Travelling to Pakistan, fighting face-blindness and getting cross with myself

The Archbishop of Canterbury writes The Diary.

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Monday

It has been a week of big contrasts. On 14 November we marked and reflected upon the 76th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry during World War Two and the destruction of the old cathedral.

I began with an early phone call to the ­Archbishop of Hong Kong. We ran through the various problems: war and suffering. Then straight to a meeting of 80 rabbis and priests, launched by the Chief Rabbi and me at Lambeth Palace. The agenda for the day included some areas of tension, such as historic anti-Semitism in the Church and Israeli settlements. It was good to discuss the reality of tough issues for a change.

Later on, I had a visit from leaders of L’Arche. This is a Catholic group of about 150 religious communities, where people with severe learning difficulties live alongside those without such challenges, and pray and share together. The weak teach the strong. They brought a sense of peace, and we prayed in the chapel briefly.

In the evening my wife, Caroline, and I travelled to the Guildhall for the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, where I had to speak after the Prime Minister and Lord Mayor. It was terrifying – a large crowd makes me even more face-blind than normal out of nerves. I went home cross with myself.

Tuesday

I went to meetings and read paperwork until late. A lunchtime gathering with journalists was, as usual, fun and stimulating, with a frisson about the consequences of ­honesty. I hope I don’t get into too much trouble.

Wednesday

Breakfast in the flat with the new head of the Anglican Church of Kenya, a Masai. Very direct, he challenged the leaders of Kenya at his installation over governance and commitment to the country. Very energised.

In the evening, I gave a lecture at Eton. It was only my fourth time there since I left in 1973. I spoke about inequality, entitlement and the challenge to make a difference.

Thursday

In Paris to lecture a French audience on “The Common Good and Europe in the 21st Century”; the irony was not lost on either side. It was my attempt at critical friendship: to be sincere about failures but to set an agenda of hope. Not sure it worked.

Friday

Caroline and I flew to Islamabad. We were met by the local bishop and the moderator of the Church of Pakistan, and then moved swiftly into a heavily armoured vehicle.

A little sleep, then a meeting at the ministry of foreign affairs with the 85-year-old principal adviser (who seems more like 60). He has a persuasive and gripping sense of history, and is intimidatingly clever. It was all very formal, sitting across a huge table with microphones, essentially making speeches. We spoke of the origins of today’s religious violence. Pakistani casualties in the “war against terror” number about 60,000 civilians and 3,000 to 4,000 army personnel over the past few years. We also heard how good our aid programme is on edu­cation. Our Department for International Development is the best aid-giver, though it is woefully insulted in the UK.

Later, we travelled to St Thomas’s Church to meet 200 people from Peshawar – survivors of the bombing at their church in 2013. Many, including the children, had been badly injured. The Eucharist was truly moving, reflecting on Psalm 56:8, that God knows and shares our suffering. It’s a powerful lesson
of hatred overcome by courage and love.

Then an interfaith meeting, again full of Muslim and Christian leaders who often risk their lives. I spoke of disagreeing well and not compromising on faith. I was awed by their daily courage.

Saturday

We flew to Lahore and I slept most of the way. The passenger behind us couldn’t believe that the Archbishop of Canterbury travelled in anything other than a private plane. (I’m expert in buses and Tubes, too.)

In Lahore, we drove to the moderator’s house – with very heavy security again. Then to a formal dinner with the minister for human rights, a Christian.

There, we met an amazing young woman and her husband. She had been terribly injured in the Peshawar attack. She gave Caroline a shawl and they hugged each other. I spoke to her afterwards and she broke down in tears at the honour. How does one communicate that I feel a complete fraud, and that her gentleness and courage renew in me the reality of Jesus as the Good Shepherd?

Sunday

After a breakfast meeting, we headed to the packed Raiwind Cathedral. Rounding the corner at the back of the shoeless procession, I glanced up at the roof and saw guards cradling Kalashnikovs, looking down at us like an ambush scene in a 1960s western.

The service was excellent, moving and powerful, with wonderful music, all local in tone and pitch. Then to the Cathedral Church, a Liverpool-like structure – new Gothic, red-brick and huge. It contains the Taxila cross, which dates from before the 3rd century. There was a Christian presence here 1,400 years before the British arrived.

We travelled to the church in Youhanabad where we found a huge security presence. A bomb went off here 18 months ago and was followed by a riot in which 42 Christians were arrested for a lynching. Tragedy upon tragedy. We met relatives of those killed in the blast, some of the injured, and the wives of those arrested who are still awaiting trial. There was a deep sense of waste and loss, but the packed church also showed courage and faith.

Back to central Lahore for a meeting with 200 young people, which was followed by another talk, the third of the day. Then dinner with theology students and Christian schoolchildren, before returning to our accommodation at 11pm to pack for our return flight to the UK. l

Justin Welby is the Archbishop of Canterbury. He tweets @JustinWelby

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile