Malkhaz Songulashvili – Tales of Canterbury – 3 – A Funny Experience in Rome

Canterbury-cathedral-crypt-st-gabriels-chapel-mural
Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. Mural from St Gabriel’s Chapel

The enthronement was a truly amazing occasion. Millions of people watched the event both in the UK and the world over. But I ought to tell you more of what only a few saw and experienced before the enthronement in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. The crypt is the most prayerful place one could imagine. Under the Romanesque arches you could feel that this is a place where thousands of people have prayed in the course of centuries. The crypt can tell you almost everything about the main historical developments in the history of Western Christianity. Here you can see a French Huguenot chapel which was kindly given to French Protestants when they fled Catholic persecution in France. This chapel should be considered as the earliest expression of British ecumenism, long before the ecumenical movement was even conceived. There is also St. Gabriel’s Chapel – my favourite. Much to my amazement it gets very little if any publicity. It is the only place in the cathedral with frescos that survived the Reformation simply because the chapel entrance had been sealed off in the Middle Ages and was reopened only in the 19th century. I have spent hours in this chapel admiring the incredible beauty of 12th century masterpieces. This is the place where I really feel at home. You will not find any reproductions or books of those frescos, either in the Cathedral shops or anywhere else. I cannot understand how these frescos can be ignored in England.

A few days before the enthronement some post arrived in my pigeon-hole at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. I got a formal invitation letter for the enthronement, a ticket to Tea at Shirley Hall after the enthronement, near the Cathedral, an invitation card for The Nicaean Club Enthronement Dinner in the presence of the new archbishop, and, most importantly, a small purple ticket.

At the sight of the purple ticket I could not help remembering a funny incident that had happened to me several years ago in Rome. I had received a green ticket to attend a mass which was to be celebrated by the late John Paul II at the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall in Rome. I arrived at an appointed time at the entrance of this magnificent church with my green ticket in my hand, being escorted to the gate by a Stigmatini father who had hosted me at the fifth century monastery of St. Agnes, Rome. My host presented me to a smartly dressed civilian in a black suit and tie who appeared to be in charge of all the logistics related to the mass and told him in a low, sort of secretive voice: ‘Vescovo della Chiesa Evangelica Battista della Georgia’ (Bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia). The civilian commander looked at my green ticket impatiently and snatched it from my hand and angrily handed to me a blue ticket. Foolishly I did not read what was written on the blue ticket. I simply followed a young priest whom the civilian boss appointed to escort me. I obediently followed the priest. After a long walk through ancient corridors we ended up not in the Church as I had expected but in a large room where a lot of priests were busy robing. The young priest stopped me at the entrance, disappeared for a few seconds, and reappeared with clerical vestments in his hands. Now I realized that something had gone wrong and they thought I was a Roman Catholic. I told him in English that I was an Evangelical Baptist Bishop in Georgia and I was not supposed to robe.

“Bishop?!” asked the young priest in broken English.

“Yes, Bishop, the Bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia!” I spoke as clearly as I could.

“Aha, Vescovo?!” He asked again (Vescovo means bishop in Italian).

“Yes, Vescovo, Vescovo della Chiesa Evangelica Battista della Georgia,” I answered him back.

“Uno momento,” said the young priest, who went elsewhere. It did not take long before he was back. This time he brought with him an episcopal mitre and vestments. Apparently he thought I would not accept a priest’s vestments because I was a bishop, so was kind enough to supply me with a bishop’s vestments. For a second a wicked idea crossed my mind. “If I go with the flow I will be the first Baptist bishop to con-celebrate the Eucharist with the bishop of Rome.” Then I quickly realized that it would be unfair to deceive the Church of Rome and shouted out loud:

“Does anybody in this room speak English?!!” A young Spanish priest timorously raised his hand and made his way to me.

“Listen, can you kindly explain to this father, that I am a bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia and I am here to attend the papal mass only, not to robe, not to concelebrate?” The Spanish priest explained what I had said to the young Italian priest who pointed to my blue ticket. I looked at the ticket which said that the ticket-holder was invited to con-celebrate the Eucharist with the Pope. After lengthy explanations I was finally taken to the sanctuary and was seated right at the altar where John Paul II celebrated his Eucharistic liturgy.

(To be continued)

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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