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1931: The Martyrdom of Oscar Romero, Westminster Abbey, London
Westminster Abbey, London
Photo: ChrisO
Mystery Worshipper: Deputy Verger.
The church: Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, London.
Denomination: Church of England. Geographically, it would be in the Diocese of London. However, as a Royal Peculiar, it doesn't belong to a bishop, but comes under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch (Queen Elizabeth II).
The building: It is massive, both physically and historically. King Edward the Confessor founded it in 1065, by which time there had already been a Benedictine monastery on the site for a century. For the past thousand years it has been the coronation church for an unbroken line of kings and queens from William the Conqueror (1066) to Elizabeth II (1953). More than 3,000 people are buried in the church and cloisters, and there are monuments and memorials to about 600, of which more than 200 are famously notable and 17 were royalty. Architecturally, the present building dates from 1245, and features fine examples of Gothic stonework in its pointed arches, flying buttresses, and sculptured roof bosses, and the highest vault in England (102 feet). The shrine of St Edward, who built the original abbey, has pride of place behind the high altar, and King Henry III, whose vision the massive church was, is buried near him. There are several side chapels in which regular worship services take place during the week. Evensong is sung in the quire and attracts hundreds of visitors daily. Larger services are held in the nave.
The church: Westminster Abbey describes itself as "the parish church of the world" for its strong historic links with Europe and America, and ongoing relationships with most Commonwealth countries, whose heads of state come and lay a wreath when on official visits to Britain. So that's a fairly disparate community. The abbey does have a small core of regular worshippers, and the resident households of clergy and staff number more than the congregations of many small parishes. Westminster School is also part of the community. There is a constant cycle of services, events, lectures, festivals, celebrations, concerts, consecrations and commemorations at Westminster Abbey. Four thousand visitors pass through the doors each day. Some are tourists, some pilgrims. They are all part of the wider community to which the abbey ministers, charging a hefty entrance fee to those who come sightseeing, but always granting free entrance for worship.
The neighbourhood: It's a tourist hotspot, as well as a very busy part of the working heart of London. You can't miss it. Immediate neighbours include the Houses of Parliament and their parish church, St Margaret's, which is run by the abbey. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is across the street, New Scotland Yard is around the corner, and in Dean's Yard behind the abbey are the head office of the Church of England and the historic Westminster School. The Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral is just down the road towards Victoria station. There are too many pubs, shops and restaurants to count, and any number of businesses, small and large, plus some seriously unaffordable central London homes and even some local government accommodation, with extremely long waiting lists.
The cast: The Very Revd Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster, presided, and the Most Revd and Rt Hon Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, preached. There were also a number of other clergy in the procession and sitting on the platform, some of whom played a part in the service.
The date & time: Palm Sunday, 28 March 2010, 6.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
A Service to Mark the 30th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Oscar Romero.

How full was the building?
The nave was full. In Westminster Abbey, that doesn't remotely fill the building, but the seats were turned inward to face a central aisle – presumably to increase capacity. A verger told me afterwards that there were upwards of a thousand people there.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were a great many red-robed marshals ensuring, as they do, that people presenting for worship don't slip off and sneak a quick peek at Poet's Corner or anybody's tomb. Having convinced one of them I was admissible, I was given an order of service. Then there were the honorary stewards who are always present at special services to ensure that the reserved seating is respected and the rest of us know our place. Under the circumstances of this particular service it was very pleasantly done, but I know it can be a bit brutal sometimes.

Was your pew comfortable?
Seating was in rows of chairs and they were comfortable enough. Any discomfort came from the seating arrangement – with the rows running the length of the nave facing inward, it meant that the people in the congregation were staring at each other, instead of at the back of someone's head, and that many on the north side couldn't actually see the archbishop preach without some serious twisting.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A bit bustling, with the stewards making sure people were where they should be, and people arriving up to the last minute. The crowd was murmuring quietly, with more of a pre-theatre atmosphere than a pre-service time of prayer.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
First came a hymn, then a recording of the last sermon preached by Archbishop Romero in San Salvador. In the service sheet, the words were translated as: "I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from your own people…" It went on and finished with an impassioned plea for an end to violence: "I implore you. I beg you. I order you in the name of God… Stop the repression." So that was quite a powerful opening for a service that happened to fall on Palm Sunday. The very next day after preaching that sermon, Romero was assassinated.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A 15-page order of service for the event.

What musical instruments were played?
The abbey's impressive organ was played by Robert Quinney, sub-organist. And there was a marimba, played by Sam Wilson.

Westminster Abbey, London
Photo: Aschaf

Did anything distract you?
The reliquary on the altar kept catching my eye. Fascinating. (See next question.)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a serious, formal occasion. The procession was huge, comprising the dean and chapter of Westminster, all five of them glorious in red and gold copes, as well as the present and former Roman Catholic archbishops of Westminster and some other clergy, plus chaplains and vergers in abundance. There were also several VIPs seated in the front rows, including His Excellency Werner Romero, Ambassador of El Salvador to the Court of St James; a representative of the Lord Mayor of London; and senior officials of the Archbishop Romero Trust. Despite the formality, however, it was not at all stiff. Representatives of other denominations and people from the Archbishop Romero Trust took turns giving the intercessory prayers. The New Testament reading was in Spanish. The marimba player gave the service a lighter note, as his first piece was a Mexican dance, followed later by something rather slower. After the intercessions, a wreath-laying ceremony took place outside the west door, over which is a statue of Archbishop Romero (pictured above). And after the service, many people went forward to venerate a piece of Archbishop Romero's blood-stained alb, which was displayed in a reliquary on the altar. So it was very reverent.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – I'm not sure what I am saving a 10 for, because if Archbishop Rowan doesn't qualify I can't imagine who does. His style is majestic. His enunciation is distractingly perfect. His voice is deep and authoritative. His understanding of his subject and his evident personal empathy meant that he came from the head and the heart equally.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Obviously, it was about Oscar Romero, former Archbishop of San Salvador, who was shot dead on 24 March 1980 celebrating mass in a hospital, and whose funeral was on Palm Sunday 30 years ago. It was about the duty of priests in times of violence to speak out, and that "if every priest is silenced" the people will have to speak for peace and justice themselves. Archbishop Rowan preached on the theme of "feeling with the church" which he had translated from Romero's Spanish. He said Romero had been a gentle priest who thought the sheep would be able to eat with the wolves, until he saw what the wolves were up to and realised what the shepherd had to do. He talked about the situation still being as grave as it was 30 years ago – the Anglican bishop in El Salvador had been attacked 10 days earlier. Oscar Romero was in office for three years during a time of terrible political violence. Six priests had been killed before him, but he continued to preach legendary sermons calling for peace and justice, knowing he was in danger. In an interview he said: "A bishop may die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never die," to which Archbishop Rowan added: "As long as one baptised Christian remains".

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The power of Oscar Romero's own words in the recording and the interview that were woven into the service.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was sitting on the wrong side to see the archbishop in the pulpit, his expression, or how much he was referring to notes. That was a bit frustrating and quite disappointing.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It wasn't that kind of service, and the abbey is not that kind of church. The archbishop, the dean and the ambassador were all available for handshakes at the door as the congregation departed, but the army of marshals, stewards and vergers ensure that nobody attending services at the Abbey goes off on a bit of sightseeing and do keep sweeping people toward the door.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None of that. No doubt there was some official reception for the VIPs, but there were no refreshments on offer for the congregation.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It's quite nice to pop in occasionally for evensong or a special service like this, but it isn't a community congregation as such. I would miss that.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I love the Christian saints and martyrs, and services of remembrance such as this help me try to keep humble.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I'm writing this more than seven days later. What stands out is the prominence that was given to the El Salvadorians and the people from the Oscar Romero Trust – the real sharing by the abbey, and especially hearing a couple of pieces in Romero's own words.
 
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