Monday, 24 March 2008
The Canterbury Tales, or: Easter Charade
Where better to spend Easter Sunday than inside the hallowed confines of Canterbury Cathedral? Wait, don't answer that. There are probably plenty of better places, most of them involving sun, sand and fruit-based alcoholic drinks. But we weren't in one of those places yesterday. Instead, we'd made a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Rowan Williams was set to give the Easter sermon.
If you weren't in the cathedral you can be excused for not really knowing what it was the archbishop spoke about. "Archbishop warns 'greedy' nations" reads the BBC's web site. "The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned in his Easter sermon against nations' greed for oil, power and territory," the story began. While Williams did mention that, it was in the context of a sermon about death (and resurrection, the themes of Easter), not a sermon about greed and avarice.
Williams started his sermon talking about how fingernails and hair are the only things that keep growing after you're dead and buried. Kinda gross, but attention-grabbing. He was at pains to point out that death is real: "It is a full stop to human growth and response, it is night falling on everything we value or understand or hope for."
He did say that some people grasp at material goods as a way of taking their minds off death, and that this doesn't do any good, but it was just one observation in a sermon that to my ears (and those of the rest of my family) was more about death than greed. And yet every radio, TV and newspaper article about the sermon that we've encountered since then has stressed the filthy lucre angle. Why? I thought of a few reasons:
Journalists didn't want to confront their own mortality. Unlikely.
They were making a political point, highlighting an aspect that fit with some kind of agenda. I hope not.
They were following talking points provided by the Church of England without reading or watching the sermon. Probable.
They simply didn't understand the sermon. This is entirely possible. I grasped some of what Williams was saying--we die, it's final, I get it--but he was short on specifics. Easter is full of symbolism--rebirth, fecundity--but symbols don't pay the bills. After we die, what then? Is there a heaven? Are we reunited with old family pets? Can we finally play the piano? Is there broadband?
Williams seemed to be saying that the only thing that survives death is god: "When we look at death, we look at something that can destroy anything in our universe -- but not God, its maker and redeemer." Well good for Him. The rest of us are screwed.
It could also be that I didn't understand the sermon. Still, I know the angle I would have taken if I'd been covering it: "'We're All Gonna Die,' says Archbishop." A little depressing, but at least it'd be accurate.
Actually, I'm glad we spent Easter where we did. The English do pomp and circumstance very well. It was snowing (!) as we entered the cathedral an hour before the 11 a.m. service and found seats with a good view of the pulpit. At about 10:50 local dignitaries trooped in, an amazing assemblage of cloaks and frock coats, breeches, tricorn hats, powdered wigs, brocade, military uniforms, medals, ceremonial staffs, chunky gold mayoral necklaces.... It was like being on Main Street in Disneyland for the costumed-character parade. (I was this close to Goofy!)
I mean that in a good way; it was wonderful. And this was all before the ecclesiastical posse came in: choirboys in stiff, high-collared shirts and purply-red robes, tented-finger prelates, the Archbishop himself with his pointed hat and shepherd's crook.
Williams's sermon was delayed by two protesters who waited till then to pull out signs reading "No to Sharia Law" and "Support the Persecuted Church" and stand under the pulpit. They were hustled away and charged, I learned this morning, with violating an 1860 law which makes it an offense to disrupt a cathedral service. I wonder how many crying babies that's been used against.
I shook the archbishop's hand on the way out.