Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Michael Banner - 21/03/2013

Good morning.

Later today the new Archbishop of Canterbury will be enthroned. It sounds rather grand – and his being placed in the ancient chair of St. Augustine will be a highpoint in a solemn occasion. But the Archbishop probably won’t and oughtn’t to feel too comfortable on this throne. In the first place, it is a rather austere stone model – quite unlike the sumptuous velvet thrones of fairy stories, Disneyland and the Houses of Parliament. More importantly, he will know that the throne is, allegedly, constructed from bits and pieces of the dismantled shrine of that most celebrated of Archbishops, St. Thomas à Becket, who died nearby. And just to underline the point that this can be a very uncomfortable seat indeed, today is the anniversary of the burning at the stake some 450 years ago of another of his predecessors who didn’t die in his bed, Thomas Cranmer.

The origins of seating a Bishop on a throne go back via the Roman empire to the New Testament and behind that to the Old Testament. In the Gospels, Jesus tells the twelve apostles that they will, in his kingdom, sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. The thrones are seats of judgment – and it is on that sort of throne that Bishops and Archbishops are placed.

And herein lies the rub. To exercise judgment means to be ready to question the status quo. It means discriminating between what is merely expedient and what is right; it requires listening not to fashion or to markets or even to popular opinion (whether outside or inside the Church), but to the demands of what is good and true. And we need such judgment, since the political and social life of any nation will be something more and better than a clash of interests, settled by the weight of naked power, only insofar as that life answers to the claims of justice. A judge has no business being winning or making friends – and the best of those who have occupied the seat of judgment at Canterbury have often, instead, made some pretty powerful enemies, particularly in Westminster.

The Archbishop has a very full in-tray, and some of its contents have to do with what he has referred to as the ‘failings of the church’ – and they must be addressed. But important as those may be, the Archbishop has a responsibility to speak to wider national matters, and especially on behalf of those whose voices are not backed by power and influence. For instance - 12 years ago, the Home Office’s then Director of Prisons condemned ‘the immorality of our treatment of some prisoners and the degradation of some establishments’. Yesterday, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons reported on the case of two disabled prisoners at Winchester confined in their cells for 23 and a half hours a day, and with no easy access to washing facilities. The new Archbishop will be enthroned today with the duty and privilege of speaking for such as these – may he do so as courageously as his greatest predecessors.

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