Friday, November 18, 2011

The Great Hall

I'd been there before, but the sheer size of the place still overwhelms me.  You see its towers dwarfing the city around it as you approach through the narrow, medieval lanes.  It's easy to forget what century it is until you see the ads for cell phone service in the windows of 17th century buildings.  But even so there is an eerie feeling of having been on a long, long journey of several generations and finally coming home.  And that home is Canterbury, the religious institution in England with the longest uninterrupted history.  Augustine of Canterbury established it in 597.

In the high middle ages it was a place of pilgrimage, not just for the fact that it is the mother-church of the Anglican Communion, but because it is the site of a church-state conflict gone horribly wrong in the 12th century.  Thomas Becket was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162.  A strong-willed prince of a man, he ran headlong into the strong-willed Henry II over the rights of the church.  Back and forth they went for several years.  At one point Henry is supposed to have said in utter exhasperation, "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"  Whereapon 4 rogue knights, seeing an opportunity to gain favor with their sovreign, murdered Thomas in the Cathedral.

T. S. Eliot in his artful play on the story called "Murder in the Cathedral" puts these poignant words in Thomas' mouth, "Herein lies the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason!"

Thomas' temptation, as Eliot creates it, is, knowing that his death at the hands of the political powers is highly probable, to respond with a humble submission to his fate just as Jesus had done--proving himself thereby more honorably humble than the recalcitrant king!  Poignant words because in a sense they resound throughout this ancient church even to this day.

In doing interviews, my son Landon and I found that most of the people there had not come as pilgrims.  Many of them were not even religious.  They came out of an interest in history, to see this thing everyone talks about, to see ancient architecture, to wonder at the hoary halls.  They came, doing the right thing, but for utterly the wrong reasons!  We resorted to asking people if they had come for religous reasons before asking for an interview!

In another more sublte way Canterbury does the right thing for the wrong reason.  The Nave walls are lined almost continuously from back to front on both sides with large marble slab monuments to military accomplishments around the world in the name of the English Crown.  Some of them had only oblique references to God, a few had none at all.  These seem to culminate a thread of thought that goes back all the way to the 14th century Black Prince.  Edward of Woodstock was the eldest son of Henry III and would have become King except that he died a year before his father.  He was an exceptional military leader of the English against the French, especially at Crecy and Poitiers (the French would obviously emphasize "black" rather than "prince.")  He became very popular because of this and is burried in the Cathedral.  Until the recent act of parliamant that allows a non-Anglican to assume the British throne, there has always been a blurry line between issues of state and issues of church, matters of earth and matters of heaven.  To do the right thing for the wrong reason...

But under all that confusion is the Undercroft.  Down there the hoary ages still hang in the air.  Ancient columns still seem to echo the chants of the Benedictine monks who have worshipped there through the centuries.  Modern monuments to social justice issues feel strangely at home with the peeling smoke of distant candles.  Here somehow, the undercurrent of the Spirit is still flowing, deep and cool and strong.  Perhaps this foundation is the key to this church's longevity after all.....

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