Westminster Abbey, where Britain’s Prince William and Catherine Middleton are marrying today, is a London landmark. and for 500 years a house of worship of the Church of England. However, the church, actually dedicated to St. Peter, was for centuries Roman Catholic, and, indeed, it was the site of a Benedictine monastery.
An interesting point of English religious history is the appeal that Benedictine monasticism had in the country for so long. Benedictine monasteries once dotted the English countryside. Westminster came to be important because of its proximity to London, and beginning with King St. Edward the Confessor (1003?-1066), it was a favorite religious site for English royalty.
Thus, almost every king or queen of England has been crowned in the church, the last being Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. She and her husband, Prince Philip, were married there, as were her parents, the late King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Benedictine houses were not the only monasteries in England. Other religious orders had abbeys and convents. They were centers not only of worship but of education and of services for people. Their stories comprise a marvelous chapter in English history.
However, it was not without a less than glorious side. Gradually, often owning great tracts of land and enjoying privileges under the law, many monasteries grew to be rich and worldly, their religious character fading.
This slide into worldliness furnished an excuse for King Henry VIII to seize the monasteries, disperse the monks and take the lands and wealth for himself. All this occurred after the king split with the Roman Church, a move that deprived the monasteries of protection under the law.
His public motive was that too many monasteries had become corrupt. In fact, of course, he wanted what they had. Westminster definitely had become worldly and wealthy. When the king declared himself head of the Church in England, the abbot and many of the monks at Westminster pledged allegiance to him.
Their willingness to abandon loyalty to the pope, however, won them no privileges in the long run. Henry VIII seized Westminster. His Catholic daughter, Queen Mary I, reinstated it as a monastery and called the Benedictines back. Her Protestant half sister and successor, Queen Elizabeth I, disbanded the monastery once more.
No ruler ever completely shut it down as a church. It has remained a house of worship, although of the church founded by Henry VIII, protected and maintained by the British state.
Tourists today may have a difficult time realizing that it is a functioning church, but the same might be said for many historic Catholic churches on the European continent. Nevertheless, Anglican religious services regularly are held.
The abbey is not Westminster Cathedral. When Blessed Pope Pius IX re-established the English hierarchy more than 160 years ago, he could not use the old names for the dioceses that existed before the Reformation. Anglican dioceses were using the old names, and under British law, no other religious jurisdiction could carry the name. So, the pope could not re-establish the Diocese of London. Instead, he created the Archdiocese of Westminster, centering it in that part of London once occupied by Westminster Abbey property. Westminster Cathedral, a magnificent building itself, is the seat of the archdiocese.
Last year, Pope Benedict XVI joined the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury at evensong (Anglican vespers) in Westminster abbey. It was a poignant moment. The pope recalled England’s Catholic history.