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An Afternoon in Canterbury

November, 2013
By Anthony Marshall

"I would not wish to live in a world without cathedrals."  Nor would I.  Like Amadeo de Prado in Pascal Mercier's excellent novel Night Train to Lisbon (Atlantic/Grove Press 2007 ) I am enchanted, and amazed, by the cathedrals of Christendom, particularly those built in medieval times. I have visited most of the great ancient cathedrals of England: Canterbury, Winchester, Norwich, Lincoln, Salisbury, Ely, Peterborough, Lichfield, York, Westminster Abbey; and a good many in Western Europe: in France, Italy, Germany and Spain. Why am I, a lapsed Anglican, so moved by these buildings? 

 Hard to say exactly. It is a mixture perhaps: a sense of the sacred in these places, of their holiness and numenousness; a sense of transcendence, of another reality which transcends the reality of this world; a sense, too, that generations before me have, with devotion and toil, striven to create works of beauty and wonder, worthy of the truth in which they believed.

On the other hand, like Amadeo de Prado, I am not enchanted with the religious bureaucracies which administer cathedrals, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic, Greek/ Russian Orthodox or other. How far these churches have strayed from the basic teachings of Christianity, as laid down by its founder!  In organization and management style, they look less like churches with love and spirituality in their hearts and more like global businesses with brands to sell, markets to capture, minds of consumers – and politicians - to manipulate.

Perhaps the CEO of the brand which is the market-leader is set to change all this.  I have great hopes of Pope Francis (but then, I remind myself, I also had great hopes of Barack Obama).  As I write, His Holiness is about to meet a German bishop who is in the soup. The Bishop of Limburg has been summoned to Rome to do some explaining to His Holiness: how, in God's name, has he contrived to blow 40 million euros (yes, the figure is correct: in dollars it is 54 million) on his new residence?  For this money, you might expect to have built a small (perhaps a semi-detached) cathedral, or at the very least a pretty fancy parish church. Especially in Limburg which is a very small city (population about thirty-five thousand).  Pope Francis, who clearly disapproves of conspicuous consumption, not least by the princes of the church, will surely not be much amused. We await results.

Cathedrals cost a packet to build and a packet to maintain.  In England, you mostly have to pay an admission fee to get in. In Canterbury it costs you nine pounds (fourteen dollars) to visit the cathedral and its precincts.  No point in whining about this. Why should you not contribute to the upkeep of one of the treasures of Western architecture? And today, as we visit it, the cathedral gleams gloriously in the sunshine of the early afternoon. How different it looks now, compared to fifty years ago, when I lived in its shadow. Then it was black and grimy, its stonework soiled and streaked by the foul breath of the city – soot, smog and smoke – exhaled over decades, over centuries.  And parts of the cathedral were always disfigured by scaffolding, and shrouded by sheeting, as stonemasons repaired, restored and cleaned the crumbling sandstone. The stone, quarried at Caen in Normandy, is light in colour and easy to work, but unsatisfactory in the long term because of its softness, porosity and tendency to crumble. Even now, seventeen stonemasons are employed permanently in maintaining the fabric of the building. But today, I see no sign of them, nor of any scaffolding: the mother church of the Anglican communion seems to float, serene and unsullied, against a pure blue sky.

We avoid the main entrance, at the west end, where the public are milling. Instead, we enter the cathedral by the back door, so to speak, to begin at the beginning, the cathedral's crypt.  A massive oak door, studded with iron, and with a loop of twisted iron for a handle, gives access. I am reminded, as I stand in front of it, of a previous visit, when I was pushing my aged father around in his wheelchair. We visited the interesting and accessible parts of the city and the precincts. We pottered around the cathedral cloisters, then passed this door. "Let's go in here," I said, swinging the wheelchair round and advancing towards it. "No! Stop! I don't want to go in!" I never heard such panic in my father's voice. Why? He was as staunch an atheist as ever I met; perhaps, in old age, his position had mellowed to that of a staunch agnostic; but he never professed any belief, and scoffed at those who did.  I can only suppose that his reluctance to enter the cathedral was rooted in fear, fear that, despite everything, there might be something in religious belief after all. He was a great admirer of H.L Mencken, and would sometimes refer to a story written by Mencken. An atheist died, and, having arrived at the Pearly Gates, was asked by St.Peter, jangling his bunch of keys, if he had anything to say. “Only this, your Holiness. Boy, did I get it wrong!” Perhaps my father had a secret fear that he too had got it wrong.  Strange that I never asked him.  Or not strange. Poor or awkward communication between fathers and sons is nothing new. 

Simone shows no reluctance to step into the crypt. And (she tells me later), she feels, as I do, the mystery and the sacredness of cathedrals. Or some cathedrals. A little natural light penetrates through windows cut into massively thick walls, but the crypt extends beneath almost half the length of the cathedral, and parts of it are very dark indeed, others dim with twilight. Everywhere stout piers and pillars, or massed groups of pillars, support, like Atlas with knotted muscles, the weight of the immense structure above. Here, in the middle, is the Chapel of Our Lady of the Undercroft, where the red lamp of the host casts a warm glow. What is she doing here? Or the host? Surely they belongs not here, but in a Catholic church? Ah yes, but this church is a Catholic church: not a Roman Catholic church, but, since the time of Henry VIII, and his break with Rome, the true Anglican Catholic church. Tricky theology, beyond my powers to explain. Numerous side chapels occupy niches around the crypt's perimeter. One of them is closed. On the door a sign reads: Eglise Protestante Francaise: Office a 15h00 tous les dimanches.

And so it is that, some hundreds of years since the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) which decreed that Protestants in France were no longer to be tolerated, French-speaking descendants of the Huguenots who sought asylum in Canterbury still worship here in their native language. These French refugees contributed much to the life of Canterbury, as weavers, goldsmiths and merchants. In my schooldays, the biggest department store was “Lefebvres”, named for one of these Huguenot families. (I note that today – no great surprise – it belongs to a chain store, Debenham's).

At the east end of the crypt, filled with light, is the space where, on Sunday evenings, the seven hundred boys and staff of The King's School used to congregate for Evensong. It was a warm and intimate place for worship at the end of the day, at the end of the week: but it was a place filled with melancholy too, as we said farewell to the weekend, and, perhaps, to loved ones. The words of the evening canticle Nunc Dimittis captured the mood of quiet resignation: “Now, Lord, let us depart in peace, according to thy word.” As did also the words of the evening prayer: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.” I find the spot where, as a member of the choir, I used to sit. Choir practices took place here too: times of some anxiety on Sunday mornings, as we feverishly polished an anthem or introit, before going upstairs to perform in public, in the main body of the cathedral.

We leave the crypt and walk in the cloisters, which enclose a square of grass, dotted with flat gravestones, marking the resting places of eminent prelates. Here, on summer nights in July, music was performed as part of the “King's Week” festival. These “Serenades in the Cloisters” were informal affairs and highly enjoyable: I recall lounging on a rug spread on the grass, listening to madrigals and string quartets, whose notes resonated round the quadrangle.  And competed with the screams of swifts, which darted overhead, and with the cawing of jackdaws, which flocked around the cathedral's main tower, Bell Harry.  No birds here today, that I can see, or hear. Which is a pity.  Ou sont les oiseaux d'antan?

We pass the door of the Chapter House, the elegant and airy chamber where, for centuries, meetings of Dean and Chapter have been held, to discuss cathedral business. Today it is the venue for a wake, a reception for people who have attended the funeral of a churchman. Judging by the hubbub, and the number of bottles of wine on offer, they seem to be having a good time. The Chapter House is where T.S.Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral was first performed, in 1935. The date is significant. The play has been seen by some as, at least partly, a condemnation of fascism, the chorus representing the common people “living and partly living”, oppressed and down-trodden by dictatorship, and Becket, the individual who resists it.  I am pleased to learn that the play was commissioned by George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who was “my” bishop, when my family lived in Sussex. He was a liberal and progressive bishop, to whom I prayed on many Sundays, not having the faintest idea why, or who he was, but just going along with the vicar, who urged God to “bless our bishop, George.”

The Chapter House is only a few steps away from the door which opens into the cathedral itself, and – appropriately – straight into the Martyrdom, the small chapel where in 1170 Thomas a Becket was murdered. T.S. Eliot's play suggests that Becket was moved “to do the right deed for the wrong reason” and perhaps embraced martyrdom simply out of pride or selfishness. Jean Anouilh's play Becket (1959) is dramatically more intense, but based on a false understanding, that Becket was an Anglo-Saxon, therefore one of those dispossessed and oppressed by the Norman conquerors.  Becket was not Anglo-Saxon, but just as much Norman as his friend and overlord, Henry II.  Henry has generally come out of the story rather badly.  He may, or may not, have exclaimed in a fit of temper: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” but he certainly regretted Becket's death.  Becket's murder resulted from the ongoing power struggle between church and state.  Who was in charge in England: the King or the Archbishop of Canterbury?  Becket is usually seen as the sacrificial lamb in this dispute, but the truth is not so simple.  Henry had demanded that all clergy who were charged with murder be in future tried by the state in Crown Courts, and no longer by the church in the courts of the Star Chamber, where often they were treated leniently, or got off scot-free.  Was Becket's refusal to relinquish the church's judicial authority over its priests reasonable or justifiable?  Today we would say not.  At least not in the Western world, where largely the church has surrendered its political and judicial powers.  But the interests of state and religion still clash resoundingly today in other parts of the world, in such places as Turkey, Egypt and Iran.  State Law or Sharia Law?  Theocracy or democracy?These battles are still being fought, and the outcome is not at all certain.

Becket's martyrdom was the making of Canterbury as a city of pilgrimage.  After his canonisation in 1172 (quick work!) his shrine became England's most popular destination for pilgrims.  Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, published in 1387, and one of the glories of English literature, must certainly have boosted its popularity.

The Via Francigena is the name given to the pilgrim's way leading from Canterbury to Rome, or, if you prefer, (since it is a two-way street), from Rome to Canterbury. Earlier this year my friend Dr. Bierbrauer walked a part of it, from Siena to Bolsena. I took a photo of a signpost near where we met up, somewhere in Tuscany: Rome 147 kilometres, Canterbury 1460 kilometres. One of the first to complete the whole walk was an Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric “The Serious”, in or about 990.  A walk of 1600 kilometres is indeed for the serious, not for the faint-hearted.  If you averaged 25 kilometers a day, which is very good going, you could knock it off in 64 days: a more realistic target, allowing for bad weather, rest days and mishaps, would be 90 days – 13 weeks or 3 months.  Bravo, Sigeric! I suspect that not many other Archbishops could manage 3 months tramping to Rome.  I am rather impressed to know that Hilaire Belloc, who in later life became enormously fat, also walked the Via Francigena, or most of it, and wrote about it in The Path to Rome (1902). Belloc's ample shadow loomed rather large in my childhood. He lived only a few miles away from our farm in Sussex, at King's Land near the village of Shipley: and though he died in 1953, just one year before we moved in, his memory lived on.  His house, and Shipley Windmill, restored in his honour, became places of pilgrimage for lovers of his writing, who were, and are, quite rightly, many.

We pass through the Martyrdom, where a guide is giving a stirring account of Becket's bloody end to a group of young schoolchildren. This is historically accurate, as the gory details are recorded by cleric Edward Grim, an eye-witness to the murder.  But I wish schoolchildren could be spared the details. Why not let them learn something useful instead?  As I have: the word “episcopicide”, for example, which means “someone who kills a bishop”. (Though, as a pedant, I have to remark that the four knights who killed Becket were actually “archepiscopicides”.)  These words are not easy to say, and not easy to work into every day conversation: but why not set our children exciting challenges?

We admire the lofty fan vaulting, which forms the graceful ceiling to the tower of Bell Harry, before passing through the screen into the Choir. This is the very heart of the cathedral. It lacks the intimacy of the crypt, but the carved wooden choirstalls give it a warmth and dignity which I love. Here on Sunday mornings staff and pupils of The King's School met for Matins, the service of Morning Prayer. What joy to hear 700 hearty male voices belt out the “Benedicite” (“O ye whales and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord, praise him and magnify him for ever!”) or Psalm 150 (“Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet, praise him with the lute and harp!....Praise Him with the loud cymbals!....Let everything that hath breath, praise the Lord!”). These are experiences I will always treasure.

Here too, as a chorister, I got to know and love the canon of Anglican church music: plainsong chant, hymns ancient and modern, and the polyphonic anthems and introits of the English composers, such as Tallis, Byrd and Gibbons (who were composing some hundred or hundred-and-fifty years before J.S.Bach): and of Stanford, Parry and Weelkes , (who were composing some hundred-and-fifty years after him).

In one corner of the Choir stands the throne of the Archbishop, who in my time was Dr. Michael Ramsey. I heard him preach several sermons here: he struck me as a saintly man, who looked, sounded and acted like a patriarch of the church. Unlike his predecessor, Dr. Fisher, who retired one year before I came to Canterbury.  If Roald Dahl is to believed (see his memoir Boy), Dr. Fisher, when headmaster of Repton School where Dahl was a pupil, took a savage and sadistic delight in punishing boys, thrashing them with a cane.  Legal, and perhaps even normal, practice in those good old days: but surprising behaviour in a patriarch-in-waiting.

No surprise to find the elaborate tomb of the Black Prince, still standing outside the Choir, where it has stood for six hundred years or more. The eldest son of King Edward III, he fought – in his black armour – against the French at Crecy, where aged 16 he “gained his spurs”.  He spent the next 30 years slaughtering and marauding his way around France.  His helmet, sword, shield, coat-of-arms, gauntlets, doublet and (I think) even his spurs are still on display here. What is this man of war doing here, laid out for veneration, in this cathedral? As we walk westwards through the nave, it is impossible not to notice still more memorials to military endeavour.  Numerous marble tablets and monuments pay tribute to the glorious dead, killed in Britain's colonial campaigns in India, Burma, Afghanistan, the Sudan, South Africa and so on. No great wonder: Canterbury is a garrison town, home of the East Kent Regiment, “The Buffs,” who for two hundred years and more have been in the front line of Empire-building.  But even so, I find it strange. “Love your enemy”? “Thou shalt not kill”? There was a time when Christianity implied unconditional love for all, when Christians did not retaliate or defend themselves. Things changed when Christianity became the state religion of Rome, and the concept of “the just war” legitimized Christian violence, and still does.

I was shocked when, in 1982, I saw pictures on the BBC News of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, blessing the British Task Force as it set out to wrest the Falkland Isles back from the Argentinians.  How naive I was to imagine it could be otherwise.  Forty years later, I wrestle still with the question: is pacifism a realistic option, or even a tenable philosophical position?  The lives and achievements of Gandhi, Schweitzer, Mandela and Bertrand Russell suggest that the answer is yes: and the historical fact of the peaceful collapse of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe is proof that dramatic political change can occur without bloodshed.  But what has Christianity in our times to say about pacifism? Not much, as far as I can tell.

We make our way through the nave, light and airy and grand, but lacking in stained glass and mystery. At the exit, we notice a sign advertising a special exhibition of manuscripts and early English books in the cathedral library, on today, admission free. What luck! As it turns out, the cathedral library now houses only a small collection of ancient books and manuscripts; a very modest one, given the importance of Canterbury historically as a centre of learning and theological scholarship. The great monastic library of Christ Church Priory, built up by archbishops such as Cuthbert, Dunstan, Anselm, and Lanfranc, was dispersed in the 16th Century, when Henry VIII ordered the priory's destruction. A Dean of Canterbury, Isaac Bargrave, began the process of rebuilding the collection in 1628, but this collection was seized by Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentary Commissioners in 1650 and lugged off to London.  It is nevertheless a joy to inspect some of the books they have: beautifully illuminated manuscripts, psalters and prayer books.

I attempt to engage one of the curators in conversation: “Did Archbishop Parker leave any of his books to the library?” I ask this, because Matthew Parker (1504 -1575), and Chaplain to Anne Boleyn, and the very first Archbishop of Canterbury to be married, is reputed to be an ancestor of mine, my grandmother being a Parker and proud of it.  The curator almost chokes: “It was Archbishop Parker who snapped up the best books and manuscripts when the Priory library was dispersed: and, instead of leaving his amazing collection to us, he left it all to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge!”  It is, alas, true. The Parker Library is an astonishing collection, now scanned and available in its entirety on the web: Matthew Parker was a true bookman. It was he who gave to the people of England the Bishops' Bible in 1568 (revised 1572). This was “undertaken at his request, prepared under his supervision and published at his expense”. This, the precursor to King James's Authorized Version (1611), was almost certainly the version of the Bible which Shakespeare heard and read and echoed.  Not such a bad legacy, then.

As we head for the station, to catch the train back to Staplehurst, we pass by an attractive house, set in a pleasant garden by the river.  A notice reads: “Friends' Meeting House”. In other words it is the HQ of the Quakers in Canterbury: those famous pacifists who seem determined to live by the Christian teaching of “Love your enemy”.  Christianity in its purest, noblest and most revolutionary form?  Or idealistic nonsense?  The Christian church that I know best has clearly decided which.  Even so, I really would not wish to live in a world without cathedrals.

A Day in Canterbury: Morning  is now on the “BSM Archives” page

Anthony Marshall, is a retired secondhand bookseller now living in Germany. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, a past member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association in England, where for ten years he ran the County Bookshop in Oakham, Rutland, and former owner of Alice's Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia. This bookstore was co-founded in 1986 by Keith Richmond, now co-owner of Weiser Antiquarian Books, York Beach, Maine and author of several books including "Wanderings in Lower Dolpo" (Francestown, NH 1998), a search for traces of the Bon religion practised in this part of the Himalayas. Mr. Marshall has contributed many articles to book magazines, all of which with the exception of "Book Source Magazine” are now defunct. Some of these articles reappear in his two books: “Trafficking in Old Books” (Lost Domain, Melbourne 1998) and "Fossicking for Old Books” (Bread Street Press, Melbourne 2004).