2020 is a triple anniversary year for the infamous Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. It is 900 years since his birth, 850 years since death, and 800 years since he became a saint, by order of the Pope.
Every December 29th in Canterbury Cathedral, there is a candlelit vigil to commemorate the man who became a symbol of standing up for what you believe in, even in the face of death. The service begins at 3pm, just as it’s getting dark. Hundreds of people, each holding a small candle, follow the present Archbishop down into the crypt, pausing at the spot where Becket was brutally murdered. His sacrifice is certainly not forgotten.
My Picnic Basket of String
Visiting Canterbury Cathedral myself for the first time on this special day was a great choice it turned out. At this time of year, the building is full of the spirit of Christmas, warm and welcoming, despite its vastness. I’d brought my basket of string along, for measuring people to the saint and as I took my place among the others on the steps of the enormous choir, one of the ushers jokingly asked me if I’d brought a picnic.
Apart from my curiosity to visit the place at the end of the Pilgrim’s Way from Southwark and to find out more about Becket, my main purpose in coming was to measure some of Canterbury’s congregation in order to include them in the Lent Art Installation for Southwark. I hadn’t been able to organise this officially yet, so I just improvised and asked the churchwardens very politely if I could measure people after the service.
Measuring to Saint Thomas
Fortunately, somehow I seemed to be in exactly the right place at the right time. I explained the project and the medieval practice of measuring to the saint to a few of the churchwardens. They cautiously agreed to be measured. And of course, as soon as I’d measured a few people, others were drawn, curious to see what this strange string thing was about. Before too long, my basket of measured strings was growing – I was introduced to the Dean of Canterbury, Robert Willis, and measured him. And then, a few moments later, somehow, I found myself in the vestry, explaining all this again to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, Justin Welby – who is, incidentally, over 6ft tall.
Justin is the 105th Archibishop at Canterbury and I believe Thomas was the 40th – their line of connections stretches back to Saint Augustine – 597AD. To me, these threads of history are somehow woven into the spirit of the pilgrimage piece I’m making for Southwark Cathedral. These hundreds of lengths of common string represent 850 real living people, including the Archbishop. And it echoes the 850 years of telling and retelling of the powerful story of Thomas Becket.
I’m so glad I went to Canterbury – it’s connected me back to the start of the story and with the people in it – and I’m on my way back to Southwark now to complete the next phase of this journey.