If you think the average church pastor has a tough job, consider the responsibilities of the Very Rev. John R. Hall, dean of Westminster Abbey. Unlike the average Church of England vicar, who answers to a bishop, the Abbey (“Founded 960,” its website boasts) is under the direct charge of the British monarch.
Yes, Mr. Hall answers to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
While the average church might consider itself fortunate to get a few dozen visitors a year, Westminster Abbey logs approximately 1 million visitors annually, not a surprise given its pivotal role in British history: Since 1066, every monarch has been crowned in the Abbey.
The 64-year-old Mr. Hall, a 38-year veteran of Church of England service, was in Washington last month to strengthen ties with the National Cathedral and to cultivate more friends for Westminster Abbey on this side of the Atlantic.
Of the National Cathedral, whose Episcopal Church is a “province” of the Anglican Communion, Mr. Hall said it “feels so like our establishment — I mean, [it’s] the nearest thing in the United States to our establishment — that it seems right developing a closer relationship with them.” The Very Rev. Gary R. Hall (no relation), dean of the National Cathedral, recently spent time in England and with the Westminster Abbey leadership, John Hall said.
Why is the Abbey of interest to Americans? Certainly its role at the heart of events connected with the British royal family is a big part of it. For the past 100 years, almost all royal weddings have taken place there, most recently the 2012 nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton. (William’s mother, the late Princess Diana, was married to Prince Charles in St. Paul’s Cathedral, the only recent break with tradition, Mr. Hall noted.)
But there’s also a greater sense of history, Mr. Hall said: “The Abbey has the history not only of England and the Commonwealth, but also of the whole English-speaking world, with 3,300 people buried or memorialized in the Abbey, including many connected to America.” The Abbey, then, is a place of living history.
Just 10 days ago, the Abbey was the site for the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. While she acceded to the throne in February 1952 at the death of her father, King George VI, the coronation was planned for a year later. Special construction had to be done to provide seating for 8,000 — yes, 8,000 — guests, and it was hoped a June 1953 event would take place under sunny skies. As it happened, the clouds opened and there was “heavy rain that day,” Mr. Hall recalled.
Although it was the first coronation to be televised, part of the ceremony took place away from public view, he said.
“The one particular moment that wasn’t televised was in a sense the most sacred and special moment of the whole thing,” Mr. Hall said. “There was a canopy held over the queen. And rather having the robe of state, and being as it were in the glory of that moment, that was removed, and she simply had a white shift over her dress, and the archbishop of Canterbury anointed her with holy oil, on the forehead, and the breasts and the hands.
“That moment of anointing wasn’t televised and that is, as it were, the sacred heart of the ceremony, when she was set apart for the service of God and service of the people. And as Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon king, the Rt. Rev. Geoffrey Fisher, archbishop of Canterbury, anointed her queen.”
Hearing this, an interesting thought came to mind: The Church of England is struggling over the question of whether women, who have been priests in the church for several decades, could be appointed as bishops, or overseers of a diocese. Opinions on both sides are strong, and some “traditionalists” have moved to the Roman Catholic Church in protest — all this 60 years after a woman was anointed as the head of the Church of England and “Defender of the Faith.”
“There is an irony there, and I entirely recognize that,” the reverend said. “I think that the church has moved perhaps slower than the Episcopal Church in this country, but very strongly to accepting the ministry of women in ordained ministry.”
As to having women as bishops, Mr. Hall said, “It will happen, but it’s a question of how it happens.”
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at email@example.com.