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Thomas Becket returns to England

Thomas Becket returns to England

Well, a relic of him does: Reuters, via Religion News Service, reports:

A fragment of bone belonging to the murdered archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, has returned to England from Hungary for the first time in 800 years.

The relic is believed to be from the arm of Becket, slain at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, after his relationship with medieval English King Henry II soured when he stood up for the church against the monarchy.

“The relic is to be the centrepiece of a week-long pilgrimage which finishes in Canterbury during the weekend of May 28 and 29,” authorities said in a statement on the Cathedral website.


It is not known how the bone arrived in Hungary but relics were taken in 1220 when his body was moved from a tomb to a shrine in Canterbury Cathedral.

Records from Esztergom Cathedral in 1528 show part of his arm was kept there in a gold plated silver container.

King Henry VIII ordered the destruction of the rest of Becket’s bones and the shrine when he dissolved the monasteries in 1538.

The bone fragment may have been removed when Becket was reburied in the cathedral in 1220; it has been residing in Hungary, and there has taken on a second political life as a symbol of the Hungarians’ resistance to Communism. Its itinerary includes the British Parliament, Cheapside (Becket’s birthplace), Westminster Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral (where Becket died in 1170).

From Anglican News:

That relic from Esztergom has today joined relics from St Magnus the Martyr and St Thomas of Canterbury churches in London, St Thomas Church in Canterbury, and Stonyhurst Jesuit estate in Lancashire, at Westminster Cathedral – the leading Roman Catholic Church in London – for what has been termed Becket Week.

After Tuesday:

The bones will then be on display for most of the week at St Margaret’s Church – the parish church of the Houses of Parliament, adjacent to Westminster Abbey and a range of services and special events will take place. On Friday they will be taken to Rochester in Kent, ahead of a service attended by Bishop László Kiss-Rigó of Szeged-Csanád; the Mayor of Esztergom, , Etelka Romanek; and the Hungarian foreign minister István Mikola.

On Saturday, pilgrims will assemble at at St Michael’s Church in Harbledown, just outside Canterbury, ahead of a walk to Canterbury Cathedral where a special “welcome service” will be held in the presence of religious and civil leaders.

And on Sunday afternoon, Becket Week will conclude with a Catholic Mass in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral and an open air concern in the cathedral precincts.

The site of Becket’s martyrdom continues to draw pilgrims and is where, in 1982, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie knelt and prayed together during the first visit of a Pope to the United Kingdom.

Image from Hungarian government, via Anglican News


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Jean Lall

This seems to me a worthwhile ritual on several levels. It reminds us of the history of English Christianity and of Canterbury which was already a pilgrimage destination for centuries before the martyrdom and canonization of Becket. St. Thomas’s shrine then became one of the most visited in all of Western Christendom. Pilgrimage to Canterbury helped give shape to the cultural, political and physical landscape of the country (besides the cathedrals and churches, the inns and hostels, bridges and roads, just think of Chaucer and T.S. Eliot!). To revisit that history — from the foundations laid by Augustine to Becket’s murder at the hands of Henry II’s men through the demolition of his shrine by Henry VIII — is instructive in terms of the unfolding of English Christianity and the relationships between the church and the throne, but also in terms of what constituted piety in the Middle Ages — how people actually lived their faith and experienced the holy.

Having had a thoroughly Protestant upbringing, I have never been able to muster up much religious feeling for bits of bone encased in precious metals and gemstones, but I appreciate the meaning they carried for my pre-Reformation ancestors and may still carry for contemporary Roman Catholics. I would like to walk along beside them on the pilgrimage route and share stories with them. (And I have actually done something close to this, as I lived in Canterbury for several years, just around the corner from one of the churches on the route from London where people would pause to pray and wash up before walking the last mile to the Cathedral.)

The Reformation’s repudiation of the cult of saints and relics was no doubt well-founded, but this does not mean that the prayers and pilgrimages of the faithful were ill-founded or fruitless. I think it’s wonderful that the party from Hungary is making this very intentional religious and diplomatic journey and will be joined by local Anglicans and Roman Catholics for the last leg of the pilgrimage. The bejeweled relic — something that was once a cause for catastrophic violence and destruction among Christians — now provides an occasion for healing and fellowship as all walk together.

It is quite something to picture Mass being celebrated on Sunday afternoon by a local RC priest and the Hungarian bishop in the Cathedral crypt, near the Huguenot Chapel where the local French Protestants have worshiped since Elizabethan times. Here is a link to a webpage from St. Thomas’s, which provides some additional historical background on the link with Hungary, as well as reflections on the meaning of relics: .

Praying that they will have beautiful weather for the walk, as this is also the annual open gardens weekend at the Cathedral — not to be missed!

Sean Storm

Whats wrong with St. Thomas coming home to Canterbury and receiving the honor due him, he is one of the most important saints we have. We are not a Protestant church, we are a Catholic church, except we do not have a Pope and all the trappings that go along with that. We are a reformed English catholic church, reformed in that we use the Bible and tradition together as our guide, alongside reason. Becket is an important part of our English heritage.

Jay Croft

That sentence is crucial. As the PB would undoubtedly say, there aren’t any second-class Episcopalians.

Race, gender, sexuality, disability–no matter. They even had to take me in!

David Allen

But what has that got to do with my comment about the 39 articles?!?!

Brother Tom Hudson

Article XXII (of the Thirty-nine Articles):

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

…Just sayin’

David Allen

In many folks minds those articles, historical documents that they are, have little impact or bearing on our lives today.

David Allen

Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.

That is the first line in my TEC BCP on page 298. I don’t see the relevance.

Jay Croft

To justify a Deaf congregation’s use of sign language, I’ve more than once used Article XXIV. Plus, there’s that pesky first sentence on BCP page 298.

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