Today is the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. As every pedant knows, the Basilica of St John Lateran is the Pope’s Cathedral. St Peter’s in the Vatican is a mere Patriarchal basilica. The Pope’s throne is in the Lateran, and the Palace next door is where the Popes lived until they moved to Avignon. On their return from Avignon, they found the place in ruins, and so moved to the Vatican; the rest, as they say, is history.
Even though the main structure of the Lateran basilica has been rebuilt many times, most recently by Borromini, there is much that is ancient around the site, such as the baptistery, the cloister, and the Scala Santa; the baptistery goes back to the time of Constantine, the Emperor who gave the basilica to Pope Silvester in the year 324. The land on which it stood was the property of the family of the Laterani, who may have been relatives of his wife, the Empress Fausta. She, you may remember, was smothered in her bath on the Emperor’s orders a few years later, having lost his confidence in a major way.
The whole matter is rather delightfully explained in Evelyn Waugh’s much underestimated novel, Helena. The Lateran Basilica remains one of the must see sights of Rome for the truly discerning. And the feast of its dedication is a feast of the universal Church, which is celebrated even when it falls on a Sunday, reminding of the pre-eminence of the Papacy and the Pope’s cathedral, caput et mater, head and mother, of all churches in the world.
So, all in all, a great day for the official announcement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s identity, though as I write this, there is still no official word on the Archbishop’s website.
The handling of the selection process has not been altogether smooth. First of all the committee that selects the new archbishop was held up to a fair amount of hostile scrutiny; then things went very quiet indeed and it leaked out that the committee was deadlocked. Then finally, out comes the news before the official announcement, along with allegations that people have been betting dishonestly on the outcome. It has made for the most shambolic of conclaves. Perhaps next time they should get some Italians in to organise it all.
However, none of this reflects badly on the future Archbishop Welby, any more than the character of the Emperor Constantine reflects on the holiness of the Lateran Basilica. All the indications are that he is a man of great ability and holiness, one who will provide leadership not just for the Church of England, but for England too, those in his church, and those outside it. We need such leadership, and we need clarity of vision. There is more than a whiff of Holy Trinity Brompton about the new Archbishop and that is seriously good news. To speak to the nation one needs a solid foundation in faith, and there is lots of faith at HTB. Moreover, the HTB ethos is very open to the influences of Catholicism. The omens are good – we have the prospect of an Archbishop of Canterbury who knows the world, and how to speak to it; but who also knows the things of God, and what it is the world needs to hear.