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A busy week at Westminster Abbey

04 May 2011

The Dean of Westminster, John Hall, describes the run-up to The Wedding.

Holy Tuesday

I THINK we decided that the choir should present Bach’s St John Passion on the Tuesday of Holy Week before we knew about The Wedding (we like capital letters at the Abbey), though we may already have had an inkling about the Royal Maundy. The place was full, and the evening very striking, with all the soloists from the Abbey choir.

Maundy Thursday

WHEN it is full, the atmosphere in the Abbey changes with the service. Remembrance Sunday is often very tough, usually one or two people fainting — a guardsman one year, though there was no sympathy from his superiors, who suggested a little restraint the night before, plus break­fast, might not have gone amiss. I’m planning a good breakfast on the 29th.

The Royal Maundy was one of the happiest occasions, and all the re­cipients were thrilled. Many of them, from the dioceses of Sodor & Man and Europe, had travelled far.

A friend wrote to me afterwards: “I am very much in favour of this par­ticular ceremony, as it keeps (how­ever precariously) at the centre of our national life the Christian vision of ruling as service, which Her Majesty believes in profoundly and expresses convincingly, and which can’t be emphasised too much in the current climate.”

Easter Eve

THERE are two confirmations a year, one for Westminster and local schools, and another for the choir­boys and Abbey community. This year, a number of the candidates had not been baptised, and their baptisms added greatly to the thrill and joy of that night. After the service, I always give out Easter eggs in the Choir School, and answer any question they choose to ask. I was there for half an hour before fizz in Little Cloister.

Easter Day

HUNDREDS had to be turned away on Easter Day for the sung eucharist. All 2000 seats were taken, and hun­dreds stood. There was a wonderful sense of worship, and more than 1500 communicants.

There were huge numbers later in the day, too, and, of course, plenty of people hoping to come in as tourists, who don’t always understand that the Abbey is closed to tourists on Good Friday and Easter Day, as on every Sunday.

This level of interest is difficult for our staff: one of the marshals was elbowed in the ribs by an elderly woman; another was pushed over and grazed his arm. If we didn’t charge entry for tourists, it would be bedlam. We’re steeling ourselves for the week after the wedding, and have devised a special route and leaflet.

Easter Wednesday

THE final rehearsal with the couple and those most closely involved. The trees and flowers are in place, and the lights and cameras, though the car­pet is still to come. The sub-organist is at the console so that we can get the timing right for the bridal pro­cession. “I Was Glad” is quite long; so the walk will be ultra-slow.

I think it will feel comfortable. Everyone wants to get it really right. The couple think hard about their movements, and seem really pleased. A good rehearsal forearms against last-minute nerves. You can say it was all right yesterday with no one around; so why not today with 2000 people in the Abbey and two billion watching on screen?

Can it really be that many? You can persuade yourself it makes no difference, inside the Abbey, anyway. I think.

Easter Thursday

THE security is tighter than ever. The two youngest bridesmaids are not staying in the Abbey for the ser­vice, but will spend the time in a sitting-room in the Deanery. When I come back to the Deanery after morning prayer and the eight-o’clock mass, I find a policeman in my kitchen, running a test for ex­plosives.

He is good-humoured and apolo­getic. “I’m only a simple copper,” he says, before explaining the chemistry of the test. “I’m only a simple clergy­man,” I say, and mean it, not having understood a word.

Next, more searching, this time with dogs. They seem apologetic, too, and to lack interest — a good sign, I think. Later the explosives copper comes back, too friendly to be alarming.

Later, while they’re laying the carpet, and just before some of the wedding commentators come in to sniff the air and see the trees, I wander through the royal chapels, and find myself praying for the couple, surrounded by the tombs of St Edward the Confessor, Henry III, who started to build the current church, Edward I, Edward III, Richard II, who almost completed it, and Henry V, who decided exactly where he wanted to be buried.

I have a strong sense of the warm embrace of history, and all the Abbey’s experience ready to enfold and uplift this couple, who are em­barking on a public life together, much of which I will never see. We each play our small part in the great story.

The Wedding Day

REHEARSALS over. Now it will be for real. At 6.30 a.m., I’m in the Abbot’s Pew, the Deanery oratory, overlooking the nave. Later, the state trumpeters will be there, and some photographers. Now it’s just me, with the daily reading from the Rule of St Benedict, the Fathers (Jeru­salem Catecheses today), and half an hour’s reflection. The nave is more or less quiet.

At seven o’clock with Theo, one of our very articulate choirboys, there’s another media interview, this time with BBC Breakfast. Then it’s morn­ing prayer for the Abbey clergy and religious in St Faith’s Chapel, before celebrating the eight-o’clock mass (just five of us, plus the saints and angels) to the sound of the fanfare trumpeters readying themselves for the National Anthem.

There’s time for some secular ballast, a good breakfast, before visit­ing the crowd opposite the Abbey with the Canons, and getting into the line-up for the Governors General and Realm PMs by 9.30 a.m.

The Abbey looks wonderful, and there’s a terrific buzz in the con­gre-gation. It feels good. Everyone’s happy. Some nerves, but nothing out of control: more a sense of the great machine lifting gently off the ground and floating forward, serene and certain, and of ancient institutions forever new.

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