom he crowned in 973, in a pattern that has been followed more or less unerringly ever since. Edgar was rapidly succeeded by Edward, who would be martyred at Corfe Castle, and then by Aethelred the Unready, who was crowned on Low Sunday 978 and who would be father of Edward the Confessor. Later Dunstan retired to Canterbury where he taught and prayed until his death in 988.

These Anglo-Saxon years before the Norman Conquest scarcely register within the history of our country that we learn at school, or indeed later in life. That era seems remote and uncertain, a time of warfare, as wave after wave of invasion succeeded one another, and as kings came and went with names we can scarcely pronounce or remember. But it was a time of faith and sacrifice as well as a time of conflict and bloody death; there were reverses and rebuilding.

We often think of the era following the Conquest in 1066 as having been more secure and certain, a time when the country was safe from foreign invasion. From the Romans to the Normans, invasions; from the Normans until now, peace. But the story is far more interesting and complex.

Take for example a moment in the 13th century. A dispute between King John and Pope Innocent III arose over the appointment in 1205 of a new archbishop of Canterbury. The monks at Canterbury in 1205 were split, some voting for their sub-prior and others for the royal candidate. Both sides sent delegations to Rome and the pope decided to hold an election himself in the Lateran Palace. Cardinal Stephen Langton was elected but King John rejected him. Whilst the king could not prevent his consecration in June 1207, he did prevent him entering England; and the king seized the archiepiscopal estates.

The pope’s extraordinary response was to put England under an interdict. For six years, from the middle of 1208 to the middle of 1214, there were no public services of worship in England of any kind. The people could not go to Mass, could not have their children baptised, could not get married, and could not be buried in consecrated ground. No bishop could be consecrated and there were no ordinations. All but one bishop left the country by 1211 and most of the clergy took up secular occupations. After the first year, the pope allowed monks to celebrate mass once a week behind locked doors, and he eased the restrictions in 1212 permitting the dying to be anointed and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. But the ban continued until king John caved in on 13th May 1213, and two days later England and Ireland were surrendered as vassals of the apostolic see. In November 1214, King John confirmed in the Church Charter free elections to church offices, meaning in effect papal control of the most senior episcopal and abbatial offices.

I wonder whether Henry III’s re-building of the Abbey, that began in 1245, was partly in reparation for his father’s folly. How would we know?

We could add many more hidden tales of distress and set-back for the Church, buffeted by reverses of various kinds. We may see our own time as one of almost unique threat and difficulty for the Church in this land as across Europe, though not elsewhere.

The story of St Dunstan is one of triumph against the odds, of sacrificial leadership and faithful determination: a time of recovery. There are many such times in our Church’s history.

May we hold fast to that which is good and be determined to remain faithful to our Lord whatever we must suffer as a result. And may we like St Dunstan win the crown of righteousness that never fades.