david aaronovitch

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I must get down to Canterbury. Yesterday's news that the last remains of St Thomas a Becket (slaughtered on the indirect orders of Henry II in 1170) are to be temporarily repatriated by the Vatican this year will surely boost visitors to the cathedral. There, from April to October, we will be able to gaze on a golden box containing Thomas's shirt and bits and pieces of the saint himself. Unfortunately, the word "remains" is all too accurate in this case, since little is left of Mr a Becket other than some skull fragments and a couple of gobbets of brain. Alas! His killers did their work all too well.

These are, of course, good tidings. If only England's football fans had been aware of the return before Wednesday's disappointing match with the remains-stealing Italians, they could have taunted their opponents with a chorus of "Becket's coming home, he's coming home, he's coming...!" Who knows what manner of inspiration might not have seized Matt Le Tissier when he rose to head that ball in the 32nd minute.

But wait a moment. Not everyone is delighted. The Prayer Book Society, for instance, is extremely worried about the consequences of letting the truncated Thomas return. The secretary of the society, Margot Thompson, is quoted as warning that "bringing relics back to the cathedral is going back to the theology of pre-Reformation days", ie before the break with Rome. Having blobs of Becket brain on the premises was both "unnecessary and irreverent".

The Rev David Streater, director of the Church Society, was less absolute in his opposition - but nonetheless concerned. "Worship of relics is a well outdated medieval superstition," he argued (as opposed, I guess, to all those trendy medieval superstitions still relevant today). He went on: "I urge people to go and look at the relics as artefacts, but to make them objects of worship is ludicrous and idolatrous."

Two things interest me about this reaction. The first is the fact that a debate begun in eighth and ninth century Byzantium should exercise 20th century Britons. For more than a century, the iconoclasts and iconodules of the Eastern Empire battled over pictures, statues and relics of saints. The sound of marching feet from their eastern borders did not deter them from their battles as enemy forces invaded - forces who believed, impartially, that both sides would look equally good burned to a crisp under a pile of their own learned tracts and pamphlets.

But I am even more fascinated by the vision that the Rev Streator and Ms Thompson have of their fellow citizens. Ms Thompson fears that the attraction of a return to the days before the Reformation may prove too much for us. Let loose from the restraining leash of Church doctrine, it would only be a matter of time before indulgences were being sold on the street, and the Office of the Holy Inquisition strode the land, sticking pointy hats on heretics and using them to heat town squares.

David Streater's worries are less apocalyptic, but seem to encompass a concern that many of us might (were it not for his warnings) suddenly prostrate ourselves on the cold flags of the cathedral floor, and give ourselves over to idol-worship. In his mind's eye, he sees coaches diverted from Lourdes and various continental spouting Virgins, headed across the Channel to mutter mumbo-jumbo in front of a little gold box.

Our friends are, of course, gate-keepers. Gate-keepers are animated by a nagging belief that their fellow citizens are mostly credulous and superstitious fellows, whose capacity for barbarous thinking and behaviour is held in place only by the thinnest veneer of civilisation and education. The merest crack, and horrid-looking spirits will dance among us; suddenly, ignorance will once more be king.

In vain do you argue with gate-keepers that actually there is little to fear; that most of the people you know seem to be able to look at saint's remains without going bonkers; that it is incred- ibly hard to put the clock back, and that the trick is to move on. For they have their gate to keep, and it's no use your telling 'em that everyone else is travelling by a different path.