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By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

Canterbury, England – For centuries, the cathedral at the heart of this city has drawn millions to its doors, from Chaucer’s rowdy pilgrims to throngs of Anglican bishops and clumps of camera-toting tourists.
The Very Rev. Robert Willis, dean of the Canterbury Cathedral for the past seven years, says the explanation for its appeal is simple yet profound.
“It is a holy space,” he said, “that predates all of our divisions.”
Since its founding more than 1,400 years ago, the cathedral has witnessed murderous conflicts between church and crown, the upheavals of the Reformation, and the current deep divides within the worldwide Anglican Communion.
As 650 Anglican bishops from around the world meet in this city for the Lambeth Conference, some say those divisions are laid aside as they sing and pray together beneath the cathedral’s soaring arches.
“There is a very powerful sense of unity when we worship together here,” said Bishop Brian Farran of Newcastle, Australia, at the close of a candle-lit service at the cathedral Wednesday (July 30) evening.
“As Anglicans, in a sense it is worship that brings us together.”
The site of Christian worship since St. Augustine became the first archbishop of Canterbury in A.D. 597, Canterbury Cathedral is considered the mother church of the Anglican Communion, and of Christianity in England.
The cathedral made its name in the 12th century, as pilgrims like those described in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” trudged 60 miles from London to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, whose relics were thought to have miraculous healing powers. Becket, former archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered by knights loyal to King Henry II, who was eager to be rid of “this meddlesome priest.”
Since the Lambeth Conference began here July 18, more than 600 bishops have gathered for Sunday services at the cathedral presided over by the current archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The nighttime candlelight “pilgrimages” for bishops and their spouses through the cathedral have proven so popular that organizers had to add a fifth night.
As the cathedral darkened Wednesday night, the Rev. Christopher Irvine led a group of 50 candle-carrying bishops and their spouses through the cavernous cathedral.
Stop one was the site of Becket’s murder in 1170, known as “the martyrdom,” where a jagged cross above the Altar of the Sword’s Point marks the spot.
Farran said he was struck there by Becket’s courage. “He knew what was coming,” the bishop said, “and he still stood and accepted it.”
To this day, archbishops of Canterbury lead prayers each Dec. 29, the anniversary of the murder, and re-enact a scene from T.S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral,” Irvine said. In 1982, the late Pope John Paul II and former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie prayed here together for Christian unity during the pope’s first trip to England.
Irvine then led the tour through the crypt, the oldest part of the ancient cathedral, where wall paintings from the 11th century survive.
Sadly, though, Irvine said “Puritan vandals” destroyed many of the cathedral’s more ornate paintings and stained glass windows during the Reformation.
“The colorblindness, if I may say, of the Reformation was a great loss,” Irvine lamented.
From there, the bishops contemplated the 600-year-old nave, as Irvine related the story of the “fire-watchers” who patrolled the cathedral’s roof during World War II, tossing off incendiary devices.
“A lot of Canterbury was razed, but the cathedral was largely untouched because of them,” Irvine said.
The cathedral does have its share of structural problems now, however, many due to its age, and the staff has started an ambitious campaign to raise 50 million pounds, or about $100 million, to make much-needed repairs to the roof and stone masonry. It costs about $29,000 a day to run Canterbury Cathedral, which receives no money from the English government, said cathedral spokesman Christopher Robinson.
As the tour wound to its end, the bishops were led up to Trinity Chapel, where a single candle burns, dedicated to Becket. There, a magnificent shrine to Becket with jewels the size of goose eggs once stood. But King Henry VIII had the shrine destroyed in 1538 as he severed England’s ties to the Roman Catholic Church.
The bishops encircled Becket’s candle Wednesday night, prayed for their own Anglican Communion and asked for God’s blessing on the Lambeth Conference.
“It’s special to have all the bishops here together,” Willis said afterward. “It encourages us in our common past, and future, as Anglicans.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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