Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury's Driver

On a Sunny Monday afternoon, the Archbishop of Canterbury arrived for lunch at a South Lincolnshire Church a few minutes late, with mud on his shoes.

As an expectant Church community gathered excitedly to welcome the Head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, The Primate of all England excused himself for a moment, politely inquiring where the facilities were to be found. Even Archbishops, it transpires, have bladders.

With nature's call answered, Dr Rowan Williams went about greeting parishioners at the final engagement of a four-day visit to the Diocese, and of a schedule of events which made Santa's Christmas eve workload seem lethargic. As lunch was served, those who had been shadowing him over the packed weekend could have been forgiven for wondering whether the extensive itinerary had taken its toll on the Archbishop.

But they needn't have worried. Rowan Williams does not adopt the politician's relish for beaming smiles, exaggerated handshakes and photo-friendly pats on backs. Instead his body language is reserved, and his manner thoughtful and delicate. Viewed from a distance, some observers have described the 104th Archbishop as a shy man, who is uncomfortable - even reluctant in the public eye. Irrespective of behavioural psychology, up close though, there is something remarkable about Dr Williams' presence. As the the parish priest of the church serving lunch astutely remarked: "He has the ability to put those around him at peace, without doing anything in particular."

And any concern for Dr Williams' stamina were quickly answered as the plates were cleared he addressed the room. Despite a weekend which had involved hundreds of miles of travel, flitting between engagements from dawn until long after dusk, once again, the Archbishop found just the right words for the occasion.

In this instance, it was to thank the church for a splendid lunch, and express in simple terms his delight at seeing the (big C) Church "doing exactly what it should be doing" in the parish. A brief tour of the church, taking in an innovative conversion of an old water tank, and more words of encouragement, and it was time once again for The Archbishop to be whisked away, bringing the first visit to the diocese of his episcopate to an end. 

It had seen him undertake a diversity of visits, from the fish docks at Grimsby, a Fresh Expressions conference at the Lincolnshire Showground, and an eco-friendly housing development site in Long Sutton (the reason his shoes were muddy!) and meetings with Christian communities across the Diocese.

For their sheer magnitude however, the show was stolen by two events which took place on the 6th of March in Lincoln Cathedral: a Lecture preceded Eucharist in celebration of the life of Bishop Edward King, upon the centenary of his death.

Indeed, the enormity was such that expectation for these events may have allowed the occasion to overwhelm the content. That is, until the Archbishop began his lecture. Just over an hour and a half later, the thousands exiting Lincoln Cathedral did so reflecting on having just heard one of the great spiritual orators. 

Taking as his title Faith, Hope and Charity in Tomorrow's World, Dr Williams leant casually on a wooden lectern, and with the aid of just five brief scribbled bullet points,delivered an unerring exposition of profound themes. Playful linguistics and poetic allegory were driven by a palpable intellectual cogency, delivered in an accessible human style, encapsulated in the most disarming of smiles.

As one observer put it, he is a speaker with the gift of imparting profound wisdom, but in a manner which makes the listener feel as if they had heard it somewhere before.

The Lecture can be seen here

Earlier in the year, I was lucky enough to spend a week in Rome, and as part of an enjoyable itinerary, attended the weekly Papal audience which takes place in a sort of indoor stadium, to the North of St Peter's. It was an extraordinary, multinational event featuring the reading of a lengthy sermon by the Pontiff, which was then translated, in turn, into a multiplicity of languages, with each bringing about a chorus of cheers from the relevant parties within. If you are interested in doing the same, "Pope Tours" and "Pope tickets" are available from your nearest friendly retailer

Now, without wishing to enter the turbulent waters of comparing the Archbishop of Canterbury with the Pope, there is a notable contrast in the levels of hysteria which surround the comings and goings of the two Christian leaders. 

At lunch, finding myself seated opposite the Archbishop's driver, I was put in mind of the hundreds of bodyguards, and inches of armour-plated Popemobile that will protect Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to Great Britain later this year. The Archbishop, by contrast, gets from A to B in a hybrid Honda Civic, and for the purposes of the weekend, sent his driver home and hitched a lift with whichever diocesan representative was looking after him on a particular day. 

What conclusions could be gleaned about the two largest Christian denominations from the celebrity prestige of their respective figureheads, I am not entirely sure. On the one hand, it would be easy to criticise the manner in which the Catholic Church bestows deification (be careful with pronunciation) upon the pope; and on the other, the ever-dwindling power of the Church of England may be to blame for the lower profile of its own Patriarch. 

Either way, I couldn't resist suggesting, leadingly, to the Archbishop's driver that one might like to ask his regular passenger what the outcome had been when the two leaders met in Rome, in the recent aftermath of The Pope's controversial offer to wavering Anglicans

"You'd probably get a wise answer", he said. 

And I think he would probably have been proven right; had I dared ask!

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