Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Canterbury

I had to give a talk in Kent Law School today, so of course I wandered over to Canterbury Cathedral: head? heart? nerve centre? which organ is the best metaphor for what this place means for the Anglican Communion? The first thing to note is that (surprise, surprise) the church has made plenty of aesthetically ugly accommodations with capitalism, starting with the grotesque 1970s pastiche conference centre that is about 5 steps away from the cathedral and ending with the gift shop that is - wait for this - IN the nave! Yea, they sell buttons and badges and fridge magnets in the goddam church. On a more pleasing note (I am punning effortlessly here), the choir was hard at something that sounded like the theme music from Jaws, making the whole place feel like the belly of a giant carnivorous whale (I suppose I should say shark, but it was too big to be a shark). I was most interested in where Becket was murdered and buried in 117X. The shrine was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII in 153X (for an entertaining account of associated events, see Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall) - today the spot is marked only by a burning candle. You can also see the exact spot at which he was, um, murdered in the cathedral, as T. S. Eliot and no doubt plenty of others before him put it. Three hundred and something years later, when Henry was going mad for a male heir + younger, prettier wife, Canterbury Cathedral went from being just another church in Christendom, to being the [insert throbbing organ] of a new religion: the Anglican Communion, the foundation of which has been immortalized in the following ditty (composed presumably by a snarky Papist): 'Don't speak of the alien minister, Nor of his church without meaning or faith, For the foundation stone of his temple, Is the ballocks of Henry the Eighth.' Indeed, 'ballocks' are still at the heart of a struggle within the Anglican Communion, so intense that it is threatening to tear the beast apart. As liberal churches within the communion move to ordain women and, more controversially, homosexuals, as priests, conservatives have been splitting off from these churches and allying with apparently like-minded churches in Africa to block such progressive moves at the decennial Lambeth Conference. Indeed we are now witness to the spectre of conservative dissident US Episcopalians placing themselves under the authority of African bishops (it's hard to think of any other sphere of life in which a US authority places itself under the jurisdiction of an African one). Thanks to their demographic weight, the Anglican churches in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda threaten to shift the centre of power in the worldwide Anglican Communion, perhaps relegating Canterbury to the status of a sleepy cathedral town in the not so distant future. No, this is not what I predict will happen. It's just a nice sensationalist note on which to end a blog post. As I walked out of the cathedral, I could not help but wonder that the deep structures of English Euroscepticism are evident in this much earlier split from the Continent. They want their own of everything, these aloof island people.

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