Melanie McDonagh

What seeing Thomas a Becket’s elbow taught me about the church

What seeing Thomas a Becket's elbow taught me about the church
Text settings

It’s not every day, you know, you get to see a bit of the elbow of Thomas a Becket. In fact, since 1538 when his bones were unceremoniously exhumed from their shrine at Canterbury, the chances have been pretty sparse. So if you haven’t been to catch up with that bit of the elbow which has just been returned from Hungary, now’s your chance: run and catch it. It was reunited with other reputed relics of Becket from Stonyhurst and St Magnus the Martyr in Cheapside earlier this week; it’s off to St Magnus’s today, Wednesday, for evensong and it will be returning to Westminster tomorrow to St Margaret’s church, which is handily positioned for those parliamentarians who would like to brood on what happens to those who pit spiritual authority against the secular powers (not good in the short term, but brilliant posthumously). Later it’s going back to Canterbury via Rochester.

I went to catch up with it at Westminster Abbey yesterday for evensong and was baffled that the abbey wasn’t full to capacity; it was a respectable turnout but hardly stuffed to the seams as, I gather, it was in Westminster Cathedral the day before. I had a little girl for company and, rather fabulously, the columnist Peter Hitchens, who happened to be waiting around at the Commons at the time and came over for the service. He was, it must be said, a little uneasy at the whole-relic thing – he told me that his upbringing as a Protestant was even fuller than mine as a Catholic, which frankly I don’t believe, and said rather emphatically that personally he didn’t hold with all this: he hoped there wouldn’t be liquefying blood or anything (Actually the original cult of Thomas did feature blood; pilgrims drank it with occasionally happy results). And when I suggested at the end that we go and venerate the relic, he was off like a shot. Still, a happy ecumenical moment. What’s more, you got the President of Hungary and a Hungarian cardinal from Esztragon thrown in, plus Cardinal Vincent from down the road, Westminster Cathedral.

Weirdly, the CofE doesn’t quite seem to get its head round the Catholic notion of relics, which is that they’re there for a purpose, to be venerated. So, we like if possible to get our hands on them, or at least near them, or at least near enough for you to feel that your prayers are proximate to the actual bits of the saint; it’s the proximity that’s the great thing. Obviously the Abbey hasn’t been used to this sort of thing for a while, since it was a Benedictine Abbey (which Thomas attended), so they kept us at a safe distance from the High Altar; frankly it was hard to see anything at all from where I was kneeling.

One Catholic cleric there observed that the CofE lacked a sense of irony. Either that, or a short memory. The cult of Becket was one of the chief casualties of the Reformation; there was the 1538 Proclamation which mentioned, inter alia, that his image was to be 'put down and avoided out of all churches, chapels and other places'. His name was to be erased from all liturgical books and his office, antiphons and collects were to be said no more, 'to the intent that his grace’s loving subjects shall be no longer blindly led and abused to commit idolatory'. And that’s what happened. Yet yesterday, there was the choir of the Abbey singing as an introit a medieval hymn to Thomas. Ironic, as my friend observed.

It would be possible, I suppose, to see the welcome to Thomas’s elbow by the CofE and the Catholic church as a sign that the Reformation is over; the war is at an end. But frankly, since in the same week we learned that those of no religion now outnumber Christians in England, and since the real sign of religious vitality is in mosques rather than churches, I am afraid that it feels less like a rapprochement of conviction than a huddling together against the cold.