A game of thrones to the drumbeats of thrilling change: Most Rev Justin Welby enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury

Donald Macintyre enjoys a radical blend of tradition and innovation

Donald Macintyre
Thursday 21 March 2013 21:00
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Given that Justin Welby has, according to a recent interview, made 75 visits to Nigeria – some of them at serious risk to his life — he will have been a lot more familiar than most of the congregation with the spellbinding song, dance and drumming act by the pan-African group Frititi which resounded through Canterbury Cathedral shortly after his installation as the 105th Archbishop.

It was certainly a masterstroke to engage the six-man group to lead the new Archbishop to the pulpitum screen for his first gospel reading as head of the Anglican communion. In perhaps the only unscripted remark of the 140-minute ceremony, he said “It’s got good reverberations, this Cathedral,” with all the satisfaction of an impresario at a rock concert.

Along with a Punjabi hymn, with its haunting refrain of “Saranam Saranam Saranam” (refuge), the uninhibited African artists leavened what would otherwise have been almost too Trollopian an occasion, one in which the country’s entire establishment appeared to have descended on the city.

Before the service, you couldn’t move for men in bishop’s purple in St George’s Street, so timelessly English that even the pawnbroker’s shop looks chintzy. But the laity was represented too, from the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister down to the processing Lord Chancellor Grayling and the Commons Speaker John Bercow in their ceremonial robes — the latter’s trainbearer ingrongruously taller than the man himself. There was also a series of office holders with impenetrably Merrie England titles – the Surveyor to the Fabric and Apparitor General, for example.

Before the enthronement the Dean, Robert Willis, formally announced to his fellow canons: “We have elected Justin our Archbishop...” While canons who objected would not have their heads cut off (as they might have done in Henry VIII’s time) that, of course, is not quite how Archbishops are chosen.

The other musical highlight, a soaring anthem sung by the Cathedral choir and set to words from the Rule of St Benedict – “Listen, listen O my child...” – was an indirect reminder that the Archbishop (Eton and Trinity, Cambridge) has roots in that same establishment. The song was specially commissioned from the composer Michael Berkeley by Welby’s mother Jane Portal, once Winston Churchill’s Secretary, and his stepfather Lord Williams, the Labour peer, historian and former Oxford University and Essex cricketer.

Yet at 57, Welby has already had such an extraordinary life that this service was never going to be quite orthodox. After all, this is man who came from a broken home and was assigned to the custody of a wayward father, and was a successful oil executive who then became a stern ethical critic and advocate of “taming the beasts” of big business through regulation, as well as an intrepid conciliator among warlords and bandits in back country West Africa.

Sheila Watson was assigned responsibility for the first of the two installations, in the throne of the bishopric of Canterbury, the first time a female Archdeacon – like the one in Alan Bennett’s play People – has done so.

At 3pm there had been a temporary pause while Welby waited outside the temporarily barred great doors of the Cathedral. Had he taken fright and decided to make a run for it? No, there was confident three knocks with his Episcopal staff and the doors opened to reveal him in his splendid cope, stole and mitre of gold silk.

Moments later, in an innovative catechism of his own devising, he was asked by a 17 year old Kings School Canterbury pupil Evangeline Kanagassooriam: “How do you come among us and with what confidence?” He declared: “I come knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, and in weakness and fear in much trembling” Given the problems he will have holding the church together, it was the right answer.

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