De locis sanctis*

My father-in-law asked me an interesting question yesterday on our way to Canterbury: “What do Americans--specifically the Episcopalians in your parish--think about it?” I answered what I thought was his question by talking about how our parish had been praying for the bishops at the Lambeth Conference this month and how important it is for us, as an Episcopalian parish in Chicago, to belong to the Anglican communion as a whole. “But what about the cathedral itself?,” he asked. “Do they think about it at all?” I was embarrassed to admit that, as far as I know, the answer is no. Certainly, I have never thought much about the building myself. Indeed, until yesterday, when I got to see it for the first time, I had been convinced that it—that is to say, the medieval building in which I might have been professionally interested, if it were still there—had been destroyed in one of Europe’s more recent wars only to be replaced by a more modern, less appealing construction. Imagine my surprise when we arrived to find not some late twentieth-century “fake” cathedral, but (at least in part) the very building to which Chaucer’s pilgrims would have come, with its magnificently elevated twelfth-century choir and its glorious fourteenth-century nave.


For those of you who are wondering, this is probably the single most embarrassing thing that I’ve had to admit on my blog, a perfect entry for that all-time favorite academic parlor game “Humiliation.”* How had I managed to miss the fact that this building—at the heart of the church in England for almost 1,500 years—still existed? It’s not as if I never think about Canterbury as a place. Indeed, a good deal of my published work has to do with Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, albeit more with the prayers that he wrote while a monk at Bec than with the theological treatises he wrote while at (or in exile from) Canterbury. Perhaps I can excuse myself by saying that, other than the crypt, the building that is there now did not exist in Anselm’s day. But it still seems strange that I had never wondered at whether, for example, there might still be evidence of the church where Anselm and his biographer Eadmer prayed.

To be sure, I have a tendency, given the focus of my research hitherto on the period prior to 1215 (a convenient stopping point for those of us interested in the history of monasticism) to consider everything after that date simply “modern” and not part of the problem that I am trying to solve. But, again, this does not quite explain why I had no idea whatsoever that Canterbury’s quire, built between 1175 and 1184 to house the shrine of the newly canonized saint Thomas Becket, represents the earliest example of the then newly fashionable French (aka Gothic) style of church architecture in England.** Of course, I knew the story of Becket—flamboyant chancellor turned man of God after his friend King Henry II persuaded him to accept ordination and consecration as archbishop of Canterbury; murdered by four of his friend’s knights only days after returning from exile after yet another quarrel over jurisdiction (see above on Anselm; different king, similar problems)—but somehow this never translated for me into curiosity about where Thomas’s body fell or where it was housed afterwards. But then, again, thanks to a somewhat later Henry (the eighth, if you’re counting), Thomas’s body, not to mention its gold-and-gem-encrusted shrine, is, of course, no longer there, only a candle where, prior to 1538, it used to be.


There are other bodies there, the Black Prince, for example, along with his heraldic achievements,

not to mention the so-called “Warriors’ Chapel” dedicated to St. Michael and housing the tombs of Lady Margaret Holland and her two fully-armored husbands.

And for those whose monuments could not fit into the chapel, the walls of the nave are covered with plaques commemorating the heroic dead of England’s many subsequent wars. But the man whose life and death occasioned the construction of the building as it now stands and for whom, for more than three hundred years, it was his tomb is gone and with him—or so I found—much of the energy of the place itself. I had not, I should emphasize, expected this reaction of myself. St. Thomas has never been one of my favorite saints; he still seems to me too much of an administrator, however ascetic his lifestyle may have become after his conversion to the priesthood. I have no sense of him as a spiritual guide as I do of his predecessor Anselm or of his contemporary (and fellow Englishman) Richard of St. Victor. And yet, I found I missed his presence in his great church, even as I marveled at the complexity and richness of its construction.

What is it that makes a church? Is it the building or the people by and for whom it is built?

NB I have no intention here of invoking the usual complaint about the “utility” of art, that the money spent to the aesthetic glory of God might be better spent not on beautiful things, but on other people. One of the things about structures such as Canterbury cathedral is that they are a permanent source of employment for workmen since they are in more or less constant need of repair.

No, my question has more to do with what makes places holy and why we experience them as such. Why did it matter to me, as an (unofficial) Episcopalian***, whether the saints whom I study as a scholar had or had not inhabited the structure I might see? Surely a modern building could be just as beautiful and just as effective a setting for the worship of God as one that has stood for almost a thousand years. And yet, I realized yesterday, it matters a great deal how long a church building has stood precisely because the Church is made not of buildings, but of people: just as the building may be decorated with images of all of the people who have contributed to its construction over time, so all those who have inhabited it—and cared for it—remain somehow always a part.

Churches, in other words, are indeed like reliquaries: they are, to use the metaphor that medievalist Mary Carruthers has made famous, storehouses for memory. The problem for Canterbury is that it is a place where memory has been forcibly excised, if not its heart (the worship of God), then its head cut out, much as Thomas fell to the blows of the four knights’ swords. What would the church of England be like if Canterbury were still the place of pilgrimage (and not just tourism) that it was in Chaucer’s day? I know, it is doubly ironic for me, a crypto-Presbyterian in Episcopalian clothing to be asking this. But I wonder how much the sense that too many have of the absence of God has to do with the way in which we Protestants have banished the saints from the places their bodies used to inhabit. Medieval Christians built the churches that they did not out of despite for the things of this world, but out of wonder at God’s creation. This, I am convinced, is why they are so often decorated not just with images of heaven and its saintly inhabitants but also of the earth. They are monuments, after all, to God’s willingness to become through his birth from the Virgin Mary indeed part of the earth—fleshly and mortal. It is, therefore, wholly appropriate that the older they should be—the more a part of the earth and of the history of those who have lived and died on it—the more holy they should seem.


Americans do not typically tend to think about buildings in this way. For us, they are functional (or not) spaces in which to perform particular actions. We may marvel at certain buildings for their antiquity, but for the most part, we are satisfied with newer buildings if they can make us more comfortable while enabling us to do the things we want to in them. Buildings like Canterbury cathedral, in contrast, are more than just spaces; they are somehow alive precisely because so many generations have lived—and died--through them. The reason my father-in-law was asking about what our parish thought of the building is that he is involved in advising the Dean and his staff on a capital campaign that the cathedral is currently conducting to help build an endowment so as to support the continuing work of repairing the fabric of the church. Like skin, the outer surface of the exterior stone work lasts only so long before it must be sloughed off and replaced. And yet, the interior of the church is much as it has been, minus the paint, for the better part of eight hundred years. Should we care even if we have no devotion to Thomas as a saint? Well, yes, because that is one of the things that makes us a church, alive over time because constantly renewed.


*As invented by David Lodge. How to play: make a circle. Each player then takes turns confessing to a book in his or her primary field of research and/or teaching that he or she has not yet read. This works best with senior academics who have been teaching for ten or more years and have published at least one book. Graduate students by definition are still woefully under-read, unless they are on the twenty-year plan. Professors emeriti are disqualified because they usually have read everything and, even if they haven’t, know it doesn’t really matter so they can’t be humiliated. For antidote, see “Isn’t that a bit narrow?”
**Dates given by the Official Cathedral Guide, p. 7.
***I am actually confirmed as a Presbyterian, which makes me somewhat anomalous with respect to the Anglican church, to put it mildly.

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