Abp. Welby’s Humble Pageantry
  • Thursday, March 21, 2013

By John Martin

After a morning jog in the otherwise empty precincts of the 900 year-old Canterbury Cathedral, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby tweeted, “Out early this morning, Canterbury is beautiful, human scale and history falling out of the walls everywhere. Grateful to be here.”

Tweeting his thoughts was just one of many personal touches marking a memorable day in the life of the Anglican Communion and its new primus inter pares. No longer was the occasion labelled a regal-sounding “enthronement”; a more down-to-earth “inauguration” sufficed.

For the first time an Archbishop of Canterbury was accompanied by a female chaplain, the Rev. Jo Bailey Wells, and the first female Archdeacon of Canterbury, the Ven. Sheila Watson, seated him on the throne for the Diocese of Canterbury. This was the first Canterbury installation streamed via the internet.

When the archbishop knocked on the great west door of his Cathedral, instead of being greeted by a posse of dignitaries, he was met by a 17-year-old girl of Sri Lankan heritage. Evangeline Kanagasooriam, a regular worshiper at the Cathedral, asked, “Who are you?” and “Why are you here?” The reply took the understated tone that is already a trademark of the new archbishop. He was Justin Welby and he had “come knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, and in weakness and fear and in much trembling.”

From the start he nevertheless looked as though he was enjoying the occasion. He wore a cream-with-gold cope and mitre with fish symbols. It is a gift from the widow of one of his former theological college teachers, the late Rt. Rev. Ian Cundy, Bishop of Peterborough, and the work of Julia Hemingray, who created Archbishop George Carey’s enthronement robes.

Hope and risk-taking was the theme of his sermon. Jesus Christ calls us to step outside the comfort of our traditions and places “and go into the waves,” he said, echoing the Gospel reading (Matt. 14:22-33).

“There is every possible reason for optimism about the future of Christian faith in our world,” he declared. “Optimism does not come from us, but because to us and to all people, Jesus comes and says: ‘Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.’”

The church transforms society “when it takes the risks of renewal in prayer, of reconciliation and of confident declaration of the good news of Jesus Christ. In England alone the churches together run innumerable food banks, shelter the homeless, educate a million children, offer debt counselling, comfort the bereaved, and far, far more. … Internationally, churches run refugee camps, mediate civil wars, organise elections, set up hospitals. All of it happens because of heeding the call to go to Jesus through the storms and across the waves.”

The Anglican Communion was writ large in the service order. The Most Rev. Bernard Ntahoturi, Archbishop of Burundi, delivered a Francophone blessing in a deep, resonant voice immediately after Welby sat in the chair of St. Augustine. Local young people led intercessions circling the Compass Rose, symbol of the Communion, set in the floor in front of the altar. Standing nearby was the Rev. Canon John Peterson, president of the Compass Rose Society, which supports the archbishop’s international work.

Accompanied by a remarkable organ improvisation played by Matthew Martin, representatives of Anglicanism’s five regions each placed symbols of their life and work on the Canterbury altar, including a Jerusalem cross, a picture made of rice grains from Hong Kong, a basket from Kenya, art from Congo, and from the Americas a pottery pitcher containing river waters carried by Adele Finney, executive director of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (Canada).

There was a Punjabi melody and African drummers and dancers filled the cathedral with a loud rhythm as they accompanied Welby to and from the nave steps for the Gospel reading. Welby’s mother and stepfather commissioned a new anthem by Michael Berkeley, using the Rule of St Benedict: “Listen, listen, O my child.” Hymns included an ecumenical blend of old and new: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts, “And Can it Be” by Charles Wesley, “I Am the Light” (a new hymn by the Very Rev. Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury), and “In Christ Alone” by contemporary hymn writer Stuart Townend.

Leaders from various other religions, including Muslims, Buddhists and Jews, were invited guests. The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall attended, with Prime Minister David Cameron and Ed Milliband, Leader of the Opposition, sitting side by side.

During the service an ecumenical covenant was signed with representatives of other churches in England. The Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, read an epistle and told reporters before the service that it was “exhilarating” that Welby was taking over at the same time when his church had chosen a new pope. He said Pope Francis had “a clear sense of affinity with Justin Welby, very strongly pressing the need to proclaim the gospel.” In a message Pope Francis said he hoped for a meeting in the near future.

The date had notable resonances: March 21 is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1556. It is the feast day of St. Benedict of Monte Cassino, who turned around the waning fortunes of the Church in Europe. Canterbury Cathedral was a Benedictine foundation and Welby is an oblate of the Order of Benedict.

John Martin is TLC’s correspondent in London.

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