A Sermon from Sherborne

For the Friends of Sherborne Abbey, and for Patronal Festival

A sermon preached at the Abbey on Sunday 30 June 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


When people look at Sherborne Abbey, what do they see? They see different things. Some see the finest building in Dorset, with its glorious fan vaulting – of which Simon Jenkins says in his book England’s Thousand Best Churches, “I would pit Sherborne’s roof against any contemporary work of the Italian Renaissance.” Others see a place renowned for its choir and its music, and a wonderful setting for concerts and recitals. Some see thirteen centuries of history, ever since St Aldhelm, new bishop of the West Saxons, chose the “place of the clear stream” as the site of his cathedral. Some hear – rather than see – the heaviest peal of eight bells in the world.

Tradition certainly runs like a stream through the Abbey. Two Saxon kings are buried here; King Cnut and his Queen came to worship here. For over 800 years the chanting of Benedictine monks filled the air. Catherine of Aragon stayed here in 1501 on her way to marry Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s elder brother. Thomas Wyatt, Tudor courtier and poet, has his grave here; Sir Walter Raleigh worshipped here.

Tradition can be dead and stultifying, but at the Abbey it is a living tradition: the Abbey today is still the spiritual home of a large and vibrant Christian community. Its worship ranges from the great and glorious to short, half-hour services with children in mind.

It is now 23 years since the hearing before the Arches Court of Canterbury of an appeal from the Victorian Society against the verdict of a Consistory Court held in Sherborne Abbey in 1995, allowing the Incumbent and PCC to replace the glass of the Great West Window with that of a new design by Mr John Hayward.

I had inherited this project from my predecessor, The Very Reverend Robert Willis (now Dean of Canterbury). I have to admit that it overshadowed my first four years as a new Incumbent, and I regret the time I had to spend upon it which I should have been investing in the pastoral care of the parish. But that is all water under the bridge. In 1996 the Court of Arches assembled to make the final decision about the fate of the old west window, and John Hayward’s new design. The Victorian Society’s appeal was dismissed (with costs against them) and at last we received permission to install the new window, which has been regarded as a huge asset to the Abbey ever since.

I do not mention this in order to “crow” about an old legal victory, but because I have been reflecting on the evidence given at the Consistory Court by one of our many distinguished and expert witnesses. He commented that the Abbey, like all buildings of its great age and antiquity, should be regarded as a palimpsest. It was a new word to many of us. It can be simply defined as “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing”. And it refers, of course, to the time when parchment – made of lamb or kid skin – was so valuable that it would be re-used by scraping-off the top layer of writing and then reusing the fresh surface for new writing, of whatever kind.

Over the years, “palimpsest” has come to refer to this rhythm of erasure and rewriting, not just on parchment or vellum, but also on painted canvas, on wood and on stone. And the palimpsest which is Sherborne Abbey has been fortunate in its erasure and rewritings. Of course much was lost at the Reformation, and probably more still during the Commonwealth and Protectorate in the mid-17th century, when parish priests like me were ejected by the Puritans, and the Book of Common Prayer outlawed. But the good people of Sherborne had always been robust in their defence of what had once been their cathedral, and we suffered so much less than many other great churches.

Since then we have had many opportunities to enhance the building. The Victorian restoration was sympathetic (unlike so many) and on my own “watch” we have not just installed a new Great West Window but a splendid new window behind the font. We have erected not one but two statues of St Aldhelm, one on the plinth by St Katherine’s Chapel and the other in the vacant niche about the main porch. We have rebuilt the organ and installed a new section on the west wall. We have repaired and restored the vaulting under the tower, and at the same time restored and repaired the ceiling, walls and windows of the Quire. We have put in an all-singing-and-dancing lighting scheme which had made a huge difference to both services and concerts. We have made major improvements to the ringing chamber.

And so the story goes on. That is what stories need to do. Never, for an instant, should we sit back on our laurels and say “job done”. That would be to freeze the Abbey in one moment of time and condemn it to a slow and lingering death. No. We remain the spiritual home of a large and vibrant Christian community. We are not afraid of erasure and rewriting when it is necessary, but we know how to conserve the best of the past. On this basis we go forward with great confidence. And so much of that confidence is the result of the generosity and the kindness of the Friends of Sherborne Abbey. It is good to have this evening’s opportunity to thank them all, and to hope that others here will want to join them.

This is also, of course, the Abbey’s Patronal Festival, being the Sunday nearest to the old date of the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth – a thoroughly Biblical event which it is good to celebrate in a church dedicated to the Mother of Christ. We need to remember why so many of our pre-Reformation churches are dedicated to her. It is simply because God the Father was so often typified as a fierce medieval King, and his Son as an equally fierce medieval Prince, in a religion that was so often manipulated to reinforce the status quo in society. Ordinary people found great comfort in the thought that they could make their petitions through the intercession of the village girl from Nazareth, who seemed so much more accessible to them. It was a distortion of the Gospel which still has a great deal of influence over the faith of millions throughout the world. I prefer to mark Patronal Festival today as a celebration of the accessibility of God himself to us all. That is what this church stands for. Open, and free, and accessible, it speaks of the welcome God extends to all his people, young and old, rich and poor, saints and sinners. And in that the Blessed Virgin Mary would undoubtedly rejoice, and sing her Magnificat.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 30/06/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne