Welcome to Westminster Abbey – and thank you to Westminster Abbey for having us back. Thank you to the building, to the ghosts, and particularly to the people who have enabled us as a school to return, and you, as individuals, to come here for assembly for the first time. Due to the quality of the Abbey sound system I expect that some of the Abbey’s people will be able to hear me – thank you. You may not have noticed many of the Abbey’s people on your way in – some of the red-clad marshals or beadles with their black uniforms maybe. The beadles are in charge of security for the Abbey and its precincts, the marshals are in charge of looking after people once they are in the Abbey. The people of the Abbey also include the clergy, headed by the Dean – basically the big boss of the place. Most Church of England churches answer to a bishop but Westminster Abbey is what is called a Royal Peculiar which means that the Dean doesn’t have a bishop to order him around – his boss is the queen. There are some Canons and minor canons. You may also have seen vergers, discretely lurking – their job is to make sure everything continues smoothly – in a service they walk in front of the clergy with a stick – a verge – to whack any sheep that get in the way. I’ve never seen them have to use the verge in this way but apparently in the middle ages it was a big deal. There is also a choir – not here right now – a clerk of the works who is in charge of maintaining the building and has a suitable collection of builders, carpenters and so on to direct. There are publicity people, and education people, fundraising people, and visitor experience people (under whose aegis we are here today) and to keep an eye on all those people there are HR people and finance people. It’s quite an organisation – but it was founded as a college, a place of learning – as well as worship – and that College exists as a group of people who you might see around the place wearing a costume of a bright red robe, a black gown, and flappy white preaching banns. As Principal of Harris Westminster I’m a member of College – as students of Harris Westminster I want you to feel that you are people of the Abbey, I want you during your time here to get to know it a bit, to marvel at what a wonderful place it is.
And what is this place? And what are the ghosts of which I speak. This is the third church built on this site – there are remnants of the earlier one but this building dates back 750 years to Henry the third. We’re sitting in the oldest bit – the nave we came through took some time to build, the lady chapel behind me is a Tudor fancy, the great west towers that define our view of it now are 18th century and, most recently, a tower in the corner off to my left is a 21st century afterthought designed to enable access to the triforium galleries above. The Abbey houses the graves of kings, starting with Edward the confessor, in a shrine behind the altar here and circled by those who followed him; and queens – Mary I and Elizabeth stacked one on top of the other, sisters in eternal bunk-beds in a chapel behind me and Mary II and Mary Queen of Scots in a parallel one on the other side. It has scientists – graves and memorials clustered around Newton in the nave, politicians scattered everywhere, but particularly in the north transept, and wordsmiths in the south transept, what is called Poet’s corner, inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer who was buried here not because of his amazing works or deeds, but because he lived here – he was clerk of the works.
One of the most recent memorials in Poet’s corner, more recent even than Harris Westminster’s association with the Abbey is to Philip Larkin who wrote what is by some considered the finest poem of the 20th century. Church going – the final stanza of which goes like this:
A serious house on serious earth it is
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet
Are recognised and robed as destinies
And that much never can be obsolete
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious
And gravitating with it to this ground
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in
If only that so many dead lie round.
The Abbey is filled with memorials to the dead and with their graves – you walked over them as you came in, they lie under your chair right now, they look down on you from all around – it’s a building filled with ghosts. And also filled with hope. Filled with life. Filled with the future – filled with you who are people of the Abbey and here with a hunger to be more serious – to know more, to understand more, to think more clearly, to judge more accurately, to create more inventively, to be better at all the stuff of life.
And so, since we are here, let us grow wise. Let us look forward to the approaching vacation – your first Harris Westminster vacation – and think about how it can be used. The first thing to say is that vacations count – how you use them counts – they are part of your time at this school and if they go by without you learning then you will lose out compared with those who fill them with amazing things. You should do three things this vacation, in equal measure. First, I want you to rest, to socialise, to sleep and to enjoy yourself. Relax for a third of the time. Second, I want you to read – books, ideally, but newspapers and magazines too – read words, learn how they work and how you can make them work for you. Read stories and indulge your imagination. Read about people and deepen your empathy. Read non-fiction about our wonderful world. Read for a third of the time. Third I want you to review. You’ve just completed responses – reflections on assessments and you have written the things you know and the things you should know but don’t yet – spend a third of your time reviewing your work over the last half term, sorting out your folders, memorising lists, practising questions, getting your head round what you need to know to start next half term. Read, Rest, Review in Equal Measure. The wisdom of the Harris Westminster vacation
But, before we go, one more line of Larkin – from the same poem “For though I’ve no idea what this accoutred, frowsty barn is worth, it pleases me to stand in silence here.” And so let us, people of the abbey, pause in silence, look around you, drink it in, grow wise, and more serious.