Enthronement in Canterbury is banquet of culture, history and hope

March 3, 2003

In an irresistable combination of pomp, pride and humility, the first Welshman in the last 1,000 years assumed leadership of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion on February 27 at historic Canterbury Cathedral.

From the 900-person processions into the 12th Century cathedral to the simple blessing delivered before the chair of St. Augustine...from the oath sworn on the hand-lettered Canterbury Gospels to the haunting lilt of a Welsh Penillion...from the profession of the ancient Creed of Nicaea to the modern--and borrowed--'Prayer of Commitment,' the Church of England's two-hour celebration to present Rowan Douglas Williams to the world as 104th archbishop of Canterbury spread a banquet of culture, history and hope.

From the moment the bespectacled, bearded 52-year-old primate, who calls himself 'a hairy leftie,' rapped three times on the great West Door of the Perpendicular Gothic mother church of Anglicanism, to the end of the historic service when he greeted the Prince of Wales at the same door, Rowan Williams drew all eyes to himself.

His dazzling, daffodil-yellow vestments (the daffodil is the national flower of Wales), caught by sunlight and the BBC's high-powered lights, probably had something to do with that but the outspoken passion and spirituality of the man who recently has been boldly challenging both church and state deserves most of the credit.

Present for this tightly scripted ceremony in the southeast corner of the United Kingdom were Prince Charles and Prime Minister Tony Blair, the nation's home secretary (interior minister), the leader of the Conservative Party, the Roman Catholic cardinal, top level representatives of every other major faith in Britain--Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Baha'is and Zoroastrians; patriarchs of the Eastern Church from Antioch, Moscow, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania and clergy and bishops from across the 70-million-member Anglican Communion spread throughout 164 nations around the world.

Tight security

Blocked beyond the cathedral gates by barricades and guards were a dozen dour-faced protesters displeased with the liberal archbishop and his views on homosexuality. Another group, a mildly noisy gathering of several hundred anti-war demonstrators, came to hector Blair.

Neither group could dampen spirits on this festive, formal occasion, however. Tight security, scores of police and carefully controlled, color-coded tickets gave organizers confidence. The cobbled lanes and grounds around the cathedral had been closed to the public the day before as police set up screening tents and X-ray equipment to monitor arriving guests.

BBC crews erected scaffolding, positioned cameras and lights. Technicians laid six miles of cable. Volunteer flower arrangers created 10-foot cascades of bright yellow blooms. Oriental lilies, mimosa, chrysanthemums, forsythia and foxtail lilies tumbled down pillars and decorated pulpits. Over 500 daffodils, each stem in an individual tube of water, were carefully positioned through the arrangements.

By 2 o'clock on the big afternoon, nearly 1,500 people had found their assigned seats within the 514-foot cathedral. The processions began as scheduled at 2:10 precisely, entering from a number of doorways. Eleven vergers and 10 marshals led the various dignitaries, politicians, primates, bishops, clergy, university faculties, ecumenical representatives, Eastern Patriarchs, interfaith guests, wives of priests and primates and choirs to their appointed places. The spiral-bound 'Ceremonial and Rubrics to Order Service' ran 87 pages.

A Victorian celebration

The traditional enthronement service dates largely from the Victorian era. This particular service held several breathtaking moments. The first came when the new archbishop took his oath on the 'Canterbury Gospels.' The ancient book--hand-printed, hand-bound, hand-illuminated by Roman monks in the fifth or sixth century--was originally a gift of Pope Gregory to St. Augustine. It arrived in Canterbury with him in 597 when he came to evangelize the peoples of the Isle.

Preserved today, as it has been since the dissolution of St. Augustine's Monastery, by Corpus Christi College of Cambridge University, the book arrived at the cathedral the morning of the ceremony with an armed guard. It is believed to be the oldest document in England and is worth 50 million pounds ($85 million).

The book was opened in front of the archbishop before the Nave Altar. Laying his hand on it, he promised to 'inviolably observe the ancient and approved customs' of the cathedral and 'give help and assistance in defending the rights, statutes and liberties of this church.' As he finished his oath, Williams leaned forward and kissed the open pages of the ancient gospels.

Smiles and greetings

The moment the archbishop was 'enthroned' in the wide stone chair of St. Augustine was another stunning moment. Actually it was the second enthronement, coming just after he'd been seated in the Quire Throne and presented with a pastoral staff, symbol of his role as shepherd of the Diocese of Canterbury.

The dean of the cathedral led him to St. Augustine's chair and by seating him, made him symbolically head of all the Anglican Communion. One moment later, Robin Eames, archbishop of Armagh and senior primate of the Communion, pronounced a blessing over the bowed, un-mitred head of the brightly robed archbishop. Immediately, Williams stood and smiled.

'Let us greet our newly enthroned archbishop,' said the dean to the gathered congregation of 2,400, many of them sitting beyond the view-blocking pulpitum screen and watching on television monitors. The archbishop, a smile creeping further across his face, spread wide his hands in a gesture of openness. The already standing crowd burst into applause and continued applauding long past any comfortable interval for the man who frequently waves to a stop all such recognition.

When quiet was restored, the bare-headed archbishop circled the chamber to be introduced to ecumenical and interfaith guests he did not already know. Those he did know received his greetings in a variety of forms. To some he offered a hand shake, to others a kiss on each cheek, sometimes three. Some he approached with arms open for an embrace; others he bowed before, his fingers tented below his face.

'No one written off'

Then it was the archbishop's turn to address the congregation. He did so with a sermon especially poignant because it was so clearly directed at the church family, not the world at large, nor even the country's leaders, though three of them sat facing him at the opposite end of the quire. Prime Minister Blair, Home Secretary David Blunkett, and the future king, Charles, Prince of Wales, all of them members of the church, heard him say:

'No one can be written off; no group, no nation, no minority can just be a scapegoat to resolve our fears and uncertainties. We cannot assume that any human face we see has no divine secret to disclose: those who are culturally or religiously strange to us; those who so often don't count in the world's terms (the old, the unborn, the disabled). And this is what unsettles our loyalties, conservative and liberal, right wing or left, national and international. We have to learn to be human alongside all sorts of others, the ones whose company we don't greatly like, whom we didn't choose, because Jesus is drawing us together into his place, his company.'

Peering over his metal-framed glasses, Rowan William's words seemed a challenge, simultaneously warm and demanding: '...the Christian will engage with passion in the world of our society and politics--out of a real hunger and thirst to see God's image, the destiny of human beings to become God's sons and daughters come to light--and, it must be said, out of a real grief and fear of what the human future will be if this does not come to light. The church has to warn and to lament as well as comfort.'

After the Nicene Creed and the sung 'Te Deum,' the most ancient parts of the ceremony, Williams asked the congregation to join him in a prayer of commitment. 'I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will,' began the powerful pledge borrowed from the Methodist Church Covenant Service.

Moments of grace

The moment seemed full of grace. The liturgists--Williams among them--had provided for many such moments. Throughout the service, they wove together themes of Wales and of 17th century Welsh poet-priest George Herbert. Herbert was also being celebrated on this February 27, his annual day of recognition. His poetry had been set to music by a young Scottish composer to be sung by the congregation at the enthronement. Another of his poems was performed by the St. Woolos Cathedral Choir from the Diocese of Monmouth, where Williams served his first episcopate.

A traditional form of Welsh music was performed by the daughters of two of Williams' friends, a 15-year-old harpist and a 20-year old soprano. The young women offered a Penillion, improvised music that is first harped, then sung. The lyric was not improvised this time, but was Williams' own translation of a poem by 18th Century Welsh poet Ann Griffiths (Yr Arglwydd Iesu, 'I Saw Him Standing'). The gentle, clear tones of the harp hushed the packed cathedral.

Wales was made visible throughout the service by the shining yellow vestments created for the new archbishop by the region's craftsmen and women. Fabric for cope, mitre and rochet, woven on hand looms, took months to create and embroider with golden Celtic knotwork designs and the cross of Canterbury.

The vestments, worth an estimated $11,000 and paid for by anonymous donors, will be Williams' to wear throughout his term. That could be 18 years since he may serve to age 70. When his reign ends, the golden cope and mitre and the jeweled morse (clasp) will be returned to Wales and displayed at the National Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff.

As the service concluded, Williams gave a series of blessings to the congregation and then processed the length of the cathedral to the rousing Welsh hymn Cwm Rhondda, 'Guide me, O thou great Redeemer' and the sound of the cathedral's peal of 14 bells as they rang out over their heads from its twin towers.

In the afterglow of the enthronement, the British press seemed to welcome a new national shepherd. The Guardian, for example, wrote that 'the arrival of Dr. Williams at the center of our national life has caught the interest of the public in a way that few religious appointments of modern times can equal,' holding out the possibility that 'the church has a more vital role to play in the search for community and personal peace than has sometimes been allowed recent. For Christian and non-Christian alike, the start of Dr. Williams's reign should be a moment for happiness and great hope.'

Photos are available at the Web site of the Anglican Communion News Service