A privilege and a joy. Faith at the Heart of the Nation
A number of people have asked about my work at Westminster Abbey, so I thought I might use this article for just that.
I have been a Duty Chaplain at Westminster Abbey since 2004. The post is by invitation. There are around fifty of us to cover each week of the year, each Chaplain spending (usually) one week each year ‘in residence.’ The residence bit is literally true, as the Abbey provides a flat in the precincts, in Little Cloister, where we live from Sunday evening to Saturday lunchtime of our duty week.
Each day we join the Abbey clergy for meditation at 7am and Morning Prayer at 7.30am. The duty day on the ‘Abbey floor’ begins at 9.00. We move throughout the Abbey greeting the visitors, answering questions, but most importantly being available for conversation, prayer and counsel. A prayer is said from the pulpit each hour. We celebrate the Eucharist several times during the week, either in the Nave or the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor. We also take part in any of the main services that take place whilst we are on duty.
A quick look at the Abbey website will show you that there are a great many of them! Last time I was on duty, I heard twenty confessions and anointed and prayed with approximately the same number of people too. Most days end with Choral Evensong, usually with the wonderful Westinster Abbey choir. Duty Chaplains have their own stall in the choir.
My usual Duty week is during October, during the week long celebrations for the Feast of St Edward the Confessor, founder of the Abbey. This culminates in the National Pilgrimage Day on the Saturday. Many thousands of people travel to the Abbey to take part in all kinds of services and activities. I, as Duty Chaplain, play quite a large part in the whole week and day. Helen, who always spends the week with me, has, over the years, arranged for a number of schools from the diocese to visit too.
My first contact with the Abbey was many years ago – in the 70s in fact. I had won a prize from the Electrical Contractors Association for a piece of work I had done for a lighting design. Part of the prize was to work for a time with a specialist firm of lighting engineers. They had a contract at the time to renovate the enormous Waterford Crystal chandeliers in the Abbey. I had never been there before, but during the three weeks or so I went each day, I was captivated and I can only say that my faith and call to Ordination, which had waned for a time, was brought back to life. I developed a real connection with the Shrine of St Edward.
After a while, I summoned the courage to speak with my Parish priest at home. He was delighted and, completely out of the blue, gave me a little statuette of St Edward which had been his for many years. I have it to this day. The rest as they say is history!
But I never, for one moment thought then, that all this time later, I would be back at the Abbey, but now as a priest, working and celebrating the Sacraments there. As well as a Duty Chaplain, I am also an Oblate, that is, committed to being part of the community of prayer.
The Abbey has a unique place in the life of the nation. And it has a unique place in my heart and life. In many ways, it is an odd place. It is neither parish church nor cathedral. Being a ‘Royal Peculiar’ it is completely outside any diocesan structure. It is full of wonderful history and contains the graves or memorials to many many important people, including dozens of kings and queens of England, the Unknown Warrior, Isaac Newton, Darwin and Chaucer.
It is an internationally important heritage site. It costs quite a lot to get in – but millions do each year. But it is always free to enter for prayer or worship.
Each time I introduce the Hourly Prayer I say something like this:
“Welcome to Westminster Abbey. We are delighted to welcome you discover the history and many treasures of this unique place. But this is primarily a Place of Worship, the House of God, a House of prayer. I invite you just for a moment to move from being tourists to being pilgrims as we share this moment of prayer.” And so they do, thousands of people from all over the world.
People often come up afterwards to say thank you and to say it was such a long time since they prayed. A privilege indeed.
Next time I am there, why not come and visit? You would be very welcome indeed.
May St Edward pray for you and for me.