Underdressed in a suit?
THE Archbishop of Canterbury reached across the aisle of the plane and extended his hand to shake mine. I noticed a large emerald on his finger. “I always wear this when I’m in Rome,” he explained. “It was given to Archbishop Michael Ramsey by Pope Paul VI. Goodness knows how much it’s worth.”
If it was a slightly surreal encounter to be having on a budget airline, it wasn’t to be the last during my journey with the Archbishop’s team in Rome, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. I’d been invited as an embedded journalist to chronicle the trip, with its cast of extravagantly outfitted church leaders, even more fabulously dressed diplomats (the British ambassador to the Holy See has a ceremonial outfit, replete with bicorn, that challenges the Swiss Guards for eccentricity), and a couple of boringly suited presidents.
In Rome, Archbishop Welby introduced us to Paul VI’s most recent successor, before hurrying through an empty St Peter’s Basilica to attend a consistory for the creation of new cardinals. A minor miscommunication about the location of some lavatories meant that we were ever so slightly late, and most of the other ecumenical guests had already taken their seats in St Peter’s Square.
This wasn’t a problem for the Archbishop, who had a dedicated chair right at the front, but I was reduced to playing a game of musical chairs, before realising that the only spot left was between the Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Revd Thabo Makgoba, resplendent in a magenta cassock, and a bishop in the Syriac Orthodox Church, who wore a hat shaped like an onion dome.
I felt rather out of place in my plain old suit, although, in hindsight, maybe I could have been mistaken for a president — or, perhaps, having donned sunglasses against the fierce sun in St Peter’s Square, one of the Pope’s security guards.
Sign of the times
THE surprises, and the surrealness, extended to some of the meals that we ate. In Georgia, I sat in a restaurant with bishops from the Orthodox Church and ministers from the Georgian government, conversation periodically halted by short, but blazingly loud, performances of traditional music and dance.
And, in Armenia, at Holy Etchmiadzin — the Mother See of the Church that has a good claim to be oldest organised Christian Church in the world — I joined the Archbishop’s team for dinner with the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, where we were served a dish that paired tender beef with peppered pineapple.
Conversations at meals, alas, were strictly off record, but, on this occasion, the Archbishop made an exception for a quip by the Church of England’s Ecumenical Adviser, the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris. Archbishop Welby had been asked about his encolpion — a large medallion containing an icon, traditionally worn by Orthodox bishops — and explained that it had been given to him by the Ecumenical Patriarch. When he revealed that the figure in the icon was St Justin Martyr, Canon Morris had interjected, “We hope it’s not prophetic!”
Exchange of peace
IN TBILISI, the Archbishop travelled to an interfaith gathering at a building known as the Peace Cathedral. It was, by all accounts, a fascinating and powerful occasion. Unfortunately, I can’t verify this, as I was in bed at the time.
This was not a case of a morning-shy reporter, but the after-effects of insomnia. It is, as any sufferer can attest, a disturbing experience. As the night wore into morning without any sign that sleep might arrive, I began to feel more and more that I was losing my mind. As soon as I closed my eyes, a rush of images would fill my head, like a daydream on fast-forward, my brain generating intricate narratives around the anxieties and excitement I had about the day to come.
I hadn’t slept well all trip, averaging about three hours a night, and couldn’t afford a night with no sleep at all. An hour before I was due at breakfast, I emailed my excuses, and realised that it was now late enough in the UK that I could ring my dad, safe in the knowledge that he doesn’t sleep very much, either.
I sought a calm and reassuring voice, and found one in my father, and St John of the Cross. The former sent me a voicenote of himself reciting the latter’s poem, “Dark night of the soul”, first in the original Spanish, then in English translation. As I listened to it on repeat, letting its strange and beautiful images into my mind, my head began to settle, and I was able to sleep for a sanity-saving few hours — albeit, ironically, at the expense of a visit to a site dedicated to peace.
“WHERE is . . . Lordarchbishopof? He needs to be here to sign for his bag,” the assistant at Turkish Airlines’ baggage services told me firmly, after stumbling over the name. I explained that the man in question was about to board a flight to Azerbaijan which was leaving from the other side of the town-sized airport (after our scheduled flight had been cancelled), and several members of the Archbishop’s team and I needed to be on that plane, too, ideally with all of our luggage.
My interlocutor was having none of it: “He has to come.” But, after a lot of cajoling, and an attempt to explain that — despite appearing on the luggage tag — “Lordarchbishopof” was not a first name but a fairly important title, the bags were located, the need to sign for them was conveniently overlooked, and, after a quick march through the seemingly endless airport, we made it on to the plane.
It is a quirk of the job that, on becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, the holder of the office is issued with a new passport bearing the rather grand title. It is, the current bearer told me, quite annoying, as it invariably causes confusion when travelling. It happened again at the mountainous land border between Georgia to Armenia, as the perplexed border guard looked up at the Archbishop and asked: “So, what is your name?”
Francis Martin is a staff reporter for the Church Times. You can read reports from the Archbishop’s trip in the issues published on 6 and 13 October.