I’m afraid the following incident doesn’t make Americans look very good – and it even happened on the 4th of July. Sorry about that.
Because there were 12 University of Bath graduations happening this week, my colleague asked if I would stand in for him in the procession of one of them. I’m not really a pomp and circumstance person, but arrived at the Guildhall with my academic gown and hood to gather with academic staff and dignitaries to process to the Abbey where the graduations were happening. Because I was a bit worried about wearing the right thing and knowing where I should stand in the procession, let alone where I was meant to end up sitting on the stage in the Abbey, I didn’t take a great deal of notice of those gathered in the Guildhall, getting ready for the ceremony, apart from a few friendly people nearby.
I enjoyed watching the 250 students in that ceremony walk across the front and shake the hand of the Chancellor before collecting their certificate. I couldn’t see his face or hear what he was saying to them, but I noticed that whenever students approached the Chancellor without eye contact, he paused to say something, so that they were almost forced to look up and acknowledge where they were. I liked that. I liked that these students who had achieved so much were being reminded to stop and look up and receive the moment.
It was only after the ceremony that my own lack of observation was pointed out to me. Did I not realise that the Chancellor was Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex? I’m afraid I didn’t. That would explain the high security then. Now that they mentioned it, I guess I could see a family resemblance…
Apart from a feeling of deep relief that I’d been spared a potentially very awkward social situation, I was glad that my impression of the way he interacted with students wasn’t prejudiced in any way by knowing who his family were.
A couple of weeks before, at a bus stop, I’d met another person from a famous family: the great-great granddaughter of Joseph Rowntree. What was it like to be a part of that family, I asked her, with that amazing legacy of faith-based commitment to social reform and with charities that he founded still making a difference today? (She said that people normally just ask about the sweets.)
Some of us may come from families with inspirational legacies that we want to keep alive, but I think that mostly we are free to choose the mark that we want our lives to leave. I was reminded of this when I went to a thanksgiving service for someone I deeply admire this week. During the service I had a powerful sense of a prayer welling up inside me. Lord, I want to follow in her footsteps, into increasing joy and hospitality and acceptance. What we desire shapes us. May it shape me. May it be my legacy, too.