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Suffolk: St Edmund's Abbey ecumenical millennium celebration

  • Keith Morris

Bishop Alan Hopes with Bishop Martin Seeleyin ruins of St Edmunds Abbey. Picture by Tom Soper.

Bishop Alan Hopes with Bishop Martin Seeleyin ruins of St Edmunds Abbey. Picture by Tom Soper.

Source: Diocese of East Anglia/English Heritage

Benedictine monks joined Catholic and Anglican parishioners in an historic ecumenical celebration of 1000 years since the founding of the Abbey of St Edmund last weekend (May 14-15). Bishop Alan Hopes and Anglican Bishop Martin Seeley took part. Historian John Saunders reports.

Abbey 1000 is the umbrella name for events being held in Bury St Edmunds to commemorate the millennium.

Located in the heart of Bury St Edmunds, the abbey was once one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in England. Its remains are extensive and include the complete 14th century Great Gate and Norman Tower, as well as the impressive ruins and altered west front of the immense church.

The relics of the martyred Anglo-Saxon king St Edmund, whose remains were moved to this site in 903, and his shrine became a place of pilgrimage. The Abbey of St Edmund was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539.

The founding monks came from Hulme in Norfolk and Ely in Suffolk in 1020. These journeys were retraced by pilgrims who walked from there to St Edmundsbury Cathedral, the latter group arriving on May 14 at the start of a weekend titled 'Abiding Wisdom', a convention which sought to explore the wisdom of St Benedict for 21st century living.

Abiding Wisdom brought together around 100 people including Catholic and Anglican monks and nuns, some of whom had travelled from Belgium. In brilliant sunshine they were able to undertake a heritage tour with information being supplied by Bury Tour Guides. They were also able to view the steel sculpture of a giant monk (7'6" tall) designed and made by local people, surrounded by mosaics crafted by school pupils depicting the life of St Edmund.

Following a keynote address on Saturday, delegates were able to experience workshops and to later view an online address from Rowan Williams. The evening celebrated the arrival of pilgrims who had that day walked the seven miles from Chevington.

The Sunday of Abiding Wisdom provided a day that will be etched in history. The Catholic churches in Bury St Edmunds and Lawshall closed their doors and parishioners instead attended St Edmundsbury Cathedral where Mass was celebrated by Bishop Alan Hopes. His Anglican counterpart Bishop Martin Seeley preached on the inspiration provided to us by St Benedict. This unique occasion was shared by a congregation in excess of 300 and definitely fulfilled one of the aims of Abbey 1000 in bringing communities together in a climate of friendship.

After a short break, Sung Eucharist was celebrated by Bishop Martin, this time with Bishop Alan preaching, once again highlighting the significance of St Benedict. The Cathedral was well attended by its own parishioners who were joined by Catholics who had remained for both services.

Guests were able to enjoy the Cathedral's hospitality over lunch and to then view an exhibition of seven Abbey manuscripts in the Treasury, these being on loan from Pembroke College, Cambridge. It is the first occasion since the Abbey's dissolution that the manuscripts have returned to their place of origin and they reflect the brilliance of the monks' handwriting and illustration. They will remain until early June 2022 and are well-worth seeing. The exhibition is free but must be booked. See link below.

The weekend concluded with Sung Vespers in the Cathedral attended by clergy, civic dignitaries and a congregation of more than 200. After the service they processed through the Abbey Gate to the site of the Abbey's crypt where an address was given by The Rt Rev Geoffrey Scott, Abbot of Douai Abbey, focusing on the spiritual importance of past monastic times and the importance of St Edmund, who was the patron Saint of England until St George was designated in 1348.

Those who attended the weekend's events expressed their praise for the way in which Anglican and Catholic communities had united in bringing parishioners and visitors together. Memorable comments included: "The key moment for me was to see the Bishops embrace each other at the sign of Peace." "This has to happen again - it has been a wonderful occasion." "The service was truly uplifting and it has done so much for this town in bringing us together."

Summing up this historic occasion, Canon David Bagstaff said: "There was a great feeling of togetherness throughout the weekend and a true sense of connection with those countless Christian pilgrims who have gone before us; but also a sense of responsibility and urgency to continue to hand on the Christian faith in this present time for those who will follow us. What a tremendous weekend - it was worth waiting the extra two years!"


For more information about forthcoming Abbey 1000 events, exhibitions, sculptures, concerts, services, a flower festival and a day of free entertainment in the Abbey Gardens see:


Special Abbey tours can be booked at:


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