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Westminster Civic Service

Read Fr Christopher Colven’s homily at the the Westminster Civic Service at Westminster Abbey on Sunday 7 July. Lord Mayor of Westminster, Robert Rigby, former Chair of the Catholic Union, read a lesson.

Fr Christopher Colven is the Catholic Chaplain to Parliament.

One cannot enter this great building without being awed by its incredible history – so much of the story of what has made our country what it is, has been played out within these walls, from the funeral of Saint Edward the Confessor down to the coronation of King Charles 111. As its name suggests, this was originally a monastic foundation, an abbey, rooted firmly in the rule and traditions established by Saint Benedict. This Benedictine heritage is maintained in the daily rhythm of prayer and worship which we find so beautifully thriving in this building, and it provides a fitting context for the City of Westminster’s Civic Service this year, as its current Lord Mayor is himself a devoted son of Saint Benedict, educated, as he was, by the monks of Ampleforth Abbey.

Another son of this great tradition was Joseph Ratzinger who, on being elected to the papacy in 2005, took the title Benedict XV1. He did so, as he explained on many subsequent occasions, because he saw the Benedictine enterprise as being central to the formation of European civilisation. He wanted people to understand the sources of their shared values and to re-find and embrace their common heritage. The Christianity we have received, particularly in these islands of ours, is deeply indebted to Benedictine monasticism with its love of beauty, its pattern of order, and its commitment to intellectual rigour. Saint Benedict’s Rule, “a school in the Lord’s service,” as its author described it, is essentially balanced, and moderate, allowing room for the individual to grow and to flower within a human community where sanctification is sought, and found, through a profound interaction with neighbour.

In 2010, Benedict XV1 paid a pastoral visit to the United Kingdom. One of the highlights of that visit was the address that the then Pope delivered to Members of both Houses of Parliament gathered in Westminster Hall – not a hundred yards away from where we are now worshiping this morning. He began by praising the Christian humanism, exemplified by Thomas More, which underpins the pluralist democracy we have inherited, and went on to challenge his audience: “the central question is this: ‘Where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?’” Benedict provided his answer: “I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue for the good of our civilisation. In other words, religion (he continued) is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contribution to the national conversation.”

This most gentle of pastors then took on a more personal tone. “I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly Christianity, which is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”  Benedict’s concern is echoed by Sir Larry Siedentop, the political philosopher who died a few days ago, when he asks: “If we in the West do not understand the depths of our own tradition, how can we hope to take our place in shaping the conversation of mankind?”

The growing secularisation of Europe is something which the faith communities need to take seriously: there are many questions – some of them very painful – which we need to ask of ourselves, but this is a civic service for the City of Westminster, which is situated at the heart of the great metropolis of London. The last census in 2021 asked a question about religious affiliation. Not, it should be noted about whether individuals believe in the existence of God, but about their self-identification with a particular form of religion. Sixty-seven per cent of those living in this capital city do so identify themselves. Two thirds of our neighbours see themselves as following a faith tradition. That figure should give us all cause for much thought. London is not the secular place that it is often assumed as being. The majority of its citizens are people of faith, and that needs to be taken into consideration as, together, we seek to establish a matrix for the common good.

For the faith communities there is a real challenge to find levels of genuine dialogue which address shared problems and help us better serve all our brothers of sisters, non-believers, and believers alike. Inter-faith converse and co-operation is no longer a luxury, rather a dramatic necessity in these fractious times. But the challenge is also to government, in its national and local forms, to take more seriously the potential contribution of the wide and varied constituency represented by the faith communities. We are here in large numbers, willing to help in building a humane and diverse environment, valuing the unique dignity of every person whom, we believe, to have been created in the image and likeness of God.

I stand here in this privileged position as a Christian, and as a Catholic, and all that I have tried to say is summed up in that passage which the Lord Mayor read earlier from the Letter to the Romans. They are words of one of Christ’s greatest servants, but they also convey sentiments which, hopefully, set out a shared agenda and give us a blueprint for working together as faith communities, within civil society, for the greater good. “Do not let your love be a pretence but sincerely prefer good to evil. Rejoice with those who rejoice and be sad with those in sorrow. Treat everyone with equal kindness, never be condescending but make real friends with the poor. Do all you can to live at peace with everyone.

Pictures: the Lord Mayor of Westminster at the lectern, credit Dean and Chapter of Westminster.