20 November 2012

Changing to Us at a special service in Westminster

Saint Margaret’s Westminster Abbey … where USPG becomes Us at this evening’s special service (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am in London today [Tuesday 20 November 2012] as USPG is changing its name to United Society, to be known as Us.

The change of the name is one of the steps this Anglican mission agency is taking to keep the Gospel message fresh and relevant.

The new look is being launched this evening in Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, with a reception afterwards in Church House, Westminster.

I have been invited to take part in this evening’s special service in Saint Margaret’s as a representative of USPG Ireland and as a member of the council of USPG.

The preacher this evening is the Revd Dr Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and there is music from the Zimbabwean choir Pahukama.

The speakers at the reception in Church House after the service include Father Andrew Devadason, from the Church of Ceylon, and there are films and presentations about the work of Us, a 311-year-old organisation working with the world Church to inspire communities to access healthcare, education and justice.

Inside Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey … the venue for this evening’s special service

Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, is in the grounds of Westminster Abbey on Parliament Square. The church is dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch and the parish church of the House of Commons.

Saint Margaret’s, along with the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey, form a World Heritage Site. But many people wonder why there is such a large church so close to Westminster Abbey, and why it is needed there.

Westminster Abbey began as a Benedictine Abbey, founded in 1065 through the patronage of King Edward the Confessor. However, the monks of the new Monastery of Saint Peter in Westminster were disturbed at their daily office by the people of Westminster who came to hear Mass. The monks built a smaller church next to the abbey to serve the local people, thus leaving the monks in the abbey undisturbed. Saint Margaret’s was built in the late 11th century, although there is no precise date for its foundation.

The first church was Romanesque in style and survived until the reign of Edward III (1327-77). The nave was then replaced with one in the Perpendicular style. Towards the end of the 15th century, the whole church had fallen into a state of dilapidation and needed to be rebuilt.

In July 1189, the Abbot and Convent of Westminster received a grant from Pope Clement III that confirmed that Saint Margaret’s Church was outside the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.

In 1222, the abbey and its properties, including Saint Margaret’s, were declared to be outside the Diocese of London and also exempt from the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Robert Stowell began to rebuild the church in 1482, and the church was consecrated on 9 April 1523.

Until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540, the church was served by the monks of the abbey, and the close relationship between Saint Margaret’s and Westminster Abbey has continued ever since.

From 1540, there was a short-lived Diocese of Westminster in the Church of England. The diocese, which survived until 1550, comprised the City of Westminster and the county of Middlesex, apart from Fulham, where Fulham Palace was the residence of the Bishop of London, and Westminster Abbey briefly became the Cathedral of Saint Peter.

When Queen Elizabeth I re-founded Westminster Abbey as a collegiate church in 1560, she maintained its exemption from episcopal authority and made the new foundation a “royal peculiar,” subject only to the authority of the monarch as Visitor.

In 1614, Saint Margaret’s became the parish church of the Palace of Westminster, when the 17th century Puritans, unhappy with the liturgical abbey, chose to hold Parliamentary services in the Saint Margaret’s.

After the English Civil War and the Caroline Restoration, the Parliamentarians who had been buried in Westminster Abbey were disinterred in 1661 and reburied in an unmarked pit in Saint Margaret's churchyard on the orders of King Charles II. A memorial to them is set into the external wall to the left of the main west entrance.

Other notable features include the East Window of Flemish stained glass, created in 1509 to commemorate the betrothal of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Other windows commemorate the printer William Caxton, who was buried at the church in 1491, Sir Walter Raleigh, who was executed in Old Palace Yard and then buried in the church in 1618, and the poet John Milton, who was a parishioner of the church.

The north-west tower of the church was rebuilt by John James in 1734-1738. At the same time, the whole building was encased in Portland stone. Both the east and west porch were added later by JL Pearson. The church’s interior was restored in 1877 by Sir George Gilbert Scott, who retained many of its Tudor features.

Saint Margaret’s Church and its parish were part of the “peculiar jurisdiction” until 1840 when they were placed within the Diocese of London.

By the 1970s, the resident population of the parish had dwindled to a few hundred and in 1972 the Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret Westminster Act redefined the church’s status. Its parish was re-allocated to neighbouring parishes, while the church and its churchyard were placed once more under the governance of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, with one of the canons of Westminster Abbey serving as Rector of Saint Margaret’s.

The current rector is the Revd Canon Andrew Tremlett, who was installed in October 2010. He was previously a Canon Residentiary at Bristol Cathedral, where he was responsible for the fabric and the cathedral’s development plan. At Saint Margaret’s he works closely with the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons.

MPs and staff members of the House of Lords and House of Commons are permitted to marry in the church, which is popular venue for society weddings. Those who have married here include the diarist Samuel Pepys, and prime ministers Sir Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan.

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