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Presbyterian “Holy Ground”

November 12th, 2009
The Fireplace in the Jerusalem Chamber

The Fireplace in the Jerusalem Chamber

One of the most exciting things for me in staying in the Deanery at Westminster Abbey is that I was sleeping less than 20 yards away from the Jerusalem Chamber. Presbyterians don’t believe in “holy ground”, but if they did, this would have to be in the top ten of most holy Presbyterian places.

It was in this room that many of the meetings of the Westminster Assembly of Divines took place in the 1640s when they discussed and agreed on the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as well as the Directory of Public Worship. For some of us, the Westminster Standards represent the high water mark of Protestant theology and they contain the system of doctrine which we subscribe ex animo as the confession of our faith.

Following the Remembrance Day Service in Westminster Abbey, the Dean entertained us to lunch in the Jerusalem Chamber. I was in conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and was expressing my delight at being able to eat lunch in such a location. He was quick to say that he had begun life as a Presbyterian and was aware of the significance of the venue.

The medieval house of the Abbotts of Westminster was known as Cheyneygates. (It sounds a bit like an American public scandal!) The principal room, the Jerusalem Chamber, was added by Nicholas Litlyngton (Abbot of Westminster, 1362-86). The origin of the name is uncertain but it was not uncommon in the Middle Ages to assign names to rooms. In the old Palace of Westminster there were three rooms called “Heaven”, “Hell” and “Purgatory”, and in the Abbey there is also “Jericho” and “Samaria”.

One of the most famous events in the chamber’s history took place besides the fireplace: the death of King Henry IV.  In 1413, King Henry IV was en route to the Holy Land, and when praying at St Edward’s Shrine he was taken ill, apparently with a stroke. He was brought to the Abbott’s house and placed by the fire where he recovered consciousness. King Henry asked where he was and he was told “Jerusalem”. The story is that the King realised he was going to die because it had been prophesied that he would die in Jerusalem. In Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare tells this story of the King’s death and has Prince Henry trying on the crown while his father lay dying.

The Jerusalem Chamber was also the venue for the committees engaged in writing the Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611 (400th anniversary coming up soon!), the New English Bible in 1961, and the Revised English Bible in 1989. The bodies of several famous people including Joseph Addison and Sir Isaac Newton have lain there before being buried in the Abbey.

The Jerusalem Chamber is today one of the private rooms of the Deanery, and is used for meetings of the Dean and Chapter, and for private meetings and receptions as arranged or permitted by the Dean. Thank you, Dean, for your wonderful hospitality, and thank you, Anton (Hospitality Manager) for the delicious lunch, especially the salmon and leeks. I have stood, and eaten, on “holy ground”.

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