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Archbishop's speech at Lord Mayor's Banquet 2008

Monday 10th November 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gave the following speech at the Lord Mayor's Banquet

My Lord Mayor, My Late Lord Mayor, My Lord Chancellor, Prime Minister, Your Excellencies, My Lords, Aldermen, Chief Commoner, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is as always a privilege to rise and acknowledge our debt to the Late Lord Mayor and his lady.  David and Theresa have been warm and delightful friends to so many of us in the intervals of the relentless schedule imposed by the mayoralty – some three months of travel and ambassadorship on behalf of the City and the UK's financial and professional services.  And I don't think any will fail to agree that this past year has brought far more than average levels of strain and challenge in that role; we are all grateful that these responsibilities have been in such calm and wise hands – and that they have not prevented David from raising more than £3,000,000 for his chosen charities, Wellbeing for Women, which supports research into complications around pregnancy, and Orbis, which is devoted to saving the sight of children in India.

Saving the sight of children: there is something inescapably symbolic about this at a time when we are all wondering whether we have seen things clearly and indeed whether we can help the next generation in our world to see things more clearly than we have.  One of the stories they tell in Cornwall is of a local girl who went to a hiring fair at Truro and was hired by a handsome and prosperous-looking man who said he was in need of a nurse for his children.  Before she came to his house to work, she was instructed to rub into her eyes some ointment that he gave her – the air, he said, was damaging to some people's eyes.  She came to the place she had been told to find – a remote spot, but with beautiful grounds and a fine old house; the children were friendly, healthy and docile.  All went well, until – with that inevitable perversity always to be found in the heroes and heroines of folktales – the young woman began to wonder about the ointment...

The next morning, she rubbed the salve into one eye only; and when she arrived in the remote valley where her employer lived, she realised that with one eye she was seeing what she had always seen – the lavish house, the rosy children, the flowering garden; and with the other, a bare and stony hillside, a shelter of bracken and a group of naked, wild-eyed, sharp-toothed little creatures.  She turned to run away; and the master of the house seized her, spat in her eyes and drove her out of the valley.  For the rest of her life, she could see nothing distinctly, and was never again able to find the valley of her adventure.  She lived to be an old woman in Zennor, where her story was still being passed from mouth to mouth when Robert Hunt began collecting his 'Popular Romances of the West of England' in the 1830's and 40's.

It's difficult on this occasion this year not to think about double vision.  I should guess that the experience of our Cornish heroine rings some uncomfortable bells: we have all woken up to find that, whether with one eye or both, we are seeing a world that is darker than we thought and less safe, and wondering whether much that we have got used to in the habits of the global economy has been reality or illusion.  And tonight, while the splendour of the occasion and the real pleasure of celebrating a year of dedication and hospitality and fruitful ambassadorship on the part of David and Theresa are in no sense illusory or fictional, there is bound to be a sense of a bleaker landscape around than we have known for some time, as the impact of the banking crisis on the 'real economy' becomes more evident.  The stony hillside of the story is a stark metaphor of lost security, here and worldwide, a lost security that, inevitably, weighs most heavily on those we most want to protect – the poor, the young, those still living in conditions, in the UK and elsewhere, that are an affront to human dignity and hope; though it is a loss of security that is in some lesser measure real to all of us, to our friends who are uncertain about their professional future, to our children starting on the stony path of setting up a home in present conditions; and simply to ourselves as individuals.  It is not surprising if many want to ask what exactly we have been rubbing into our eyes to avoid seeing the possible consequences of our fascination with the cloud-capped towers of a virtual reality.

A few years ago, my Late Lord Mayor, I ventured to refer at this dinner to the legendary Texan tourist who, faced with a medical crisis and the cry for artificial respiration, generously said that there was no need to bother about artificial respiration as he could afford the real thing.  I suppose that this is in fact the underlying issue we currently face: how can we afford the real thing?  the real thing that is actual sustainable prosperity for a whole population – a flourishing 'real economy'; the real thing that is security for actual people in the most vulnerable situations.  And we have been reminded that the relation between these things and the intellectually exhilarating, rapidly-moving, self-multiplying world of financial adventure is by no means as simple – or as benign – as we'd like to think.  Just to talk about greed is simplistic: it's more that we are looking at a large-scale system, sophisticated and normally successful, that can persuade us to imagine that it is more unquestionably solid and dependable than it in fact is.  And when some of the salve wears off, we're bound to ask how best we reconnect with what we've lost.

The City has worked hard over the years – and you, my Late Lord Mayor, have been a notable example in this – to connect with the struggles and needs of the urban life that exists around you and the needs of the wider world.  In another part of London, I was struck, on a recent visit to Canary Wharf, by the willingness of so many to put premises, skills and resources at the service of a much challenged neighbourhood: one of the first people I met there was the head teacher of a local school with whom the firm I was visiting had developed a very creative partnership.  There are countless people - very many, I know, in this company tonight - who have shown how to connect, how to think about affording the real thing.  And it is this which gives me and others some confidence in these uncertain days: there is still in our institutions a will not only to make money but to create employment, security and a just sharing of goods.

For some reason, ladies and gentlemen, doubtless something to do with the distinguished legal background of so many Lord Mayors, speeches on this occasion can be an excuse for quarrying the repertoire for bad jokes about lawyers, reflecting the poor image some – deplorably – believe they have.  I am delighted this year to record a far more positive judgement, from an American psychiatrist who declared that lawyers were his ideal patients: they had excellent health insurance and they never got better.  I have no idea, David, what the condition of your health insurance is, but I do at least know that in all your work in the City and beyond, we could hardly have wanted you to get better, so judicious and generous has been your contribution to the common life and the ongoing tradition of the institutions you have graced.  To you and Theresa, we express our warmest thanks and our best wishes for a little more leisure in the homeland you and I share, where sheep still graze with some degree of safety and the weather guarantees that no-one can remain very long under any illusions about the level of human control over our environment. 

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in drinking to the health of our friends and colleagues, the Late Lord Mayor and the Court of Aldermen.   

© Rowan Williams 2008

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