We meet God when we look up

Published April 1, 2003

Canterbury Cathedral is one of the few church buildings of my acquaintance that one enters by walking down some steps. Most churches have steps upward or an entrance at ground level.

So, when I walked into the cathedral representing the Anglican Church of Canada in the procession at the installation of Archbishop Rowan Williams, I looked downward to be sure of my footing on the smooth, but uneven, stone steps. And when I saw the video of the event, I watched myself looking downward. Others were looking straight ahead, but I am the oldest of the primates, and at my age, it’s the sensible thing to do.

But as soon as I was in the cathedral, I looked around at the thousands of people, marvelling at the variety, and recognizing a good number of those present. I even found Dorothy among the spouses of primates (actually, we sneaked in that morning and located our seats so I knew where to look).

And as the procession of primates climbed the great steps to our places behind the altar, I found myself looking up at the chair of St. Augustine in which the archbishop would be seated as Primate of All England.

The service provided much to look at — a rainbow of colours and costumes on people from every part of the world and of every tradition of Christianity and of other faiths, a brilliant choir and energetic conductor in the classic English cathedral pattern, African dancers of great intensity.

Of course there was also much to listen to — the classic language of English canon law, the hymns (especially of George Herbert whose feast day it was), a Welsh soloist and harp accompaniment, and the archbishop’s rich and evocative call to the church as it addresses the culture and the future.

That call set me to (metaphorically) looking ahead with Archbishop Williams into the uncertain times before him and us all.

So much to look at.

But a few days later I learned that I had missed something even more exciting to look at.

Late one night, when the cathedral was closed, the dean escorted a group of us, the Joint Standing Committees of the Anglican Communion, on a candlelight pilgrimage through the darkened cathedral.

We began at the same west door which I had entered looking down, but this time the only artificial light was in the vaulted ceiling. With the pillars in darkness, the vaulting seemed a breathtaking infinity above us.

On this pilgrimage we visited many places in a familiar building, and looked at them in a new way.

But nothing gripped me like the vision of the vaulted ceiling. It was an experience of the cathedral I had never felt before, and I will always be indebted to the dean for it.

There is nothing wrong with looking down — it is always prudent to watch one’s footing.

There is nothing wrong with looking around — what a richness God provides for us in the created order, especially in the human order.

And there is certainly nothing wrong with looking ahead — the future is already God’s, and to search expectantly for God in that future is part of fulfilling the divine purpose for us.

But looking up beats them all. It is not for nothing that the imagery of the Bible tells us that we meet God most powerfully when we look up.

If I never see Canterbury again, I pray that the lesson of this new (and ancient) vision never deserts me. Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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