WESTMINSTER ABBEY – November 13, 1986


By Joseph M. Laufer


            The capstone celebration of the year of Halley’s Comet was the Memorialization Ceremony in Westminster Abbey in London on November 13, 1986.  Shown on these pages are excerpts from the dedication Programme, photographs and a report of the event that appeared in THE TIMES of London on Friday, November 14, 1986.


            Over 400 people were in attendance at the hour-long ceremony.  Westminster Abbey was closed to the general public during the service.  Attendance was by invitation only.


            The men and boys of the Abbey Choir, about 30 in number, sang hymns especially selected for the ceremony.  The readings and responsorials were all chosen because of some scriptural connection with the scientific event being commemorated.


            The key participants arrived in procession at 5:15 p.m., followed at 5:30 by the procession of the Collegiate Body (clerics and choir boys) as the hymn “Praise My Soul” was sung.  The lines “Sun and moon, bow down before him, Dwellers all in time and space: Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise with us the God of grace” are indicative of the theme which would be addressed in all the hymns and readings.

Joe Laufer, at far right, as dignitaries enter the Quire
of Westminster Abbey at the start of the service


            The Dean of Westminster Abbey then said: “In this Abbey, where other great scientists are honoured, we have come to remember the life and work of Edmond Halley, and to unveil a memorial to him.  In an age remarkable for its scientific genius he was a giant among scientists: a leading British astronomer, the close friend and promoter of Isaac Newton, a pioneer in the field of geophysics, the father of the science of solar eclipse, the discoverer of the proper motion of stars, the first man to chart the trade winds and the southern skies.


            “Edmond Halley was a man of generous and questing spirit, and it is right that we should now honour him in the presence of God, our creator and redeemer. ‘I will consider thy heavens, even the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained.’  Immediately picking up on this theme, the choir sang Psalm 8.


            Lord Blake of Braydeston, Provost of the Queen’s College, Oxford, read Job 38: 1-7, 31-33; 40: 3-5, which includes these words: “Cans’t thou bind the sweet influences of Pleides, or loose the band of Orion?  This was followed by the hymn which repeats over and over the verses, “O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea” – referencing Halley’s seamanship.


            The second reading was executed by Mr. Eamonn Andrews, well-known British Television personality (“This is Your Life”) reading from St. Matthew 2:1-12, the story of Christ’s birth.  The programme at this point reads: “Giotto di Bondone saw the comet of 1301 and painted the first realistic impression of it later as the ‘Star in the East’ for the fresco of the Nativity in the Arena Chapel, Padua” (Italy).”  It was followed by the Anthem from Haydn’s “Creation”, which includes the words, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, the wonder of his work displays the firmament.”


            At this point, Sir Andrew Huxley, O.M., F.R.S., Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, gave the address, which consisted of a recounting of the life and contributions of Edmond Halley.  The collegiate body then processed from the main body of the Church to the Cloisters for the unveiling ceremony.  The hymn sung at this point again referred to the Creator’s power as reflected in the sun, moon, planets and stars.


            At the plaque, the Dean invited Professor Sir Francis Graham Smith, Astronomer Royal, to unveil the Memorial.  After the unveiling, the Astronomer Royal said: “May I ask you, Mr. Dean, to take into your safe keeping, on behalf of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, this Memorial which has now been unveiled, and to dedicate it. 

Dignitaries unveil the Halley Memorial Plaque
in the cloister area of Westminster Abbey

The Dean responded: “To the greater glory of God and in honoured memory of Edmond Halley, I dedicate this Memorial in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  Wreathes were then laid, first, the Giotto Floral Model by Mr. R. M. Jenkins, Mrd. D.C. Link, and Mr. J. Simpson, members of the British Aerospace Giotto Team, and then the Halley’s Comet Society Wreath by the Earle of Rosse, Patron of the Society, and Mrs. Brian Harpur, wife of the Founder.  The Procession returned to the main body of the Abbey while the choir sang the conclusion of Tallis’s Canon.


            Then, Professor Sir George Porter, President of the Royal Society, read an extract from Halley’s Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets (1705).


            Prayers of Intercession followed, as led by the Reverend Alan Luff, who invited the congregation to “… give thanks to God for the wonders of his creation; for this earth on which we live, the solar system in which we are set, the whole cosmos of which we are part;  and let us give thanks for the intelligence by which we probe these wonders, and particularly for the gifts of both mind and heart that Edmond Halley received and that he put so fully to the use of his fellow men and women.”  There followed prayers for seamen and for the developers of science and technology.


            A final hymn was sung, followed by a prayer and the Dean’s blessing.  The dignitaries processed to the memorial and the members of the congregation were then invited to follow.


On the Memorial Plaque, the comet tail lists Halleys contributions
to Science and the deposit of knowledge

            The bronze plaque, in the shape of a comet, consists of a grey background with the lettering and streams of comet tail in color.  In the head of the comet is a representation of the Giotto-Halley intercept spacecraft.  The various accomplishments of Edmond Halley are listed as part of the comet’s tail.  The plaque is approximately  three feet in length and about one and one-half feet high.  It’s modernistic design contrasts dramatically with its setting in the ancient cloisters of the Abbey.  This, in itself, conveys the message of Halley’s Comet – an historic link with the past and the future.


            The ceremony was orchestrated by Mr. Brian Harpur, founder of the Halley’s Comet Society.  It was most impressive.  As an American invited to participate from a place of honor in the Quire, I shall long remember this as the crowning point in the year of the comet, 1986 and as one of the most significant events of my lifetime.


Joseph M. Laufer.


Halley’s Comet Watch Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 6 – November, 1986

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