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.

Easter Parade
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.


Anonymous said...

How fun, I saw that cathedral a few years ago, it was very impressive. I think you will miss it all when you return to DC.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

One of the "secular" aspects I remember about Easter in England is that even places which are open on other Sundays shut down. Not that many of the English have an accurate idea of the significance of Easter.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

I'm surprised you didn't include in your list of journalist motivations: they wanted to sell newspapers. The English love a flashy headline but "we're all going to die soon" wouldn't tempt the shopper when chocolate bunnies were half off. Happy Easter!

mark from alexandria said...

Interestingly,the Guardian Online has an article on Gene Robinson and his views on the Archbishop. I take it that that particular 800 pound gorilla was not addressed directly or indirectly during the sermon.

hb said...

What he was saying: Hey everyone, you're going to die. Death is real; it's really the end. Does Christianity mean that death isn't real, that it's just something to ignore? Nope. So, "[d]on't attempt to avoid it or deny its seriousness. On the contrary, keep it in view; remind yourself of it. When the tradition of the Church proposes that you think daily about death and prepare for it, it isn't being morbid but realistic: get used to it and learn to live with the fear." All that is human will pass away and the only person who can defeat death is God. Thus, you should "die to yourself," and trust in God, since he's the one really in charge. You're going to die, but he will call you from death to resurrection. The practical upshot? Think about death, so that you care less about the wealth of this world. But in your contemplation of death, don't be hopeless, since God will resurrect you, at some point, after you die.

It's pretty standard, and essential, Christian theology, so I can see how it wouldn't exactly make great copy. The eternal is generally not news. But that's why newspapers are only partial windows on human life, telling us what happened lately, but not answering the whys of human life. To that extent, all newspapermen have an agenda; I'm glad you at least would have tried to be accurate, rather than to make news where none really existed.

JohnKellysVoxford said...

@hb: I think you gave a pretty good overview of his sermon, though he never really got to the resurrection bit. I mean, he got to Jesus's resurrection, but as I said, the focus was more on human death.

@candadai: The pub around the corner from the cathedral was open after the service so we were able to grab lunch there. All the talk of Easter had put me in the mood for lamb.

@sarah: As a matter of fact, the Easter bunny brought chocolate bunnies to our B&B on Easter morning. They fortified us during our long drive through the rain.

@mark: No, he didn't address the Robinson dispute. A previous group of protesters interrupted a previous archbishops sermons with placards urging gay rights.

MARY said...

Actually, the Archbishop is not totally correct regarding "hair and fingernails". I was told by my late Uncle-in-Law, a physicial, that the body loses moisture following death and the skin receeds to give the appearance of a beard and fingernails growing longer. Ick!!

Old Lady said...

You were lucky to have a normal service on your single visit. Ours lasted over 2 hours, happening to occur the Sunday many missionaries and clericals from abroad were being consecrated. Oy vey. Evensong at the Washington Cathedral is impressive, too. You can have the flavor of Canterbury in DC, contrary to Anonymous.

hb said...

@Johnkelly: I don't mean to nitpick, since I agree the reference was somewhat adumbrated, but here's where I found him addressing our resurrection.

"Celebrating Easter is celebrating the creator - celebrating the God whose self-giving purpose is never cancelled and who is always free to go on giving himself to those he has called. And resurrection for us is that renewed call: when we have fallen silent, when we no longer have any freedom to respond or develop, God's word comes to us again and we live. (II Cor 5.17) We can't really imagine it; it isn't just a continuation of our present life in slightly different circumstances but a new world. Yet all that God has seen and worked with in this life is brought into his presence once more and he renews his relationship with it all, spirit and body.

That is the overcoming of death - made clear to us in the only way it could be made clear, by the historical, tangible recreation of the life of Jesus, still recognizably who he always was, yet changed in ways we can't grasp in their fullness."

Jesus' death and resurrection is a prefiguring of our own and the best way to understand our eventual re-embodiments. That said, I suspect the Archbishop would have been pleased by your response, since he appeared to have been trying to make us all think about death more.

hb said...

Put another way: the Episcopal priest where I attend here in DC baptized his newborn daughter during the Easter Vigil service this weekend. It was a beautiful and harsh experience. Why? Beautiful is obvious; it was harsh because the liturgy requires the celebrant to conclude a prayer with reference to the baptized's impending death. Understandably, the priest had a hard time croaking those words out. But, it's going to happen, as much as it's the last thing a father wants to think about!