When I saw the purple ticket from Canterbury I read it twice very carefully, thinking of the blue ticket which I had received in Rome. The purple ticket permitted the ticket-holder to enter the precincts of the cathedral and the crypt for robing. Those who were robing and participating in the procession, the purple ticket holders, were asked to be at the crypt one hour and a half before the service started at 2 pm. Before I even entered the crypt in the precincts of the cathedral I bumped into Prince Ghazi of Jordan whom I had met at my college at Oxford a few months earlier at an interfaith conference on love in Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions. Prof. Paul Fiddes, my doctoral tutor, was the main convener of the conference. Prince Ghazi spoke about love in the Muslim tradition.
“Are you not cold?” asked the prince staring at my bare feet and sandals.
“No, I am used to it.” I gave the standard answer as we made our way to the crypt.
Most of the people arrived at the crypt on time. The crypt was divided into various sections and supplied with long rows of hangers. There were sections for Anglican bishops and clergy, and sections for ecumenical and inter-faith participants in the procession. Each section had its own minders. The minder of my section was an Anglican woman priest whom I had met in 2006 in Porto Allegre, Brazil. We were part of the same Bible-study group at the WCC assembly along with a Roman Catholic bishop from Glasgow, an evangelical pastor from Aleppo, Syria, and an Ethiopian layman. Soon after we met she was diagnosed with breast cancer and then we lost contact for several years. I had presumed that she had died. But apparently she did not. She was standing there as healthy-looking and enthusiastic as I knew her from our encounter in Brazil. That was a lovely surprise.
What do you do when you end up in a place were there are top representatives of all religions of the world? The most natural thing is to talk to other guests. There was something magic about the crypt. It made all the guests equal. Emotionally it was a brutally egalitarian space. You could talk with high-profile Roman Catholic cardinals, Anglican, Orthodox, Oriental and Protestant prelates and bishops, Buddhist monks, Jewish Rabbis, Muslim imams, Sikhs, and fire-worshipping priests on an equal footing.
I could not hide my excitement about the place.
“This is a marvellous place!” I told an Anglican bishop in the crypt.
“Yes it is. You can see so many prominent people here. If you do not see some people here perhaps they are not worth seeing?” he answered semi-jokingly, semi-seriously.
Looking at the crowd in the crypt I felt how closely we are all related and how small this world really is. I was looking at the faces of the people I had known and met many years ago, yet I could still remember some stories about them and about my time with them. There was Mario of the St. Eggidio Community in Rome. A charismatic and energetic lay leader, full of charm and humour. Last time I saw him he was very big. Now he has lost several kilos and looked very slim and youthful. It is interesting when I see people who I had not seen for a while – I remember some peculiar features about them. When I saw Mario in the crypt I suddenly remembered that he loves fish but cannot eat a whole fish because he is scared of the look of fish-eyes.
There in the crypt I saw Fr. Philip, the abbot of the monastery in Chevetogne. This is a fascinating Benedictine monastery that was founded to convert Orthodox Christians to Catholicism, but ultimately the monastery became not a proselytizing but a bridge-building agent between Western and Eastern Christians. In the monastery they have two chapels where services are simultaneously held in Eastern and Western liturgical traditions. I stayed in the monastery a long time ago and enjoyed the gifts of the ecumenical hospitality which they so kindly offer. Father Philip is a very kind, soft-spoken and caring character. When I saw him in the crypt I remembered that since he is a Flemish-born person, he spends an awful lot of time preparing his sermons in French for the mainly French-speaking community.
I was most delighted to see brother Alois, the abbot of an ecumenical community in Taizé in France. Brother Alois succeeded Brother Roger Schultz, the founder of the community. Alois is a very humble and thoughtful person. It is always a pleasure to speak to him. He was very interested to learn about a monastic order of New Desert Brothers and Sisters that has been founded in our church. He thought they would be happy to host them in Taizé for a fortnight to share their experience and liturgical tradition.
As I was talking to Jonathan Edwards of the Baptist Union of Great Britain somebody came to me and introduced himself in a distinctly American Accent. This was Rick Warren, a well-known American minister. It was also fascinating to speak with bishops, from Syria, the Middle East, and Armenia. It was particularly exciting to have a little chat with the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was pleased to know that we have a female bishop in Georgia and expressed her wish to foster some sort of conversations between our churches.