Some 1,400 years of prayer and life in community are the touchstone of Canterbury Cathedral and the potential strength of the Anglican Communion's future, the Very Rev. Robert Willis told the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes on February 23.
The sole relic surviving from the cathedral's founding in 597, Willis said, is the "vulnerable and prayerful place" the cathedral community has created since its beginning, even while the building has been built, burned, rebuilt and remodeled.
The cathedral's oldest physical possession is the Gospel book give to Canterbury's founder, St. Augustine, by Pope Gregory who sent him on a mission to England. The Gospels are now housed in Cambridge, Willis said.
Canterbury gets nearly one and a quarter million visitors a year and each ought to be treated as a pilgrim, said Willis, the 39th dean. Many of those visitors are Anglicans. Canterbury is the place where "the world crosses the Compass Rose," the symbol of the Anglican Communion that is embedded in the cathedral's floor.
The words "the truth shall set you free" from John's Gospel are part of the Compass Rose and Willis said that Canterbury tries to create a place where people can come and tell the stories of their truth and listen to those of others. The cathedral orchestrates those connections at times, inviting, among others, seminarians and newly consecrated bishops from all over the Communion to spend time with each other in the community. About ten percent of the Communion's new bishops will have gathered at Canterbury in this way by the time of the 2008 Lambeth Conference.
Members of those groups are polite with each other at first and then "they begin to be honest with one another," Willis said. Group members will say that they intend to stay in the Communion but then sometimes go on to say "so you must believe as I do so that we can stay together." Such conversation and honesty can cause anger but the community's prayer and worship brings the group back together. The members may still not agree with each but they have a deeper understanding of each other.
Such groups take with them "pilgrim gifts" of hearing each other's stories and beginning to see that each of them are "faithful Anglicans trying to keep the faith." They will pass that experience on to others. Willis said those experience give him hope for the Communion's future.
"Each of us has little pieces of the puzzle," he said.