When Becket Beckons: Our Canterbury Pilgrimage

(I co-wrote this piece with my wife, Leah Gregg.)

Photo by Leah Gregg
It was the Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates Jesus Christ, light to the nations. We were on a pilgrimage, with our son, seeking glimmers of that light in Canterbury, England, the mother diocese of the Anglican Communion, of which the U.S. Episcopal Church is a part. Unlike the pilgrims in Chaucer’s famous book, we pulled up to the ancient Roman wall of the city in a commuter bus, a vehicle that, running late, had stranded us shivering for 45 minutes in a London terminal earlier that morning while the driver took his union-mandated break. Unlike Canterbury pilgrims of centuries past, what we encountered first at the gate of the city was ... a strip mall.

As we moved into the city, we encountered a lone bell-tower; from the inside, the open arches are like an ancient portal opening into a busy, modern street. Upon closer inspection, we learned that this tower was all that remains of St. George the Martyr’s Church, which perhaps hailed from pre-Norman Conquest days. The famous Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was baptized here in 1564. The church had been decimated by a Nazi Blitz in 1942, during one of the air raids which Hitler had planned by following the “Baedecker” guide book to target precious and beautiful English cultural landmarks. Aptly enough, a commemorative plaque quotes 1 John 2:8 -- “The darkness has passed away and the true light is already shining.” (During World War II, we learned, brave volunteers risked their lives guarding Canterbury Cathedral -- and also St. Paul’s in London -- ready to snuff out any ordnance that threatened to burn down these historic houses of worship.)

Ambling along the row of shops downtown, we at last entered the iconic Christ Church gate leading into the cathedral grounds. For 1400 years -- since Canterbury’s first archbishop, the Roman missionary Augustine, first landed on the southern shores of Kent and founded a cathedral and monastery -- pilgrims have sought peace, comfort, and strength on these sacred grounds. Tragically, though, in part because of its distinguished place in the English church and civic society, the cathedral and its prelates have been at the fulcrum of violence and repression -- sometimes meting it out on others, sometimes suffering it themselves. Thus, Alphege was murdered by Viking invaders in the 11th century; the Protestant Reformer Thomas Cranmer, was burned at the stake at the behest of Queen Mary Tudor in the 16th (we had seen his effigy at the memorial to the “Oxford martyrs” earlier that week); and the royal loyalist William Laud was killed by Puritan insurgents in the 17th. Indeed, one might say, the blood of martyrs from many confessions, social statuses, and walks of life pulses through England’s checkered religious and political history: There was the devout Roman Catholic, Thomas Moore, whose beheaded corpse was interred at the Tower of London, and there are other Catholic martyrs killed in the wake of the Reformation, who are commemorated at Westminster Cathedral (not Abbey).

Photo by Leah Gregg
The most esteemed English martyr across time, doubtlessly, has been Archbishop Thomas Becket. Becket’s death has made this cathedral one of the most cherished pilgrimage sites of Western Christendom from the middle ages until today. Born the son of a prosperous London merchant, Becket enjoyed a precipitous rise into the highest precincts of Norman English church life and politics (see John Butler, The Archbishops of Canterbury: A Tale of Church and State, pp. 36-38). He soon caught the attention and earned the trust of a young King Henry II, who appointed Becket Chancellor. In a bid to consolidate his power over the church, Henry tapped Becket as archbishop in 1162. But this move backfired and the relationship devolved into an acrimonious power struggle. Upon ascending to the episcopal seat, Becket promptly resigned his chancellorship and used his new post as a mandate to shield the church from royal interference, shielding ecclesiastical courts from the king. On Dec. 29, 1170, shortly after a tenuous truce had brought Becket out of exile and back to England, Henry was heard upbraiding his knights for failing to rid his monarchy of this “low-born priest.” Four Knights took these words to heart and accosted Becket at the cathedral at Vespers time. After angry words, they smashed Becket’s head with a sword, splattering his brains on the pavement, and swiftly fled. The monks of Canterbury buried the martyr’s remains in the crypt of the cathedral. Becket’s vindication was swift, and he soon was credited with many miracles. By 1173 Becket had been canonized, fueling the international notoriety of his elaborate shrine set at the apex of the cathedral, in the apse. In a stunning ritual of public penance, a contrite Henry II made a humiliating and agonizing march to the shrine, trudging barefoot while being whipped by the monks, until he arrived at the cathedral crypt, where he fasted and prayed.

We three 21st century pilgrims at last entered the cathedral ourselves. After a brief stop at the gift shop, to appease the youngster, we soon headed to the site of Becket’s murder, to the front and the left of the Choir. Today the site -- referred to as “the Martyrdom” -- is marked by an altar underneath a sculpture of a cross made of two swords. In 1982 Anglican Archbishop Robert Runcie and Pope John Paul II, in a powerful ecumenical gesture, knelt together for silent prayer. We climbed the steps worn down by the feet of thousands of pilgrims across the centuries to Trinity Chapel, where Becket’s shrine had stood, until King Henry VIII had it destroyed in 1540. This Henry had wrested control of the Church of England from Rome and had himself made its head; perhaps, like his predecessor, he could not abide the spirit of truth and independence this archbishop’s life had embodied.

One virtue of Canterbury is that it does not allow the past to remain entombed in some dusty Anglo-Saxon crypt but connects Christian witness from the past to the present. This point hit home as we moved into the cathedral’s “Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of our Time,” which features two books with brief biographies of recent saints and martyrs. Some are familiar to many of us -- for example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Edith Stein, the young Lutheran Pastor and the converted Jewish-Catholic nun whose resistance embodied the solidarity of Christians and Jews. A number of famous martyrs from the Americas are included too: Oscar Romero who shone the light of truth in El Salvador, exposing a corrupt military-industrial regime until he was gunned down by a death squad in while saying mass; Baptist pastor and activist the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated in Memphis for his advocacy of the civil and economic rights for all; and Jonathan Daniels, the New Hampshire Episcopal seminarian and voting rights activist, who was murdered in Alabama as he shielded and saved the life of teenager Ruby Sales.

We found in these pages some faces and names new to us: For example, William Alexander Guerry (1861-1928) was a gifted teacher and pastor, who for a time taught pastoral theology at the University of the South in Tennessee before being elected bishop of South Carolina. Several decades before the modern Civil Rights movement had coalesced, the South was in the iron grip of Jim Crow laws, enforced by both by law and by extralegal racist violence.
Photo by Leah Gregg
In this climate, in 1909, Guerry addressed a group gathered in Birmingham, Alabama, where he articulated a bold vision of a Christian community whose unity in Christ transcended racial division. The diversity of the body of Christ was an asset, not a liability, he claimed: “We should strive for unity, not uniformity. Uniformity is mechanical, barren, unfruitful, and unprofitable. Unity is organic, living, and capable of endless growth. If we are to be truly catholic, as Christ himself is catholic, then we must have a church broad enough to embrace within its communion every living human soul.” Advocating for this vision in the concrete would cost him his life. In 1914 he proposed the election of an African American suffragan bishop to minister to black Episcopalians, who would offer them much needed representation in the diocese. An alternative proposal prevailed -- creating a segregated “Missionary District for Negroes.” A disgruntled priest in the diocese perceived -- correctly -- that Guerry’s proposal was an attack on white supremacy. He shot the bishop on June 9, 1928 and then killed himself. Guerry died five days later in the hospital, where he is reported to have said: “Forgive him, Father, he knew not what he did.”

What makes the martyrs so distinctive? T.S. Elliot raises this question in his classic 1935 play, which dramatizes Thomas Becket’s final days. In part one Elliot depicts Becket, recently returned from a six-year exile in France, struggling with demonic tempters trying to lure him into exploiting his impending death as an opportunity for self-glorification. Becket reflects on true martyrdom in his final Christmas sermon, four days before his murder. The peace the Savior brings is not the peace of this world. The glory of Christmas Day is followed immediately by the feast of the first Christian martyr, Stephen of Jerusalem. “A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident,” Becket explains.

Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. A martyrdom is always the design of God, for his love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to his ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.

We wrote this piece in February. A shorter version of it ran in the magazine of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass.

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