Relics, Community, & Leadership

In the post-Roman world, what it meant to be a saint developed and expanded. There were still martyrs, who might now even include kings in their ranks. St Oswald, for example, was an early medieval king of northern England killed in battle while fighting pagans. But saints were now more than martyrs; they were local community leaders. Indeed some, like St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne Durham, were considered to be powerful protectors of their communities even after their deaths.

In the years following Christianity’s legalization, monasticism-a life of simplicity, discipline, and intentional self-deprivation-replaced martyrdom as the most important path to holiness for Christians. Monks and nuns became saints, reflecting their inner struggle. Bishops and missionaries, many themselves monks, in turn became saints for their role in spreading Christianity far beyond the frontiers of the old Roman world. Whether martyred or not, each became the focus of a local cult and the source of new relics.

Bishop Grimes faced a series of unique challenges in Ōtautahi Christchurch. The city and its settler population had a strong sense of English identity. Indeed, Christchurch was established as part of a project involving the Church of England -a separate, sometimes rival,-Christian denomination. At the same time, Grimes’s flock was largely Irish in a period of high tensions resulting from the nature of British rule in Ireland. In selecting the relics of saints who had been community leaders, he sought to balance the interests of these varied communities.

St Patrick, the 5th-century Romano-British saint who had brought Christianity to Ireland, was an obvious choice. Little is known with certainty of the historical Patrick, but his legacy was profound: two centuries later, King Oswald sent for Irish monks when he wanted to convert the Anglo-Saxons of northern Britain to Christianity. Yet many of the saints among Bishop Grimes’s community leaders were not Irish, but English. They ranged from kings, such as St Edward the Confessor, to less well-known figures such as the Anglo-Saxon monastic reformer Winfrith. Winfrith, originally from Devon, undertook missionary work to the Germans and was martyred in the 8th century. Most striking of all, however, was the prominence of St Thomas Becket, the medieval archbishop of Canterbury martyred in 1170. The connection with the New Zealand province of Canterbury was inescapable.

Part of Bishop Grimes’s strategy was to show the compatibility of Roman Catholicism with English identity. Being a Roman Catholic was neither subversive nor un-English. Yet, the perception that it was remained a lingering legacy of the Reformation, with key political rights for Catholics not restored in England and Ireland until 1829. Grimes’s intention is most evident in his decisions to order a significant hymn (a Te Deum) be sung to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee (1897), to write a letter in praise of the Queen, and the inclusion of a 1562 edition of King Henry VIII’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments in his extensive library. Viewed in this light, St Thomas, whose shrine was destroyed by royal commissioners after Henry’s break with Rome, was highly symbolic. The archbishop’s reputation for promoting a Church free from state control led to his death at the hands of royal supporters, and made his relics a particular target for Henry’s ire. Yet before the Reformation, Thomas’ shrine at Canterbury had been one of Europe’s most important sites of pilgrimage. While the fate of the archbishop’s bones remain-to this day-contested, Bishop Grimes selected a fragment of the most significant English saint of the later Middle Ages for an English city in a province named for Thomas’ bishopric.