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We met the Archbishop of Canterbury!

Posted on September 29, 2005 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Graduate School in Oxford

Today's highlight was an evening lecture at Oxford's University Church of St. Mary. The speaker was the Archbishop of Canterbury, so I had it all marked on my calendar beforehand.

For those who don't know, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the leader of the Church of England as well as the worldwide Anglican Communion (which includes Anglicans, Episcopalians and various other churches with roots in the Church of England). It's a Protestant denomination that dates back to King Henry VIII breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church because he wanted a divorce the pope wouldn't grant. Anglicanism has been summarized as "Protestant in belief but Catholic in ritual," or "Catholicism without the guilt."

But the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury actually goes back way before the Reformation - to around the 7th century, shortly after Christianity arrived in England. Thomas Cranmer, one of the "Oxford Martyrs" I keep boring you all about, was Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII.

Anyhoo, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, is therefore a bit of a celebrity to a religious-studies nerd like myself.

The University Church is one we'd visited previously and went up the tower to see views of the city. This time, it was nice to sit in a pew for awhile (we sat in the upper gallery by the big stained glass window) and take in the pretty interior during the lecture. The lecture was almost an hour long and was called "Law, Power and Peace." It had to do with the proper basis of law and democracy, and the possibility of international laws to address global problems like poverty and pollution. It was interesting, but also a little long and sometimes above our heads with its political theory (religious aspects were a very minor part of the lecture). But he had a lovely voice and accent and was pleasant to listen to.

Before and during the lecture I had the misfortune of sitting next to an extremely chatty guy from London that drove David and I crazy. He was nice and actually interesting at times, but just seemed to have an obsessive need to talk continually. He was with the English Tourist Board (he had the ID tag to prove it) and was in Oxford for the day interviewing tourists. He went on and on and asked us all kinds of questions about where we where from, what we were doing, about studying religion, etc., etc.

He looked blank at first when I said we were from Oregon, but then said, "Oh yes, the Oregon Trail, covered wagons, right?" I said, "Right." He then said, "But you haven't asked me where I'm from." So I did, and he's from York. Then, "And what is York known for?" as though the answer would be obvious to an American. I got it on the third try. "York Minster?" No. "The other archbishop? [he's second in line to that of Canterbury]" No. "Yorkshire pudding?" Yes! Phew. I had only just heard of Yorkshire pudding, thanks to a question from my Aunt Janice about it before we left, and then seeing it in Sainsbury's grocery store. He said it is traditionally eaten before dinner with gravy, and that the one in Sainsbury's is not true Yorkshire pudding. Well, naturally.

And of course, shortly after learning we were Americans, one of Mr. Talky's comments began with, "You know, the trouble with Bush is..." Oh, boy. Here we go. But apparently the trouble with Bush is primarily that he "comes across awkward on television, and people judge him for that." True enough. "And the Iraq war is a bad thing, too. Right?" He was very confrontational with his "right"s, to where you feel quite pressured to answer "Right!" (Fortunately, I agreed anyway.)

After the lecture, my main goal was to meet the archbishop and see if I could shake his hand. We set off in pursuit of that goal, Mr. Talky following us down the stairs and yacking the entire time about the lecture and trying to have a religion discussion with me, all the while saying, "Right?" Finally we shook him off and wished him a good trip back to London, and I started to hover around the archbishop. He was chatting with a few other people who had come up to talk with him, and a few others were waiting along with me. There was a group of three girls of maybe college age who were giggling about getting him to sign their prayer book and wondering what in the world they should say to him. It was very cute.

I sort of hovered behind him nervously while he finished up talking (David was nearby being a very supportive coach: "Get a little closer! OK, here's your chance!") and then he indeed turned around and put his hand out pleasantly. Hurrah! I got to shake the Archbishop of Canterbury's hand. I was very shy, but I thanked him for coming to speak, and he said, "Well, thank you for coming - it was harder for you than for me!" I told him I was studying religion at Oxford (he had taught theology at Oxford in his pre-archbishop days) and he looked politely interested and asked which college, and when I said Wolfson he actually seemed to have heard of it. I said it was great to meet him and hear him speak and he thanked me again, and then I was off. He then turned to David, who was behind me, and shook his hand, and they said hello.

So it was all very exciting. David was wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic, and even though he hadn't heard of him before said he was glad to have gotten to meet him, too.