When I was in seminary, I didn’t read very many popular British theologians. It was a Baptist seminary; the majority of required readings we were assigned came from within the continental US, and if the authors were in the UK, they weren’t as well-known, or they were from many years past. That being said, N.T. Wright’s views on justification were a hot topic both in class and out, so I became very familiar with him. My roommate and I even went to an event across the border to Trinity Western University, where N.T. Wright was the main speaker. I bought a couple of his non-academic books and had them autographed.
After a few years, my fascination with N.T. Wright waned as some of my theological views shifted, although I do give him some credit for helping to shift my views on women as ordained priests/pastors. The Archbishop Justin Welby was installed around the same time I was confirmed (I am fairly certain I was confirmed one week prior to his installation) and made a member of the Anglican Communion, but I was still only superficially informed about the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and only vaguely aware of the previous Archbishop, Dr. Rowan Williams.
I’m not sure if being part of the Anglican Communion has fueled my affinity for various British things, or vice versa, or if it’s because some of my ancestors were from the British Isles (it’s probably all three, to be quite honest), but for some reason, it never really translated to any primary theological works I would pick up and read. I saw mention of Rowan Williams on Theology Twitter™, but I was paying more attention to other theologians, dead or alive.
When I found out that Rowan Williams would be visiting my church, I immediately started to do a bit of research. I asked Twitter what I should know about him, and almost everyone who responded said, “he’s smart [intelligent]”. I realized I hadn’t read any of his books, and felt somewhat pre-embarrassed as I anticipated interacting with this theologian. What would I say? I knew hardly anything about him, Wikipedia notwithstanding.
The time passed by quickly, and the day before All Saints’ Sunday came, with my still not having read anything by Dr. Williams. I became preoccupied with my duties as Eucharistic Minister and stand-in Torch Bearer, mentally rehearsing the roles after I physically rehearsed with the team Saturday morning. I merely hoped to meet Dr. Williams at this point.
Sunday came, and I got to church early to prepare for the 8:45 service. As I dressed, I noticed my alb still had a very tiny wine stain on it. It is barely noticeable, so I always forget about it until I put the alb on. After outfitting myself, I took the torches out to the chancel1, dodging a photographer who was taking pictures of the choir rehearsal. I again dodged the photographer when I came back with matches to light the torches, then I went back upstairs to wait for the rest of the team, but mainly Dr. Williams. When I arrived, everyone except Dr. Williams was waiting.
Not surprisingly, we hear, about 15 minutes before the service, that Dr. Williams will be preaching, baptizing, and celebrating the Eucharist. Five minutes later, he arrives with the rector, seeming a bit harried, for good reason. His presence is unassuming, and a couple people introduce themselves to him, shaking hands, before he busies himself with putting on the vestments. Unfortunately, I was not one of those people who got to shake his hand. I stood around grinning to myself, and I’m still not sure why. Was it because, after all the fuss being made, he was just an ordinary servant of God, with a refined British accent? I looked around and saw other people smiling, so at least I wasn’t the only one.
Before service, we always have a moment of prayer, standing in a circle and holding hands. It just so happened that I was standing next to Dr. Williams, so while I didn’t get to shake his hand and introduce myself, I got to experience one moment of spiritual camaraderie as he prayed.
The first half of the service went very smoothly. The sermon was short and sweet, intelligent, witty and relatable; it was a nice reminder of how being a Christian (Dr. Williams used the word “saint” because he was referring to Ephesians 1.11-23) is always tied to community. I’m not sure why I was surprised that Dr. Williams preached without any sort of notes. Recalling that, when I asked Twitter about him, the main response was “smart”, I got over my surprise quickly and figured he had also had plenty of practice speaking on short notice.2
The baptisms went well, also, even though I barely knew what I was doing as an assistant behind the font, passing candles to be lit and given to the baptized. I had been to one Anglican baptism before, but I had never experienced a full Holy Baptism rite, which includes being sprinkled with water during asperges (the entire congregation gets sprinkled with water after the baptisms, as a sort of echo of their own baptism, via a bunch of rosemary dipped in a bowl of water). That was my first baptism of the morning.
Of course, when someone other than the usual celebrant is presiding over communion, as a Eucharistic minister (or maybe just as a Eucharistic minister who is also Sabrina) standing close to the altar, you’ve got to pay attention to every single detail that sticks out as unusual or extraordinary. Not to mention, I had never seen anyone from the Church of England celebrate the Eucharist before, so I was intensely curious. There were a few things that struck me as very reverential in general: Dr. Williams kissing the altar before proceeding with the rite, bowing at more places in the liturgy than we usually do, and saying his own prayer in between blessing the bread and the wine and serving himself; he bowed over the altar and spoke very softly; even relatively close to the altar, I couldn’t hear what he said.
Now, serving the bread is when things start to get a little dramatic. First, Dr. Williams wasn’t coached (I don’t think there was time, really, so that was nobody’s fault) on how to serve gluten-free wafers, so he is a little thrown off when he gets to me and I am holding my hands palms down (palms facing up is how you’re “supposed to” hold them, in the shape of a cross), but fortunately the rector tries to remain one step ahead. I am served half of a wafer, with the other half ending up on the floor.
Bearing the chalice proved a bit of an adventure. Instead of our usual wafers, we had bread, and, when I would dip a piece of bread (according to the communicant’s3 preference; they could either dip the bread themselves, have it dipped, or consume the bread before sipping the wine), it left crumbs in the wine (and on the communicant’s clothes) more often than not, or broke in half. In one instance, half of the bread made it into the communicant’s mouth, while the other half landed on the floor.
See, this was the perfect set up for what would transpire toward the end of the line. I take the piece of bread from one man, whom I later learned was named John4, dip it, and say the words, “the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ”. So far, so good. Then, the bottom half of the bread starts to fall as I try to place it in John’s mouth. He tries valiantly to catch it, bumping the chalice in the process, which causes the wine to splash the front of the alb I was wearing (remember the tiny stain I mentioned?), some on the sleeves of the shirt I was wearing underneath, some on the floor, and some, I’m sure, on John himself. He apologizes profusely, and for some reason I am not experiencing any sort of displeasure from the event. I even have enough wine for the rest of the folks in line. I call that my second baptism of the day.
The rest of the service goes off without a hitch, and after the procession I hurry to put back the torch and get the alb off to be rinsed so I can make it to the Great Hall for Everybody Hour, where Dr. Williams will be asked some questions about C.S. Lewis with a focus on Chronicles of Narnia. I wasn’t really interested in the topic; I would have much rather attended an open-ended Q & A, but I suppose the Chronicles of Narnia was the most user friendly topic that all ages of folks could potentially enjoy.
Getting my usual tea was an adventure, and you might say this is where I got a third baptism of sorts. By the time I got to it, the hot water for tea had run out. I waited for a few minutes, mostly wandering aimlessly trying to avoid bumping into someone. Looking out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone filling their cup with hot water, so I went back, and while I was filling my cup, a somewhat small child had knocked over a cup of orange juice on the counter. I could see the orange juice dripping to the floor, brushing my pant leg, so I hurried and got out of their mother’s way.
After standing for the first half of the presentation, and then sitting, for the second half (the room was very full!), I found myself enjoying Dr. Williams’ ruminations on C.S. Lewis, including Till We Have Faces and some of Lewis’ perspectives on heaven and hell. I also learned that his favorite Narnia book is The Magician’s Nephew.
By the end of the Q & A, I was a little tired of the crowd, so I did not take my time putting away my name tag back in the narthex, and going to wait for the bus.
As I reflected on that Sunday morning, I wondered what was so special about Dr. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. I was disappointed that I missed my chance to ask him about his books, but I realized I did not feel a sense of loss there. I had not felt myself steeped in his celebrity status. If someone were to ask me if I had felt “blessed”, I would probably agree, though. When I reflect on my very brief and limited interactions with Dr. Williams, I am grateful to think of a kind, reverent, and intelligent man who chooses to share his gifts with the church, and with the world. I am happy to be in the community of saints with him.
The area around the altar. ↩
I heard that Dr. Williams tailored his message for the 11:00 service, so I took a listen. It was definitely not the same sermon, so either he is skilled at discerning his audience, or he doesn’t like repeating himself. He talked about sainthood as being vulnerable in one’s humanity; toward other humans, and toward God. ↩
“Communicant” is a fancy way to say “person who is taking communion”. ↩
Not his real name. I am attempting to shield the privacy of anyone in the parish who hasn’t given me express permission to share their names. ↩