This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Anglican Journal.
On March 21, 2013, the Most Rev. Justin Welby will be enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury in a ceremony both steeped in tradition and geared to the times.
About 2,000 local and international guests have been invited to the ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral. Founded in 597 AD, historic Canterbury Cathedral is the mother church of the Anglican Communion and seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The enthronement of the spiritual head of the 85-million-strong Anglican Communion, Primate of All England and bishop of the diocese of Canterbury, is usually held on a date with sacred significance. March 21 is no exception.
March 21 is the feast day of St. Benedict of Monte Cassino, a significant figure for both the cathedral and Welby himself, who is an oblate of the Order of Benedict. A thousand years ago, the cathedral was a Benedictine monastery, said Robert Willis, dean of Canterbury Cathedral.
March 21 is also the feast day of Thomas Cranmer-martyr, architect of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of King Henry VIII.
It is also an auspicious date to begin one’s official life in London’s Lambeth Palace and across the Anglican Communion, said Willis. Two days after his enthronement, the new Archbishop of Canterbury will lead his diocese into Holy Week and Easter Sunday.
The enthronement ceremony will begin at 3 p.m. with a series of processions that will include local and international church leaders, U.K. political leaders and other guests.
Willis will then address the gathering, and a letters patent from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, will be read. This authorizes Willis and cathedral community representatives to go to the church’s west door to greet the archbishop, who will be waiting outside.
As per tradition, Welby will strike the door three times with his pastoral staff, after which Willis will open the door to welcome him.
Welby will be led up to the nave altar, where the archbishop of York, John Sentamu, will ask him to swear an oath of faithfulness to the statutes of the Church of England and an oath of faithfulness to the Queen of England.
The ancient Canterbury Gospels, which were a gift from Pope St. Gregory to St. Augustine, will be placed by Willis before Welby, who will take them in his hands and swear an oath of faithfulness to the Cathedral Foundation, and to the cathedral and all it stands for as the mother church of the Anglican Communion.
Two enthronements will follow: the first by the Ven. Sheila Watson, archdeacon of Canterbury, who will enthrone Welby as bishop of the diocese of Canterbury. In the second enthronement, Willis will lead Welby up to the chair of St. Augustine to enthrone him as Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England.
During the service, Welby will read the gospel and preach from the throne of Augustine. But he will also have had a role in preparations leading up to the ceremony. He has helped choose the music, for instance. “It looks as though the ‘Te Deum’ [an ancient hymn of praise] will be sung to the setting of Benjamin Britten in C, because it is the centenary this year of the birth of [this] great British composer,” said Willis.
Welby will also wear a cope and mitre of his own choosing. “There are no enthronement robes specific to Canterbury,” said Willis, adding that when Archbishop Rowan Williams was enthroned in 2003, he was robed in a cope and mitre provided by the Church in Wales.
As dictated by history, Welby will carry a Canterbury crozier, which has been passed down to generations of Archbishops of Canterbury. Last December 30, when Rowan Williams gave his final blessing in the cathedral as Archbishop of Canterbury, Willis had taken that same crozier from him and laid it on the altar.
The Canterbury Cathedral choir, led by Dr. David Flood, will lead the music, which includes hymns from other parts of the Communion. British composer Michael Berkeley has also been commissioned to compose an anthem based on the first words of the Rule of St. Benedict. (The Rule of Benedict is a book of precepts for monks on how to life a Christian life.)
“It’s quite a simple service, really,” said Willis, who will be enthroning an Archbishop of Canterbury for the second time. He recalled his first-the enthronement of Archbishop Williams-as being “a happy occasion,” adding, “one has a great sense of humility in standing in front of that door waiting for the knock on the door and being the one who says, ‘Welcome.’ ”
He acknowledged that, while he has one enthronement under his belt, plus the experience of hosting the last Lambeth Conference of Bishops in Canterbury, the novelty never wears off.
“I could say I got used to it. You don’t. You never get used to Canterbury,” said Willis. “It’s so many-faceted that it is constantly a wonderful gift to help people share, and never more than on this occasion with the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury.”