The Very Reverend Dr. John R. Hall, 38th Dean of Westminster Abbey, appointed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, is visiting Los Angeles for the first time, on a fundraising and “friend-raising” mission. To be exact, he is at the Getty Center on this warm Monday night, preaching to the converted. The auditorium is packed with Anglophiles.
Though he is responsible for the abbey's ministry and daily life, Hall is better known as the priest who conducted the wedding service of Prince William and Kate Middleton. “Which many of you followed with great attention,” he says to the eager crowd.
In the two years since the wedding, interest in the abbey has only grown. Today's slideshow tour – historical, architectural, a tad biographical – is about as close as you can get to London's famous attraction without actually being there.
“Imagine what it was like in the year 960,” Hall says, his voice rolling and dulcet. Westminster Abbey, then the tallest building around for miles, was built on a “damp little island” near London as a home and hangout for monks. From the 10th century, Hall jumps to the Battle of Hastings. Then it's “on we go” to 1953 with a photo of his boss the queen arriving for her coronation, smiling, looking “so relaxed.”
Neat and tidy in head-to-toe clerical black, Hall speaks with a confiding air, sans written notes, deploying an impressive array of dates, names and wry anecdotes.
He pulls up a photo of President Obama in the abbey, gazing skyward in a heavenly shaft of sunshine. It is, Hall says, “just wonderful how he managed to find the light.”
Next through the hulking Great West Doors, to the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. A soldier's body was randomly chosen from the battlefields in France and buried here, under French soil and Belgian marble. Now, every visiting head of state lays a wreath on it and prays for peace.
In the area known as Scientists' Corner, Hall points out the final resting places of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, for whom the unit of temperature was named. They're followed by Chaucer, Dickens and Tennyson, in Poets' Corner.
Then a photo of the chair where Hall sits during services: “This is my stool. Unless the queen is there and she kicks me out.” Then to the spot where the abbey was hit by German bombers – a fire that could not be put out. (The roof caved in and was subsequently rebuilt.) Then to Henry V, buried beneath a chapel flanked by spiral staircases, forming a kind of not-so-subliminal H. “I think he was a modest man.”
One hour and 1,000 years of history later, finally: the royal wedding.
Hall conducted the service. He greeted guests when they arrived. He led the bride up the aisle with her father to the high altar. He recited the preface, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together.”
Was he nervous? “It's a very curious thing,” he says – he thought he'd be, but wasn't.
He is not the person to whom the couple turn for spiritual advice. That's the Bishop of London, who gave the sermon at the wedding. Neither is he the guy who actually married them – that's the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Hall did give the blessing at the end, then took the royal couple into the shrine of Edward the Confessor to sign the registers, and sent them on their way. “I said to the Duke of Cambridge, 'Uh, there'll be a fanfare. And then you'll go.' And he said, 'Well, don't just tell us. Tell us when to go.'?”
“Your royal highnesses,” Hall said with solemnity. “Time to go.” He was, he believes, the first person to officially call Middleton “royal highness.”
President Obama, he adds, was a guest and signed the register as well. “The British press made a bit about the fact that he put his election year, rather than the actual year.”
Proceeding to the Q&A, one woman is surprised to learn that Mary, Queen of Scots, is buried at the abbey. “There must be a story behind that?” she asks.
“There is,” Hall says. After Mary's beheading, her sister and rival, Queen Elizabeth I, buried her body in a different cathedral, but Mary's son, King James I, eventually moved her to the abbey. Except her entrails, which were secretly buried at the execution site.
Another woman: “If you have to give up your seat to the queen, where do you move to?” Answer: to another stool.
Then one about Richard III, whose skeleton recently was found in a parking lot in Leicester. Are there plans to bury him in the abbey? “That's a very sharp question,” Hall says. The equally sharp answer is “maybe.” It's an issue of jurisdiction. Leicester has claimed the bones. But York wants them, too. “Kings and queens are buried in a most extraordinary jumble of ways.”
A final one about his job: How long is your appointment? Do you serve as long as your health will continue? “That's a very kind question.” As a formality, he is required to offer the queen his resignation when he is 70. But she does not have to take it. “That's in just a few months more than five years' time. So, we'll see how we get on,” he says. “I feel up for years and years and years. But the place is so captivating. There's a lot to do.”
Afterward, he notes, “They're very interesting, good questions. What they show is quite a depth of understanding and appreciation for the abbey.”
The large audience, he says, is “astonishing.” As people file out, the reverend finds himself in a receiving line of his own.
Alas, his trip to L.A. is a short one. Yesterday, he preached at St. James' Episcopal Church in Koreatown. Tomorrow he flies to San Francisco, then Seattle, then back home to London.
Westminster Abbey is not just where he works. It's where he lives. Does it ever scare him, living among 650 graves?
“I don't find it scary at all,” he says. Sometimes in the evening, when the organ is stilled after practice, and the lights are dimmed, he stands at a certain little balcony overlooking the nave and feels “the extraordinary, numinous atmosphere.” It is a thrill, being part of the history of the place.
He did not expect that he would end up there. Not when he was 17 and first came to believe the Lord was asking him to be a priest. Not even at 26 when he was ordained.
Nowadays it is his decision, and his alone, as to whose bones are laid to rest within the abbey. It is not a matter he takes lightly: He regards the place as an intriguing way to tell the story of England; the people buried there its most important characters.
Thus far, he has let in England's poet laureate, the founders of the Royal Ballet and a few prime ministers. Is there room for more? “There is,” he says. “But we wouldn't want to do it too often.”
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