Yesterday I traveled to Canterbury carrying my green cassock and yellow preaching scarf which is now quite familiar to many members of the United Reformed Church. I was also carrying a purple ticket which gave me entrance to the robing area in the crypt of the cathedral, a ticket to a tea after the service and another to the Enthronement Dinner in the evening and my passport in case the security staff needed to check who I was! Those of us who were to be included in the procession were asked to be ready to process by 2.00pm – the service was due to begin at 3.00pm but in the words of the letter of invitation the Procession ‘on this occasion is substantial’. The crypt gradually filled up with people from a variety of Christian and other faith traditions until all 600 who were part of this procession were assembled and marshaled into sections ready to walk round the outside of the cathedral and in by the West Door. What an interesting range of people, dress and crosses or other adornments, many of which were familiar but some which weren’t.
I had never been to Canterbury cathedral before and on entering was struck by its seemingly long narrow nave and the height of the area behind the screen which contains the Quire, High Altar and St Augustine’s chair. My seat beside the High Altar meant that I saw nothing of the first part of the service and had a very good view of the second part of which those in the Nave saw nothing. As we entered the choir were singing and as is often the case the sound was wonderful. There were hymns for the congregation to join in as we waited for the service to begin.
Then there was silence and the knocking on the door by the new Archbishop as he seeks entry to ‘his’ Cathedral. There followed promises, readings, hymns and other music, prayers and symbols – some like the Pastoral Staff designating the role, others from around the world reminding us all that what we took part in in Canterbury was not just about the Church of England but also about the Anglican Communion world wide. Archbishop Welby preached a sermon based on the words from Matthew chapter 14 verse 27 ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ He reminded the congregation that fear imprisons us but that Jesus can liberate giving us courage as he did for Peter stepping out of that boat. The Archbishop talked about the history of this country as, through its recognition of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, it ordered its laws and its society. He suggested that the current challenges of environment, economy, global poverty and human development could only be faced with extraordinary Christ liberating courage. He ended by talking about the involvement of the church in this country in (amongst other things) Food Banks, homeless projects and education and on the global scene, in refugee camps, hospitals and running elections. He suggested that all of these were the result of heeding the call to leave the security, take risks and be prepared to suffer but doing all that in the confidence of Jesus’ words – ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
As I reflected on the whole service and looked at the headlines of Friday’s papers I was struck by the way in which they judged this to have been a ceremony of pomp and exotic dancing. My own assessment was of something much simpler, much more dignified but with a range of hymns and music and, yes, there was lively African dancing! There were ‘firsts’ and ‘new’ touches, this is a 21st century Archbishop but there was for me great sincerity, and a sense of occasion without the drama which often seems to accompany such events.
Now we must pray for Archbishop Welby as he begins this challenging ministry, for the Anglican Communion as it witnesses and ministers in its widely diverse communities and for all Christians as collectively we heed the call of Christ, together with his assurance.