HE WON'T BE FILMED PRAYING

~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, December 11th 2012

 "Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more…" 

So swelled the Welsh male voice choir in the Guard Room at Lambeth Palace as guests at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas party tucked into mini fishcakes and toads-in-the-hole in an atmosphere of wistful celebration. 

The lighting was low, the former archbishops whose portraits hung around the walls peered dimly from their frames. This was the chamber to which, in 1534, Cromwell summoned Thomas More to swear an Oath of Supremacy. Now, it felt like a Hilary Mantel version of Hogwarts, Rowan Williams weaving his way from guest to guest—a benign Dumbledore, soon to hand on his wand. 

He’s a courteous host, and a good listener. Often, he maintains his side of a conversation not with words but with the rise and sag of his eloquent eyebrows. The affection he inspires was palpable, and so were the fears for the future. 

The chief terror, of course, was that the Church of England would now splinter—and, because Rowan Williams has held it together so long, against so many odds, that it would splinter explosively. "It’ll be like Yugoslavia after Tito," one guest commented. Social media was another cause for concern. Rowan Williams has never, apparently, owned even a mobile phone, and Lambeth Palace has remained in the technological Dark Ages. However positive staff feel about Justin Welby (referred to by one Palace employee as, simply, "the new man") his tweeting has ruffled a few feathers. 

But for the BBC crew at the party, the overriding anxiety was that the nation might be too hung-over at 5.30pm on New Year’s Day fully to appreciate "Goodbye to Canterbury"—the documentary they’d been putting together for the past six weeks, and with which they were clearly thrilled. Working closely with the outgoing archbishop had, they agreed, been an extraordinary experience.  

One crew member had been overwhelmed by Williams’s holiness: he felt "changed" by it. Another had been surprised and delighted by his humour—practically impossible, apparently, to catch on camera. All were impressed by his humility. As an example, they described how, standing by the tomb of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, he had flatly refused to be filmed praying. 

Their vignette took me back to an evening earlier in the year when Rowan Williams came to talk at the Royal Society of Literature. Asked by a member of the audience whether it was possible to be both a poet and a saint, he volunteered, as part of his reply, that there was almost as much temptation to the sin of pride in writing poetry as in a life of prayer. In that order. 

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life, director of the Royal Society of Literature in London and the award-winning author of "George Mackay Brown: The Life"