The Dalai Lama, the Archbishop and the Prime Minister
Yet Cranmer is actually delighted by the organisation surrounding this visit because it is symbolic of the continuing foundations of Britain’s constitutional settlement. The Dalai Lama is spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists, and it was utterly unimportant to him where the meeting took place. No.10 Downing Street has no constitutional significance whatsoever: it is simply the Prime Minister’s office, for which the terms ‘Downing Street’ and ‘No. 10 have become synonymous. Over the centuries, the ‘house at the back’ has been occupied by sundry royals, peers and politicians, and it has been considered ‘a small, unimpressive, mediocre building’. Prime ministers have frequently chosen not live there, and it was not until Benjamin Disraeli that it attained ‘official residence’ status. But this has frequently been a pretence: prime ministers as recent as Harold Wilson actually lived elsewhere while conspiring with the media to give the impression of habitation. It has been subject to so much demolition and restructuring that it is literally a political façade; the recognisable grey brick and black door are all that predate the 1950s.
Lambeth Palace, however, has a continuous history going back to the 12th century. Its architecture is evocative, speaking of High-Church Anglican continuity with the Old Faith, and it has been witness to some of the most significant events of the nation’s history, including the trial of John Wycliffe for ‘heresy’. For the Prime Minister to insist on meeting the Dalai Lama here reinforces the religio-political fusion that exists at the heart of the British Constitution: that government consists of the spiritual and the temporal.
China may be concerned that a meeting with the Dalai Lama at No.10 might appear to lend him political legitimacy, but a meeting at Lambeth Palace has actually reinforced both his spiritual significance and his political status. It is, in any case, not without precedent, for there the Dalai Lama met Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, back in 1981. And while the office of prime minister may be traced back almost three centuries, there have been archbishops of Canterbury for more than 1400 years. And while the Prime Minister is charged with the governance of the United Kingdom, the Archbishop of Canterbury has a global role as head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Far from it being somehow demeaning, a meeting at Lambeth Palace actually represents a much greater honour than any previously bestowed upon him.
Of course, the Chinese may be as ignorant of this as many Anglicans are of the significance of establishment. But it is entirely possible to consider something to be a 'good thing' or a ‘bad thing’ without having more than the haziest idea of what it actually entails.