Sacred Places Journal
14 October, 2001: Sunday in Canterbury: A Threat, a Closure, A Triumph
It's a misty morning. I hurry around the corner to 8:00 a.m. Holy Communion, where I join a small gathering of the faithful, mostly elderly. It's a very traditional service-the Dean celebrates facing eastward.
I'm seated almost on top of St. Dunstan's memorial. This holy reformer in an age of much laxness has been a favorite of mine since I got acquainted with him while writing Glastonbury: The Novel of Christian England. He was born in a village near Glaston. His mother was attending a Candlemas service when a gust of wind blew out all the candles except hers. Everyone re-lit their candles from hers and prophesied that the child she bore would re-kindle the light of Christ in their land. He did so as Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Ely and Archbishop of Canterbury.
Back to my room. I fall asleep overlooking the cathedral and waken to the ringing of the bells-the wonderful English changes tumbling through the air, right into my room.
Canterbury Cathedral chancel, viewed from the quire.
© 1994-2001 Martin Junius
To Sung Eucharist. The quire and chancel are full of worshippers. The Dean preaches an excellent sermon. Then Holy Communion at the high altar with the choir singing in the apse above. Glorious.
To St. Augustine's Abbey (take a virtual tour), founded by Augustine in 598 following the success of his evangelical mission from Rome to King Ethelbert of Kent. The original wattle-and-daub abbey was completely reconstructed after the Norman Conquest (1066) and then destroyed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but some of the buildings were converted into a royal palace. My favorite spot is St. Pancras Chapel in the far corner of the grounds. It was built in the 7th century, probably very near the site where St. Augustine celebrated his first mass in Canterbury. It is built of flint and thin, bright red Roman bricks, re-used by the Anglo-Saxon monks.
Ruins of St. Augustine's Abbey, in Canterbury
Then on up the hill to the ancient flint St. Martin's Church, named for St. Martin of Tours. The oldest church in England, worship has been continuous here since the 6th century. Here the Christian Queen Bertha prayed with her ladies every day for 35 years for the conversion of her pagan husband King Ethelbert. In 597 her prayers were answered, when Augustine arrived at the bidding of Pope Gregory the Great. Ethelbert listened to the proclamation of the Gospel and believed. The stone font by the door of St. Martin's was long believed to be the actual font where Augustine baptized Ethelbert, but it probably isn't that old.
I came here once before when following the path of John Wesley. Wesley preached in the doorway of St. Martin's after a mob throwing lighted fireworks interrupted his preaching just outside the city gate. When here before, however, I had failed to note the carving on the lich-gate at the entrance to the churchyard: "Holiness Unto the Lord".
St. Martin's Church is the oldest parish church in England still in constant use. It was named after St. Martin, Bishop of Tours in France, where Queen Bertha lived before she married King Ethelbert.
The entry sign welcomes visitors to look around and pray for the conversion of the world and the unity of all Christians.
I find a bench in the back of the churchyard beside a pink-blooming rosebush and eat my jam butty, leftover from breakfast, while looking at the towers of St. Martin's and Canterbury Cathedral. A very different twin tower image than that in most people's minds these days.
Then I hurry down the hill, back past St. Augustine's to Evensong. I don't want to be late, as this is a special festal service for the Canterbury Festival. A long line has already formed outside the gate. I rush forward-only to be turned back by a uniformed police officer.
Canterbury Cathedral is closed. A security problem. No services today. The first time the cathedral has been closed since the murder of Thomas à Becket.
Then I see all the police cars and fire trucks. Being a writer, I grab my camera and notebook and set to work. "They found a suspicious parcel in the crypt," I'm told.
"A 'Middle-Eastern-looking man sprinkling white powder around," someone else says.
A couple who live in Canterbury and had come for the service (it turns out her father was American and trained near Boise in the war) say, "Well, it is where they would strike, isn't it? This is the Mother Church of Christianity. This is their chance to get even for the Crusades. They've waited 800 years."
I return to my room and watch the fire engines enter the close. Then, being in England, I put the kettle on and have tea. But I don't take my eyes off the cathedral.
The tea must have started my mind working, because I suddenly realize that the cathedral isn't the only church in the city. A helpful young fire brigade officer directs me to St. Dunstan's, just outside the city wall. He is right, but evensong isn't for two hours yet, so I walk in the misty rain through lovely gardens along the River Stour (see photo), checking occasionally to be sure the cathedral's central Bell Harry Tower (see photo) is still there, reigning over city and cathedral.
It is almost dark when I duck under the cordon into a market square peopled only by police officers, and trudge back up to my room. Sometime later I hear voices in the close and look out-the cathedral is bathed in triumphant golden floodlights. I have another cup of tea to celebrate as the bells peal forth.