We are delighted to share this post from our first Guest Blogger, Laura Arends at Westminster Abbey… reminding us all of how very special our sacred buildings and spaces are to the nation and the world.
Many of my colleagues who work in Cathedrals, Abbeys and Shrines will be familiar with the tremendous sense of privilege we feel working in these special places, knowing that for the best part of a thousand years people have visited to pray, worship and marvel at these incredible buildings. Daily, we are reminded that we are intimately connected with the past, placing our own feet on those worn steps, recounting the stories of the great figures of previous centuries and bringing to life those special treasures to delight our audiences. Those who work in newer foundations are not without their great stories, connecting them to those who have gone before and we will all be familiar with that tremendous feeling we get when a session has gone well and a group leaves with a special connection to the building, promising to return with their families as soon as they can.
For the past 14 years I have worked as Head of Education/Learning at Westminster Abbey and I can honestly say there has never been a dull moment working here. I have witnessed a Royal wedding, two major Royal funerals, great services to remember figures from the world of entertainment, services of thanksgiving and remembrance, interments and the unveiling of new memorials. And throughout all of those, I was crossing my fingers that I might get to see the event which makes Westminster Abbey unique: a Coronation.
For two weeks before the Coronation of King Charles III, all non-essential staff (and no matter how I might like to think of myself, I’m not essential!) were asked to work from home if they could. The Abbey closed to visitors and the build team came onsite. The Learning Department switched to online sessions, and we watched the fruits of our labours of the preceding months as the YouTube views of Coronation Club racked up.
On Coronation Day itself, I snuck into the library, clutching my special purple pass, to secret myself with a few other senior staff in the Muniments Room, standing on the balcony overlooking Poets’ Corner, and with one of the best views in the house! I had the Order of Service and with strict instructions not to use phones, crane our necks to see or move around during the service. Looking down, directly below me, I could see the representatives from the Commonwealth (Justin Trudeau, looking very excited to be there), as well as Jill Biden and Ursula van der Leiden (who was wearing the same outfit as me!).
From our lofty vantage point we could also see the regalia brought forward and placed on the altar, glittering in the lights of the BBC, the Coronation Chair placed on the Cosmati Pavement and we knew that we were going to have a wonderful view of what was to come.
Throughout the various stages of the service I concentrated, committing them to memory. I knew that I would be able to watch it all on iPlayer afterwards, but knowing that I was one of only about 2200 people witnessing this historic moment in person was quite awe-inspiring. I held my breath for the actual crowning of the King and Queen, and tried to peek through the beautiful screen during the anointing!
After the service, when the congregation had moved on and the Stone of Scone and the Regalia were left behind, protected by the Yeoman of the Guard, we took our selfies and returned to the library to talk about what we had just seen. There was a real sense of awe and we sat holding muted conversations, munching from a huge tub of crisps as we reflected on what we had just witnessed.
Whilst for many of my colleagues, that was the climax of years of preparation, for the Learning Department, it was the beginning of a time of unprecedented demand for our work with school groups. We have bookings for over 6200 for the period from May to July and healthy numbers for next academic year already. Helping young people to understand the place of the Abbey within the context of the history of Britain’s government and monarchy, whilst always keeping its role as a sacred space dedicated to God in their minds is a complex yet rewarding task.
For many of us in the Cathedrals Plus world it is our visitors’ first experience of a Christian church and we are tasked with the awesome responsibility of helping them to feel welcomed and inspired to learn more and that keeps us constantly seeking new ways to interpret out buildings, no matter what stories we are telling, great or small.
Laura Arends, Head of Learning, Westminster Abbey.