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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 22 March 2013

'Just In': Inauguration Thoughts

So now he is ‘just in’ as Archbishop of Canterbury. Yesterday didn’t make him archbishop: he has legally held the office since early last month. But the grand ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral was his presentation, so to speak, to the world, his ecce homo at which a new leader of worldwide Anglicanism was launched on his public ministry.

When I trained ordinands more than 30 years ago, I used to say to them: the real rite of passage you need to think about is not ‘getting ordained’ one summer Sunday in a great cathedral.  It’s the next day, the first Monday of the rest of your life when you have to decide what you are actually going to be and do as a new deacon. For the first time, you will wear your clerical collar in the street, catch your reflection in shop windows, sign yourself ‘the Reverend’, realise that many people will treat you differently from now on, whether with respect, adoration, indifference or downright contempt. They will expect you to know about Levitical ordinances, vestment colours and why good people suffer.  That’s the day when it truly dawns on you that you’ve become what you weren’t before – clergy. And maybe you ask, however did I get here?

So I wonder what Justin’s first working day in ‘ordinary’ has been like. I’m not going to speculate.  I’m genuinely interested in how someone I’ve known since he was a curate and recently worked closely with, makes this huge transition. In St Paul’s language, he has shot from being unknown to being well-known, at least as far as his name and his face are concerned. And if we describe it as an ascent, how does he prevent an attack of the bends with such a rapid rise to fame?  That question answers itself, for it will be his modesty, charm, self-deprecatory style, lack of self-importance and above all spiritual integrity that will keep him safe. But he will be the first to say that we need to pray for him, just as Pope Francis did, not just now but far into the future. As I said in a previous blog, the Chair of St Augustine has in our time become a ‘siege perilous’. Who is sufficient for these things?   

I was glad to be at yesterday’s service at Canterbury. It was the last in a series of Justin-ceremonies that I had been present at over the years: his ordination as deacon and priest at Coventry, his consecration as bishop, his installation at Durham Cathedral, the great farewell service there, all too soon, the confirmation of his election at St Paul’s, and now his inauguration. At Canterbury I recognised many of the themes we had become familiar with in Durham. His fanfare arrival at the west door was followed by a dialogue in which he said with touching simplicity that he was Justin who had come to serve among us as a fellow-human being and disciple. There was an act of penitence that reminded us at the outset that we live in a broken world and serve in a broken and divided church. We sang upbeat hymns such as ‘In Christ alone’ and ‘And can it be’, both of which were sung at Durham. The preacher’s voice was unambiguously that of a man whose Christian hope and conviction are unshakeable. Only Christ, he said, can reach out and save us from being destroyed by the storms that threaten to overwhelm us.

So much, so familiar. But I sense a subtle change in some of Justin’s public utterances. To take the most contentious matter our church is facing, homosexual relations and gay marriage, he clearly seems to want to open up a space for dialogue with campaigners like Peter Tatchell.  He has said he wants to understand the issues better for himself.  He speaks of gay couples in civil unions who have a ‘stunning’ quality of relationship. Yes, he does affirm the ‘traditional’ Church position on heterosexual marriage.  But not in a way that closes doors to those who, for principled theological and pastoral reasons, believe that there is more to be said that simply to rehearse the tradition. 

High office can have the effect of shutting down a leader’s capacity for original thought and courageous risk-taking. Or it can affirm his or her individuality, the right - indeed the duty - to ask questions of his or her institution, retain and grow the capacity for reflection and honest criticism. This is all part of theological, emotional and spiritual intelligence.  I have a hunch that Justin will surprise us.  Maybe today, Day One of his public archiepiscopate, will have been the start of the next phase of that journey.

A little personal postscript. What touched me more than anything else in the service happened right at the start. After the great west doors had been flung open and Justin welcomed there, the procession made its way slowly up the nave aisle. The Durham contingent was standing, robed, just by the nave altar.  When Justin drew level with us, he stopped, turned and bowed gravely to us before continuing eastwards.  It was an echo of the times we had bowed him into his stall in Durham Cathedral. None of us were expecting this courtesy, this gentle act of recognition. It was heartwarming not to be forgotten.


  1. A very helpful piece. Thank you

  2. Just thinking of Ephesian's 6:10-18 and particularly 23 and 24.

    Just seems appropriate for Arch Bishop Justin as he moves into the next stage in his ministry.