Michael Middleton recalls his time as Canon Treasurer at ‘the nation’s parish church’
For a building that has an international role in hosting Heads of State for wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and has a continuing national role for coronations, funerals, memorial services and much else, Westminster Abbey retains an aura of sanctity. There is much to pull at the heart strings and inspire meditation as the pilgrim walks round. The architecture, the beauty and inscriptions on tombs all add to the spiritual atmosphere. Saint Faith’s Chapel is rarely seen by visitors, but for those of us who met for Matins and Mass each morning it provided an intimate and contemplative setting.
It is worth remembering that Westminster Abbey was built as a Benedictine Monastery by Edward the Confessor. He did not live long enough to see the fruit of his planning, dying in the week following its consecration on 28 December 1065. Edward was first buried under the High Altar and is the only English monarch to be canonised. The Abbey was built in an important strategic position near the royal palace by the Thames, so it is no surprise that William the Conqueror chose this church as the setting for his coronation. The association with these two kings ensured the Abbey’s pre-eminent position in cementing the links between Church and State.
Henry lll rebuilt the Abbey, incorporating a shrine for Saint Edward behind the High Altar. This, at a stroke, gave this important monastic church another role as a popular pilgrimage destination. It is reported that the sick made pilgrimage to the shrine and knelt in the recesses to pray for healing, some sleeping there overnight. Others, wishing to possess something associated with Saint Edward, prised the small decorative stones away from the base and took them home. One of my memorable moments there was escorting ex-President Bill Clinton on an informal visit. It was soon after 9/11 and I offered to say a prayer for the American people. He immediately turned to his bodyguards and ordered them to switch off their intrusive walkie-talkies. They obeyed, if reluctantly, and the sacred atmosphere gave us the necessary quiet space.
Medieval pilgrimage came to an end with the Reformation but fortunately Henry Vlll left the tombs and monuments intact, only removing the gold and jewels from the Shrine. The wish for the continuity enshrined in the Abbey also seemed to have affected Oliver Cromwell who did not plunder whole-scale either. Interestingly he was buried in the Lady Chapel, which is, appropriately, just across the road from Parliament. He was only there for a short time and then the House of Commons voted to remove his remains. Who knows what secret ambition motivated Cromwell to be buried among kings?
The Catholic Mary Tudor died childless in 1558 and was buried in the north aisle of Henry Vll’s Lady Chapel. The coffin of the Protestant Elizabeth l was placed on top of Mary’s in the vault, and Elizabeth’s effigy is the centre piece of the monument. Partners in throne and grave, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters in hope of the Resurrection is the original inscription, to which has been added recently another poignant ecumenical one: Remember before God all those who divided at the Reformation laid down their lives for Christ and conscience sake.
Martyrdom and Ecumenism is the theme continued on the West Front of the Abbey. In 1998, in the presence of The Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury unveiled the ten statues commemorating Christian martyrs of the Twentieth Century, an age when more people died for their faith than any other time in history. They are drawn from every continent and many Christian denominations, including a relative of Prince Philip, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, a saint in the Orthodox Church killed by the Bolsheviks. The most moving moment came when the godson of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (another of the ten martyrs) played Bach’s Saraband for solo cello; there was hardly a dry eye among us.
War, conflict and injustice are bound to take a prominent position when Church meets State. Outside the Great West Doors at the foot of the North West tower, a slab of green Cumberland slate, within a circle of York stone, commemorates the Innocent Victims of Oppression, Violence and War, unveiled by the Queen in 1996. My most memorable duty there was on a freezing February Sunday in 1998 when as Canon in Residence I had been asked to say prayers with a group demanding an enquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday in N. Ireland. As I approached, I realised that it was going to be a difficult occasion for some in coming to a place which could be seen as a symbol of the Establishment. The tension was certainly there, but the arrival of Tony Benn saved the day. In no uncertain terms he proceeded to announce that I was giving up my time to be of service to the assembled company and to say a prayer. After that we proceeded and, to everyone’s surprise, the setting-up of an enquiry under Lord Saville was announced a few weeks later!
My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. This wonderful quotation from Wilfred Owen commemorates the War Poets in Poets’ Corner. Who can read this today without thinking of the scale of the sufferings of the Ukrainian people? It is in Poets’ Corner that most visitors find a name they know among the memorial stones and windows. Wordsworth, Lewis Carroll, Jane Austen and many more are all commemorated here. But the one that seems to attract most attention is Charles Dickens whose large slab indicates that he was buried here – not by his choice but by public demand. Hugely popular in his own lifetime, he is obviously on the syllabus of almost every English literature course abroad. Besides poets and authors, memorial inscriptions around the Abbey recall remarkable lives. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1864) was a friend to slaves, while Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded. The monument to Isaac Newton dominates the nave, and among other scientists remembered, the famous equation describing the behaviour of the electron is inscribed on the memorial stone to Paul Dirac (1902-1984).
Just as Dirac’s equation heralded a new scientific age, so the decision of the Queen to permit the televising of the Coronation in 1953 marked a new technological age for her ‘Royal Peculiar’ (a church under the monarch’s jurisdiction and outside diocesan structures). Now there would be opportunity for vast numbers to feel part of royal and national occasions, never better illustrated than for Princess Diana’s funeral. The service had worldwide television coverage which led to an influx of overseas visitors to the Abbey. While many marvelled at the building, others were far more interested in knowing where Elton John’s piano had stood! The funeral of the Queen Mother was also broadcast far and wide. Other than the solemn service, my abiding memory is the weight of the black copes we wore, obviously made at a time when thick blanket was the favoured lining. In contrast, no cameras, or even guests, were permitted at the installation by the Queen of new Knights of the Bath. The required canonical uniform was a rather smart pink silk cloak over red cassock and surplice.
Let me conclude by quoting an extract from the sermon the Bishop of Carlisle, Harvey Goodwin, at the funeral of Charles Darwin: ‘I think that the interment of the remains of Mr Darwin in Westminster Abbey is in accordance with the judgement of the wisest of his countrymen…It would have been unfortunate to give weight to the foolish notion that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God’. The fact that Darwin is buried in the North aisle of the Nave next to Sir John Herschel (mathematician, scientist, inventor) goes to demonstrate the tolerant and inclusive attitude that has characterised the Abbey, which I hope will continue to be a place of prayer, pilgrimage and welcome.
The Revd Canon Michael Middleton is Canon Emeritus of Westminster where served from 1997 – 2004.
Photographs courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster.