Why the new Archbishop of York chose to break a centuries-old tradition during his enthronement service

In normal times, a new Archbishop of York marks his arrival by knocking three times on the West Door of the Minster with the historic Braganza Crozier to request admission.

The new Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell
The new Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell

It is a symbolic gesture, one which is meant to signal the cathedral welcoming its new head.

These, however, are not normal times, so when the former Bishop of Chelmsford Stephen Cottrell on Thursday (July 9) became the city’s 98th Archbishop, he chose to knock instead on the inside of the grand wooden entrance before throwing the doors open to the public.

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He said: “It felt like the right thing to do in the circumstances. We wanted to show that the Church is open to everyone and that we are here to support and help in these unprecedented times.”

While Archbishop Stephen initially looked a little unsure about what to do next, it was understandable. The usual enthronement service had been shelved in the wake of coronavirus and in its place came a low-key ceremony devoid of the usual religious fanfare.

Before his arrival at the Minster, his official confirmation had taken place behind closed doors with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby giving a formal address via Zoom.

Broadcast on the Church of England’s website, afterwards the surreal nature of the day continued as the newly confirmed Archbishop made his way to The Shambles. Pausing for a moment of private prayer at the shrine of Saint Margaret Clitherow, passersby appeared bemused rather than awed by the unexpected arrival of a religious procession.

Walking back through the centre of the city where many of the shops still haven’t reopened, evidence that this was a very different welcome to the one enjoyed by his predecessor was everywhere.

Unlike in 2005, there was no music, no African dancers and the 3,500-strong congregation which had packed into the pews were reduced to just 30. Seated one metre apart in line with social distancing guidelines, they were almost outnumbered by members of the press. However, their applause as the new Archbishop picked up the Crozier for the first time was no less warm than it had been 15 years earlier.

Striding to the end of the nave wearing a plain burgundy cassock, Archbishop Stephen, who became a Christian after watching Franco Zeffirelli’s 1970s TV series Jesus of Nazareth, was finally able to greet members of his new congregation.

“I’m not quite sure how I ended up being Archbishop of York, but here I am - and the good thing is that you won’t be getting a long sermon,” he joked. “But I can’t let this moment go without saying something, so let me tell you a story. It’s not a funny story, so please don’t laugh or I will have failed.

“A man dies and goes to heaven and when he gets there he sees two entrances. One says ‘heaven’; the other says ‘interesting discussion about the concept of heaven” and everyone is standing outside the second door. What I want to say is, now is the time to stop talking about the good things and time to start living and sharing them.”

Like his predecessor, Archbishop Stephen has a reputation for being outspoken. He has been a vocal critic of the Trident nuclear programme and has called on the Church to be more proactive about increasing diversity, particularly amongst its own clergy

However, he was more concerned with enjoying the moment along with his wife Rebecca before the couple returned to their new home at Bishopthorpe Palace.

The last words he said to the well-wishers were: “That’s all folks”. It is, however, just the beginning for the new Archbishop facing the most challenging of times ahead.

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