Westminster Abbey, London

Commemoration of the Martyrdom of Archbishop Romero, Westminster Abbey, Westminster, England


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Mystery Worshipper: The Revelator
Church: Commemoration of the Martyrdom of Archbishop Romero
Location: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 March 2010, 6:30pm

The building

What can be written about Westminster Abbey that has not already been written? Let me say only that it is a large Gothic church, built and altered over a period of 150 years from 1245. It is renowned for its single narrow aisle and high vault (highest in the United Kingdom). The west front of the Abbey contains 10 statues of Christian martyrs. Among these is one of Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, better known as Archbishop Romero, the 30th anniversary of whose martyrdom was remembered in today's service.

The church

Again, what can be said about the functions held at the Abbey, and its programs and ministries, that everyone doesn't already know? Permit me merely to remind the reader that the Abbey has witnessed the coronation of all monarchs since the year 1066, and 17 monarchs are buried there. It is also the main venue for royal weddings. The Abbey holds daily services and organised tours.

The neighborhood

The Abbey's central location puts it within walking distance of innumerable famous buildings. It shares its site with the very lovely St Margaret's Church, but its most famous neighbour is the Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament.

The cast

The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Rowan Douglas Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, preached. The Very Revd John Robert Hall, dean of Westminster, conducted the service. The Revd Ralph Godsall, minor canon, led the prayers, with contributions from His Eminence Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, retired Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster; the Rt Revd Michael Charles Evans, Bishop of East Anglia; Clare Dixon, secretary of the Archbishop Romero Trust; The Revd Vaughn Jones, chief executive of Praxis; and Jan Graffus, curator of Stonyhurst College and custodian of the relic of Archbishop Romero. Also taking part in the service were the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster; His Excellency Werner Romero, Ambassador of El Salvador to the Court of St James; Julian Filochowski, chair of the Archbishop Romero Trust; and Sandra Zamora. Robert Quinney, sub-organist at Westminster Abbey, presided at the organ. Mr Sam Wilson played a selection on the marimba.

What was the name of the service?

A Service to Mark the 30th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Oscar Romero. Romero served as Roman Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador from 1977 until 1980. On 24 March 1980, while celebrating mass in a hospital chapel, he was assassinated by a hit squad in retaliation over a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's violations of basic human rights. In 1997, His Holiness Pope John Paul II declared Romero a Servant of God, the first step on the road to canonisation

How full was the building?

To capacity.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There were two rather officious gentlemen at the Abbey gate who were trying to ensure that only worshipers entered the service. Inside the Abbey, we were ushered to our seats by several people wearing Papal insignia, who managed to be friendly and helpful whilst being exceedingly quiet at the same time.

Was your pew comfortable?

We had padded seats which were joined together in rows.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was very quiet and reverential. No one was speaking.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The service began with an excerpt from Archbishop Romero's fateful sermon (translated from Spanish): "I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army... Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says: 'Thou shalt not kill.' No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God... I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A booklet especially prepared for the service.

What musical instruments were played?

The Abbey organ. Mr. Sam Wilson played Mexican Dance No. 2 by the American percussionist Gordon Stout on the marimba.

Did anything distract you?

This was my first ever visit inside the Abbey, so I found the magnificent splendour of the building itself distracting. I just couldn't help diverting my eyes to the stained glass, the statues, the fantastic ceiling, and the glorious but tasteful vestments worn by the dean and archbishop. Also in my direct line of sight was a certain retired member of Parliament who is much admired. I was trying hard not to stare. The candle stands were protected by red fire blankets, which also drew my gaze, much to my annoyance.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Very serious and reverent, befitting the subject matter. Ambassador Romero and other dignitaries were received at the west door and conducted to their seats. A fragment from the blood-stained alb Archbishop Romero had been wearing at mass the day he was martyred was placed in a reliquary on the altar. The epistle was read in Spanish; the gospel in English. After the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon, the intercessions, and the Lord's Prayer, a wreath was laid under the statue of Archbishop Romero. The service concluded with a final prayer and blessing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

I did not think it was the appropriate occasion or place to time the sermon.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 – Dr Williams was vested very plainly. His sermon was quiet and respectful but quite passionate and assertive at the same time.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Dr Williams described Romero's journey during his ministry, his passionate advocacy of the poor, and his refusal to advocate violent struggle. He mentioned the ongoing plight of the Salvadorian people and talked about this in the context of Easter, the suffering of Christ and the nature of sacrifice.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sermon, actually. Dr Williams is sometimes portrayed in a derisory manner, by both secularists and Christians alike. On this occasion he was truly excellent. I initially thought that a little bit more drive to his speech was needed, but thinking it through, I believe he struck the right balance without compromise.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I initially found myself getting a little prickly over the relic issue, but it was all presented very tastefully and treated with extreme respect by the congregation.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

You do not hang around the Abbey looking lost.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None, but we got to shake the dean's hand.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – Wouldn't that be just great!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Very much so, but it also reminded us that that this can also mean great sacrifice.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The sermon.

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