Canterbury Cathedral hosts opening service

Archbishop of Canterbury at High Altar of Canterbury Cathedral
Justin Welby, Archishop of Canterbury, presiding as Bishops, their spouses and invited guests attend the Opening Service at Canterbury Cathedral during the 2022 Lambeth Conference in the United Kingdom. Photo: Neil Turner for The Lambeth Conference. Sunday 31 July 2022

All seats had been allocated for the opening service of the Lambeth Conference on Sunday 31 July. We were told to get seated early, well before the Bishops’ procession. So we took our seats: spouses, volunteers, media, musicians, first aid teams and so on, all steered to our places by the efficient team of Cathedral stewards.

A procession arrived close to the media section, which one of them jokingly called “The Canons’ shuffle,” consisting of retired priests from local parishes and others who have been honoured for special service in the diocese.

Archbishops and bishops, spouses and others gather for worship

Then it was time for the Bishops’ procession. They came through the West Door, up the nave and through to the quire in pairs, each wearing a red gown. I was amused that some of them were keen to catch the moment on their phones, mostly clicking on the scene ahead of them with other bishops advancing up the steps to the chancel.

The diversity among them is amazing: African, Asian, white, male, female, oldish, youngish, portly, trim, smiling, serious, and so on, as might be expected of an organisation (the “Anglican communion”) from 165 different countries. Bishop Rose of Dover (who actually does most of the episcopal work for the Kent parishes which are in the diocese of Canterbury) processed towards the rear. It took a full 30 minutes for the processions. The Organ was playing throughout, sometimes embellished with improvisation from the instrumental musicians in front of the media and canons’ corner.

Finally the Archbishop of Canterbury entered accompanied by the young people of St Anselm (the team of young people he has recruited to spend a year assisting him) clad in white. At this point, the trumpet sounded loud and clear. On the steps of the chancel the Archbishop prostrated, and the St. Anselm’s team knelt.

At the beginning of the service, he prayed:

“Let us pray earnestly for God’s blessing upon those who are gathered here, that through our discussion and our walking together we may grow into deeper understanding of one another and deeper love for the world Jesus Christ came to save.”

All that makes for peace

The liturgy then proceeded with the prayers and actions familiar to all Christians (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, some Reformed etc) who share this rite of the Lord’s Supper: praise, confession, the kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), the gloria, the reading aloud from the Bible (Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel), the sermon based on those readings (by the bishop of Lesotho, Vincentia Kgabe), the recital of the Creed, then greeting each other in peace.

“Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life.”

Then the Eucharistic prayer, giving thanks to God over the gifts of bread and wine as at the last supper of Jesus, followed by these being shared with the congregation, and then the final Blessing and Dismissal.

1 Corinthians 10. 17:
“Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

Sad to admit, but some people present did not receive Holy Communion (the sacramental acceptance of bread and wine from the priest) which is an indication that they are not in total accord with the Anglican communion. Archbishop Welby referred to this just before the sharing of the bread and wine:

“As we come to Communion, we are all aware that some who are here will not feel able to receive Communion, there are some by the rules of their own Church among our beloved and valued ecumenical guests.

And there are others among us because of our own divisions. In this moment, let us as we take communion remain in silence when we are sitting in our place and pray for the healing of God’s Church, not only the Anglican Communion but of the Church catholic and universal, that we may find by God’s power the moment when we can come together throughout the world as one.”

This is a reference to some of the bishops who do not agree with allowing homosexuals to have leadership roles in the churches and who, because of this, did not receive communion. It is a contentious point which will be covered in the forthcoming plenary on the Call about Human Dignity on Tuesday.

A polyglot assembly

Meanwhile, what was remarkable about this service, which had been carefully planned by a special worship commission, was how it reflected the cultural and linguistic reach of the Anglican communion. The Bible readings, and many other parts of the liturgy were proclaimed in languages other than English: Maori, Spanish, Chinese, Bengali, French, Swahili and Shona – as well as the age-old Greek of the “Kyrie eleison” (God have mercy) and some Latin of the motet “Ubi Caritas” (Where is love?). The Zinafe choir from Zimbabwe singing with drums and rattles danced up the nave and also sung a chorus in Shona towards the end. The Archbishop even voiced the Dismissal in Swahili.

It must have been difficult for the worship planners to get the cultural balance. I did hear some comments later in the day at the bus stop from South East Asians who think some of their instruments and singing should feature, “next time.”

Babel tamed

This spread of languages is distinctive of the Anglican communion which originated in the sixteenth century as part of the Reformation movement (helped by printing technology) to bring the gospel and church services to local people in their own languages.

It is unlike the determination in other religions (Islam, Judaism, Orthodox, Roman Catholic) to retain their scriptures and prayer in their foundational language or at least the language of their first missionaries (such as Church Slavonic among Slav Orthodox churches). Admittedly the Roman Catholics have, in recent decades, moved towards local languages in church. The cultural and linguistic diversity of the Anglican communion is a result of long years of missionary work in many parts of the world.

A new province in Africa

Surprising though it may be to people in areas where Christian faith is on the decline, there are parts of the world where numbers of Anglican congregations are growing, especially in Africa. This was reflected by the insertion into this Canterbury service of a special ceremony for the new province for countries of North Africa, which is to be called the province of Alexandria, in acknowledgement of the heritage of that Egyptian city.

Because of Covid, the new Archbishop, Samy Shehata, had not yet received the primate’s cross from the Archbishop of Canterbury. So this was now presented to him, with the Coptic Archbishop from London, Angaelos, standing by, to symbolise that this new Anglican province was in friendship with this ancient branch of Christianity which still has many churches in Egypt.

The love of God which passes all understanding

For the final hymn of the service we sang Charles Wesley’s words “And can it be that I should gain,” which seemed a rather surprising return to a theme of individual conversion after so much language of what the church does together. However it has the musical merit of magnificent syncopation between the bass and the soprano parts which soared up the pillars of the Cathedral as the Archbishop walked back down the aisle.

Afterwards, everybody milled around in the sun outside socialising in the forecourt of the Cathedral, many taking group pictures as a souvenir. After all, for most, a Lambeth conference only occurs once in the career of a bishop. They then piled into the Hamilton coaches to return to the campus of the University of Kent, and to further business of conferring on the Calls of this conference.

The Opening Service in full (2h 48′ 27″) on YouTube

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