Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: Dedication of CS Lewis Memorial, Westminster Abbey
Date of visit: Friday, 22 November 2013, 12:00pm
The Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster 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 in 1963.
There is something about Poet's 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 Poet's 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).
What was the name of the service?A Service to Dedicate a Memorial to CS Lewis, Writer, Scholar, Apologist.
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 atmosphere?
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 service?
"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 service?
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 poem Love's as warm as tears, was noteworthy.
Did anything distract you?
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 sermon?
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 about?
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 would appreciate.
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 another visit (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 Christian?
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.