It got started as a kind of obligatory thing or even a human error. A prominent Anglican cleric, Rowan Williams, had come from Wales to Los Angeles to be the speaker at a clergy conference. The night when it was over there was to be a small dinner as an informal thank you to him.
The trouble was everybody was busy that night. By everybody I mean all the official people one would automatically think of being there. The dinner was scheduled to take place in an upscale suburban restaurant. (Sherman Oaks, to be exact). At nearly the last minute I received an urgent phone call. People were urgently needed to attend. Could my partner Mark Thompson and I be present?
Well, sure. We had never met Rowan Williams before but we could show up, be hospitable and yes, it was a free dinner. As I recall, in addition to Williams, there were five of us "locals." The ice broke fairly quickly. Williams was a delightful guy to be with, never a stuffed shirt, seemingly devoid of any ego problem, and wide open to meet people on an equal basis and share with us.
Seated next to him, I had no idea that in a couple of years Rowan Williams would be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. In other words, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, the international network of Anglican and Episcopal churches that represents nearly 80 million people. He has now served in this capacity for a decade and will step down from the post at the end of this year.
Certainly, it hasn't been an easy decade for him. The New York Times wrote that he has been assaulted by protagonists on both sides: "liberals who saw him as betraying his progressive beliefs in a bid to appease hard-line traditionalists, and conservatives who saw him as pandering to reformers bent on wrenching the church from its scriptural moorings." Divisions over homosexuality and women bishops have been huge. In fact, Williams said the other day that his successor might need the "constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros."
That night over dinner required neither. I was immensely thankful that Rowan Williams wasn't a blazing A personality type, ego-bent, agenda-controlled, a smooth dictator of any situation, a power magnet. In my opinion that stuff is utterly passe in a new age where institutions are rapidly breaking apart under too heavy luggage and a completely new type of "leader" is reflecting new power in peoplehood instead of archaic ways out of touch with reality. Change and new ways are essential.
So, over our dinner, there was give-and-take conversation instead of either a lecture or a sermon. Rowan Williams listened and spoke, spoke and listened. My partner, Mark, and he discussed a favorite poet whom both admired. Instead of a wide sweep, the ebb and flow of conversation was on a reflective and quieter side. It embraced us all. When the end of the evening came, one resisted because the occasion had filled so many needs. It was all about different people coming together and "getting to know you."
However, Rowan Williams had not departed from my life. After he became Archbishop of Canterbury, his wife Jane paid a visit to Los Angeles and spoke at a large gathering of women in the church. I attended and was seated in the immense and packed hall. Just then someone came up. She said the archbishop's wife wished to speak to me. Could I follow her to the head table?
When I did, Mrs. Williams greeted me warmly. Her husband had told her about the dinner in Los Angeles a year or so earlier. Apparently he'd remembered it with some fondness. so I guess it held a memorable quality. Talking to Jane I found her every bit as down-to-earth, open and receptive as I'd found Rowan. I wondered: is this how people trying to be authentic strive to know one another? I realized these are my kind of people.
If I am to be active in the church -- whether it's a building two blocks away wrapped in stained-glass or a worldwide communion, or both -- I seek down-to-earth people who are non-combative and genuinely loving and show me a face of Jesus instead of an angry mask.
I'm grateful Jane and Rowan did.