|Comment on this report, or find other reports.
|Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you'd like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.
|Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.
of CS Lewis Memorial, Westminster Abbey, London
© Voices Compassionate Education and used under license
Worshipper: Acton Bell.
Church of St Peter in Westminster, London.
of England. Westminster Abbey is a Royal
Westminster Abbey has probably been Mystery Worshipped more
often than any other church in the world! Since the service
I attended was to dedicate a monument in Poets Corner, let me
limit my description of the building to that particular feature.
The south transept, which abuts some of the oldest parts of
the Abbey, is commonly referred to as Poets Corner. Geoffrey
Chaucer was the first poet to be buried there, but that wasn't
at all because he was a writer, bur rather because he lived
nearby and was the Clerk of Works. It took several centuries
before another writer joined him, namely Edmund Spenser, author
of the incomplete epic poem The Faerie Queene. Others
followed. By the 18th century the tradition to bury authors
in this particular space, or to erect monuments to those buried
elsewhere, was firmly entrenched. The memorials vary in style
from a simple stone slab to intricately carved memorial busts.
Some include eloquent epitaphs, often tinged with irony, such
as that of the poet Samuel Butler, who died in poverty: "He
ask'd for bread, and he received a stone." Memorialisation
sometimes occurs years after death, such as that of George Gordon,
Lord Byron (died 1824, monument dedicated 1969) and even William
Shakespeare (died 1616, monument dedicated 1740). Today's service
was held to dedicate a monument to CS Lewis, author of
The Chronicles of Narnia, among many other works, who died
There is something about Poets Corner that smacks a bit of the
absurd. As early as the 18th century, commentators were remarking
on how crowded Westminster Abbey as a memorial site had become,
and specifically Poets Corner, with memorial after memorial
very tightly packed together. Ben Jonson was buried standing
up in a wall in the nave, as he, too, died penniless and his
friends couldn't afford a proper coffin. His epitaph reads "O
Rare Ben Jonson", which is thought by some to be "Ora
re Ben Jonson" ("Pray for Ben Jonson") in
somewhat ungrammatical Latin. Occasionally one bone or another
pops out during renovations or reconstructions. I can't help
thinking that this mighty army of dead authors may one day rise
up, pens in hand, to protest some particularly annoying modern
day innovation (text messaging, perhaps?).
The Palace of Westminster, more commonly known as the Houses
of Parliament, is nearby, linking the Abbey visually and culturally
to the very center of Government.
The Rt Revd and Rt Hon. The Lord Williams of Oystermouth (former
Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams) was the preacher.
The service was conducted by the Very Revd Dr John Hall, dean
of Westminster. Also taking part were the Revd Vernon White,
canon theologian at Westminster Abbey; the Revd David Stanton,
canon treasurer and almoner, Westminster Abbey; the Revd Philip
Hobday, chaplain, Magdalene College, Cambridge; the Revd Adrian
Dorrian, rector, St Mark's, Dundela; the Revd Tim Stead, vicar,
Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry; Francis Warner, Ph.D., emeritus
fellow of St Peter’s College, Oxford (one of CS Lewis's
last pupils); Helen Cooper, Ph.D., professor of medieval and
renaissance English, University of Cambridge (chair held by
CS Lewis 1954-63); Simon Horobin, Ph.D., professor of English
language and literature, University of Oxford, and tutorial
fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford; Michael Ward, Ph.D., senior
research fellow, Blackfriars Hall, Oxford; and Douglas Gresham
(younger stepson of CS Lewis).
The date & time:
Friday, 22 November 2013, 12.00pm.
What was the name of the service?
A Service to Dedicate a Memorial to CS Lewis, Writer, Scholar,
How full was the building?
From where we were seated, directly across from the pulpit in
the crossing, it was difficult to judge exactly how many were
in attendance, since we couldn't really see much of the quire.
My rough estimate would be 400.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A very friendly verger greeted me with a smile and directed
me to one of the Abbey ushers, who were identifiable by the
ribbon and badge they wore around their necks. The usher who
helped me was quite friendly and suggested I move to a better
seat so as to see the pulpit better. I felt very welcome.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a folding chair that wasn't too uncomfortable. I doubt
I'd want to do the Easter vigil sitting in it, but for an hour
it was fine. We also weren't very tightly spaced, which was
a pleasant surprise. I wasn't left feeling like a sardine and
could stretch out within reason.
How would you describe the pre-service
Anticipatory is, I think, the best way to describe it. A very
tweedy type came rushing up to my row and demanded, in very
plummy tones, "Just a few 'graphs for the magazine, anyone?
Yes?" I don't think she was talking to me. I was also approached
by a woman with a heavy Northern Irish accent who asked me why
I was attending. She didn't introduce herself, and I had to
resist the urge to be a real New Yorker and ask her why she
wanted to know. I was also surprised to hear a wailing bairn,
wondering who in their right mind brings a baby to such a service,
but so be it. Cell phones and babies seem inescapable these
days, no matter where you are. (What must the residents of Poets
Corner think, I wonder?)
What were the exact opening words of the
"Fifty years after the death of CS Lewis, we assemble
to give thanks for his life and works." This had been preceded
by a sung introit, Veni, Sancte Spritus.
What books did the congregation use during the
A really lovely, four-colour service bulletin on heavy card
stock, with the Abbey's seal on the front cover and a large
picture of Lewis on the inside cover.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ. The service was sung by the Westminster Abbey Special
Service Choir, which was made up of about 25 men and women,
who were just about perfect. Musically the service was pretty
traditional, with lots of Herbert Howells in the mix. The motet,
Howells's Like as the Hart Desireth the Waterbrooks,
was quite evocative, and I noticed quite a few wiping away the
odd tear. An anthem written especially for this service by the
Welsh composer Paul Mealor (b. 1975), with a text from Lewis's
as warm as tears, was noteworthy.
Did anything distract
There were so many distractions it would be hard to count: a
woman quietly weeping, the vergers rushing to and fro, people
moving chairs, and the Abbey itself it is such an incredible
space, it is easy to get lost looking for something previously
unseen. I did have a head scratch at Douglas Gresham's outfit,
which consisted of white jeans, a leather jacket, jackboots,
pectoral cross, and a turtleneck turned down so low as to look
suspiciously like a clerical dog collar.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
About as stiff as it gets before hopping off into Latin, I suppose,
although there was a dash of Latin in the beginning with the
sung introit. The dean delivered the bidding, which was followed
by the hymn "He who would valiant be" (which my tone-deaf self
finds nearly impossible to sing). Then came a recording of Lewis
reading from "Beyond Personality," which was broadcast
on the BBC in 1944 and is the only surviving recording of his
weekly broadcast Lewis later included it in his book
Mere Christianity. Readings from scripture and others
of Lewis's works followed. The memorial plaque was unveiled
and flowers were laid thereon. That old standby "All creatures
of our God and King" was sung with great gusto by the choir
and congregation and was followed by Lord Williams's address.
The anthem, prayers, the Lord's Prayer, and more hymns followed.
The service concluded with a blessing and the Allegro maestoso
movement from Edward Elgar's Sonata in G for organ.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 I could listen to Rowan Williams read Chinese take-out
menus hour after hour on a continuous loop. He is, hands down,
one of the most brilliant preachers I've ever encountered.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
Lord Williams began by describing Lewis not so much as a Christian
apologist but as a writer, speaking to his demand for precision
in language and holding the belief that words should indeed
mean with they say. Sacrifice and belief, he argued, are commonly
held to be the hallmarks of Lewis's oeuvre, and they are indeed
there, but they are nothing without clarity and precision because
they clear away the cobwebs of self-delusion and are thus essential
to any understanding of Lewis's works. Obviously the Narniad
and Grief Observed, his two most well-known works,
detail what could arguably be the most honest descriptions of
loss and its relationship to Christianity, but one can find
those themes throughout Lewis's works.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The service was held on the 50th anniversary of Lewis's death,
so I was surprised and moved that such a public service held
very private meaning for the several close associates of Lewis
present. There were many who were visibly touched during the
service, and it was hard not to be struck by how deeply Lewis's
literary executor appeared to feel the emotions of the moment.
It was a great reminder that these events aren't just public
"dumbshows," but have real meaning an idea I think Lewis
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
I had always thought it too fantastical to be believed when,
in Victorian novels or the like, a character dies after a long
and painful illness caused by sitting exposed to a cold draught
for any length of time. I am now convinced that such a plot
device is entirely plausible. The temperature inside the Abbey
was positively arctic! I am sure I face death.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance of looking lost with the Abbey ushers on hand. Everyone
was directed to see the newly unveiled plaque, which caused
a bit of a traffic jam. Ultimately I had to give up, as I had
to get back to the office for a meeting.
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
Unfortunately I couldn't attend the gathering afterwards
pressing demands at the office but I did have a nice
word with the dean of Westminster on the way out.
How would you feel about
making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 I think if I knew that one day I'd be included in the
Corner or even a dim wall off in some nook like Ben Jonson,
I'd have a different rating. But since there's not a chance
in Hades, I'll have to stick with a 5. They do the big events
flawlessly, but since I'm no big event, I doubt I'd make it
my parish church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Absolutely! Lewis is inspirational, and I can't think of a more
suitable person to memorialise in Westminster Abbey.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Rowan Williams speaking so eloquently about Lewis as a writer.
I still think it is fascinating to hear a religious give literary
criticism of a literary figure whose focus was religious. There's
a perfect symmetry there that I think even Lewis would appreciate.
|We rely on voluntary donations to stay online. If you're a regular visitor to Ship of Fools, please consider supporting us.
|The Mystery Pilgrim
| One of our most seasoned reporters makes the Camino pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Read here.
| Read reports from 70 London churches, visited by a small army of Mystery Worshippers on one single Sunday. Read here.