Saturday, November 7, 2009

I may never wash my hand again...



My friend Catherine is Vicar of Huddersfield. We’ve known each other since college days.

“I’m doing something at the College of the Resurrection” she said to me. “They’re having a vocations day and I’ve been asked to do a workshop on communication. I wondered if you’d like to help.”

That sounded like the sort of thing I’d enjoy and it would be good experience.

“We’ll also be managing the press.”

Now I’m very fond of the college but I was finding it difficult to imagine a huge press response to a vocations day.

“Come again?”

“You know. For the Archbishop.”

Sometimes I don’t concentrate as hard as I should in conversations. I replayed the conversation in my head. No Archbishop. I must have looked confused.

“Archbishop Desmond.”

“Tutu?”

“The very same.”

“Oh go on then.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu. My hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The one whose birthday I share? I am going to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu!

Wow!

As it turned out the college’s publicity machine wasn’t firing on all cylinders as only the Dewsbury Reporter turned up. They weren’t hard to manage.

The Archbishop was tasked with dedicating a foundation stone for the new environmentally friendly buildings that the Community of the Resurrection was planning and so a small group of people were gathered in the autumn sunshine waiting for the Archbishop to arrive. Catherine and I had been asked to find a couple of young people to be in a photograph with the Great Man. She was to find the young man – a task she took very seriously indeed – and I was to find the young woman. Actually I found five, all in a group. They had come from a local sixth form.
“Would any of you be willing to be in a photograph with the Archbishop?”

They were all gob-smacked at the prospect.

“No-one?” I said, misinterpreting the silence.

“Er…” One girl ventured.

“Fantastic come with me. What’s your name?”

“Grace.”

We were joined by Catherine and her young man Dan, and set off for the ceremony. Now this is the Community of the Resurrection: it was never going to be a simple affair. Archbishop Desmond was accompanied by Stephen, Bishop of Wakefield, the Community Superior, the College Principal, a crucifer, two acolytes, a thurifer, and a phalanx of robed brothers and full time students. They take ritual very seriously here and they do it well: it is like watching dance it is so well choreographed. Archbishop Desmond, a former member of the Community, took it all in his stride as introductions and welcomes were said, splashed the stone with holy water and dedicated it with a prayer.

Catherine and I organized the photos (during which I trod on the newly dedicated foundation stone) and then the Archbishop shook my hand. ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU JUST SHOOK MY HAND. I may never wash it again.

We moved into church to listen to the Archbishop’s address which was, as one might expect, witty and perceptive and full of interesting anecdotes. He had his congregation eating out of his hand. Catherine and I found ourselves in the front row to one side of the altar with a wonderful view of the whole proceedings. It wasn’t the sort of address one could take notes from but one thing stuck with me. He turned and looked at me, which I know was a total coincidence, as he said:

“God has called you for who you are. He wants you as you are for your uniqueness. Do not let others change you.”

Struggling as I do from time to time with the idea that God has called me for who I am and not as someone else’s vision of priesthood, I found that heart-stopping.

When it came to the Eucharist there were to be three points of distribution and it was clear that we weren’t going to receive from the Archbishop. But he’d just shaken my hand – did I mention that? – so I wasn’t bothered but I did notice a certain amount of jostling for position as people lined up. Just at the point when Catherine and I were about to get up to join our nearest line, the college Principal, who was in the Archbishop’s team, came over and asked Catherine to take over from the Archbishop which she did with great calm and aplomb.

When we spoke afterwards on the way to dinner she took my arm.

“Three things went through my mind in quick succession: what a great privilege it was to be asked to take over from Archbishop Tutu; all the people in the queue must have felt short changed when they got me instead of him and when was the last time I brushed my hair?”

“I’ll tell you what went through my mind: If you and I had sat in each other’s seats, it would have been me. Now that would have been interesting.”