The new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, will attend evensong in Westminster Abbey next Friday. He comes already as a friend, but this is more significant.
He last robed at the Abbey a year ago, when Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, came to evensong and brought junior government ministers and senior officials with him. Archbishop Nichols, then Archbishop of Birmingham, joined the service in his capacity as chairman of the Catholic Education Service.
This time I shall welcome him formally as Archbishop of Westminster. He will be accompanied by the four Westminster auxiliary bishops, the Provost and Chapter, the cathedral chaplains, and Westminster Cathedral Choir.
He follows in the footsteps of his predecessors Cardinal Hume and Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor. In 1976, in an unprecedented move, the then Dean of Westminster, Edward Carpenter, invited the monks of Ampleforth to sing vespers in the Abbey with their former abbot on the feast of the Annunciation, to mark the year when Cardinal Hume’s archiepiscopate was inaugurated.
Exactly 24 years later, a few days after his installation in Westminster Cathedral, his successor, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, was also formally welcomed at an Abbey evensong.
On neither occasion was the Archbishop of Canterbury present. He will be on this. Relations with Lambeth Palace are a great deal more harmonious now than they were in the Middle Ages. Dr Williams gives the address regularly at great national services in the Abbey, as he will on Armistice Day this year. During Holy Week last year, he gave a series of lectures in the Abbey. This year, he presided and preached at the sung eucharist on Ascension Day.
On this occasion there is a more personal reason why it will be a pleasure to welcome Dr Williams to the Abbey with Archbishop Nichols. In January 2000, Dr Williams and Archbishop Nichols, one the Bishop of Monmouth, the other an auxiliary bishop in Westminster, both joined the church-schools review chaired by Lord Dearing. Its report, The Way Ahead: Church of England schools in The new millennium (2001), continues to influence the education policy of the Church and the Government.
THE CHOIRS of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral will sing evensong together when the two Archbishops come to the Abbey. This is a well-established practice during the Abbey’s annual celebration of the octave of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor. On 13 October 1163, two years after his canonisation, St Edward the Confessor’s body was transferred from its former grave to a new shrine in the church that he had built and that had been consecrated just after Christmas 1065, a few days before he died.
The new church, built by Henry III, was consecrated on 13 October 1269, and the body of the saint was again translated, this time to the shrine behind the high altar where it remains.
There was, however, a hiatus. At the Dissolution in 1540, the monks dismantled the shrine and secreted the saint’s body. At the Marian restoration of the monastery in 1556, the tomb was reassembled from imprecise memories, and the body was placed in the upper part of the stonework, no longer resting upon it, and under rather than within the feretory. Subsequent Cromwellian assaults on the Abbey left the tomb intact.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster will pray together at the shrine and venerate the remains of the saint with incense. At the end of evensong, they will give the blessing together. This pattern is a replica of that adopted when the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Ecumenical Patriarch came together for evensong in January 2007.
In his address at the Abbey in 1976, Cardinal Hume said that, like individuals, “communities and institutions can be wounded by their past. Our two Churches give proof of this. Our wounds are ancient; the healing is slow.
“The sister Churches can now look back on a past that is dead and buried. We can look forward to new life, to new hope and in God’s time to the goal of Christian unity.”
Such is still our hope.
The Very Revd John Hall is Dean of Westminster and former Chief Education Officer and Head of the Education Division of the Archbishops’ Council.
The Westminster Abbey celebrations of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor include a sung eucharist at 5 p.m. on the feast day, a joint evensong on 16 October, and the second national pilgrimage to the shrine on Saturday 17 October, with a sung eucharist at 11.30 a.m., at which the preacher will be the Bishop of London, and there will be opportunities to pray at the shrine. Choral evensong is at 3 p.m.
On Sunday 18 October, Edwardtide culminates in a celebration of the Abbey’s dedication, when evensong will be attended by the London Mayors.