The Rector’s Message for January 3, 2021

Rector Turner
The Reverend Canon Carl Turner

The New Year brings with it hope and confidence. This year, we have pre-recorded a very short service to be broadcast around midnight on New Year’s Eve. There will not be the crowds in Midtown this year, so it seems appropriate to stop and reflect on the year past and look forward to the year ahead. Fr. Spencer will give an Ignatian-based meditation – an Examen – which will not only look back, but will prepare us for 2021. Please join us. You can also watch the service online on New Year’s Day on-demand. The mass on New Year’s Day will be at 12pm and audio-livestreamed and then available on demand.

On Wednesday, we celebrate the great Feast of the Epiphany which commemorates the visit of the Magi (the Three Wise Men) to the Christ Child. I am delighted that the Gentlemen of the Choir will sing the service at 12 pm which will be video live-streamed and then available on-demand.

A word about seating in church during the pandemic. I know that this is very tiresome and, for some of you, a frustration that you cannot choose where to sit, but I appeal to all of you to be patient over the coming months and, in particular, to respect the direction of the ushers and our security team, many of whom are volunteers and giving a great deal of time to make in-person worship possible. This is not of our making; we are mandated to know exactly where people are sitting. More importantly, seating is limited but every week we have a number of people who have registered early who simply do not turn up and do not let us know. Please help us by letting us know if you are not coming. You can telephone 212-757-7013 and select extension 408 and leave a message. Also, please aim to be in Church at least fifteen minutes before the service starts. Thank you to all of you for helping us worship safely.

Early 13th Century Manuscript in the British Library showing the exile of Thomas Becket’s family and Thomas sick in France from fasting

On December 29th, we celebrated the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Thomas of Canterbury and prayed especially for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and our dear friend the Dean of Canterbury, Robert Willis. The story of the death of Thomas Becket still causes much debate among historians and theologians alike – was his death ‘staged’ so that it would be seen as martyrdom? In T.S. Elliot’s play ‘Murder in the Cathedral,’ after receiving four ‘tempters’ Thomas struggles with his torment and exclaims,

“Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

In the late 1980’s, I was a curate at St. Thomas of Canterbury, Brentwood in Essex. We had an old chapel in the town where in medieval days, pilgrims to Canterbury would stop en route to rest. Each year, we would take the Grade 6 children from our Church School on an annual pilgrimage to Canterbury. We would visit the martyrdom where the knights murdered Becket, visit the place where his shrine once stood – the most visited in Europe by the time of the Reformation – and destroyed by Henry VIII who seemingly sought revenge on the saint who had seen the church triumph over the power of King Henry II. We would then walk down the steps to visit the beautiful Chapel of Our Lady Undercroft (where there is an image made by Sr. Concordia OSB who also sculpted the image of Our Lady of Fifth Avenue) to celebrate mass. The crypt was where the body of Thomas Becket was taken after his death. The vergers would fill the crypt with incense and the lay clerks would sing plainsong. With a huge statue of St. Thomas nearby, it was a memorable occasion each year and brought history alive to the children.

The story of Thomas Becket and the struggle between church and state, and where loyalty belongs is a fascinating one that still resonates today. There was a fascinating program on the BBC just before Christmas that explores some of these themes. Here is the description of that particular episode of ‘Start the Week’ from the Radio 4 website:

14th century boss in the nave vaulting of Exeter Cathedral showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket

As the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket approaches Andrew Marr explores the dynamic between church and state and what happens when the most powerful political friendships turn sour.

The academic Laura Ashe explains the background to the murder in the cathedral on 29th December 1170. King Henry II had promoted the lowly born Thomas Becket to the highest positions in the land – first Lord Chancellor, then Archbishop of Canterbury. But their growing animosity and conflict over the rights and privileges of the church led to his infamous assassination by four of the King’s knights.

In recent years the former librarian Christopher de Hamel has succeeded in identifying the Anglo-Saxon Psalter which Becket cherished in his lifetime and may even have been holding when he died. In ‘The Book in the Cathedral: The Last Relic of Thomas Becket,’ de Hamel looks at what this book reveals about the life of Becket. He also compares the veneration for relics of the saints in the Middle Ages, with our relationship today with historical artefacts.

In Britain the Anglican Church still has an establishment role within the state, with Bishops in the House of Lords and the monarch regarded as ‘defender of the faith’. But across the Channel in France a formal separation of church and state, laïcité, was enshrined in French law in 1905. The cultural historian Andrew Hussey, who is based in Paris, looks at the devastating fault lines that have emerged in 2020 in the country’s secularist ideals.

You can listen to that fascinating BBC Radio 4 program.

On January 10, we bid farewell to Fr, Spencer. He has been a much-loved pastor and faithful priest and colleague. He will preach at the 11am mass. At 3pm, we will use the Rite of ‘Praying our Farewells’ from the Society of St. Francis. There will be no morning coffee hour, instead, we will have a special zoom gathering around 4pm after Evensong. Our Verger, Ben Williams, will also join us for that special gathering so that we can bid farewell to him also.

There is still time to donate a personal gift to Fr. Spencer’s leaving purse. Please make sure to write “Fr. Spencer Leaving Gift” in the order notes at checkout.

Finally, at the beginning of a New Year, I thought I would share with you a link to Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas message to the Commonwealth. I found it very moving. Although the Queen is addressing the Commonwealth of Nations, she speaks personally about her faith in Jesus Christ and her hope for the future. There are some beautiful images but her message this year does not end with the traditional carol sung by the choristers of the Chapel Royal. Rather, it poignantly concludes with the carol ‘Joy to the World’ sung by members of the NHS choir – a reminder that medical workers across the globe have a bond of mutual dedication to care for the sick and the dying.

A very Happy New Year to you all,


Your Priest and Pastor,