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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

The Once and Future Church

Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘So like a shatter’d Column lay the King’ (The Passing of Arthur), 1875. Albumen print, 34 x 27 cm. Source: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The legend of King Arthur (also called The Matter of Britain) ends in tragedy: Arthur dies in battle against his son Mordred, begotten through incest, after having lost his wife Guinevere and best friend Sir Lancelot to each other. It is a tale of sexual sin: sometimes unconscious, sometimes in the full light of consciousness and volition. Both have disastrous consequences.

In Morte D'Arthur, while Arthur lay dying on the field of Camlann, he bids his knight Sir Bedivere to dispose of the sword Excalibur, the symbol of Arthur’s power and, inversely, his impotence (he was unable to produce an heir by his rightful spouse). As Sir Thomas Malory describes it:

Said Arthur unto Sir Bedivere, “Take thou Excalibur, my good sword, and go with it to yonder water side, and when thou comest there I charge thee throw my sword in that water, and come again and tell me what thou there seest.” “My lord,” said Bedivere, “your commandment shall be done, and lightly bring you word again.”
So Sir Bedivere departed, and by the way he beheld that noble sword, that the pommel and the haft was all of precious stones; and then he said to himself: “If I throw this rich sword in the water, thereof shall never come good, but harm and loss.” And then Sir Bedivere hid Excalibur under a tree. And so, as soon as he might, he came again unto the king, and said he had been at the water, and had thrown the sword in the water. “What saw thou there?” said the king. “Sir,” he said, “I saw nothing but waves and winds.” “That is untruly said of thee,” said the king, “therefore go thou lightly again, and do my commandment; as thou art to me lief and dear, spare not, but throw it in.” Then Sir Bedivere returned again, and took the sword in his hand; and then him thought sin and shame to throw away that noble sword, and so eft he hid the sword, and returned again, and told to the king that he had been at the water, and done his commandment. “What saw thou there?” said the king. “Sir,” he said, “I saw nothing but the waters wap and waves wan.” “Ah, traitor untrue,” said King Arthur, “now hast thou betrayed me twice. Who would have weened that, thou that hast been to me so lief and dear? and thou art named a noble knight, and would betray me for the richness of the sword. But now go again lightly, for thy long tarrying putteth me in great jeopardy of my life, for I have taken cold. And but if thou do now as I bid thee, if ever I may see thee, I shall slay thee with mine own hands; for thou wouldst for my rich sword see me dead.”
Then Sir Bedivere departed, and went to the sword, and lightly took it up, and went to the water side; and there he bound the girdle about the hilts, and then he threw the sword as far into the water as he might; and there came an arm and an hand above the water and met it, and caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water. So Sir Bedivere came again to the king, and told him what he saw. “Alas,” said the king, “help me hence, for I dread me I have tarried over long.” Then Sir Bedivere took the king upon his back, and so went with him to that water side. And when they were at the water side, even fast by the bank hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a queen, and all they had black hoods, and all they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur. “Now put me into the barge,” said the king And so he did softly; and there received him three queens with great mourning; and so they set them down, and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head. And then that queen said: “Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold.” And so then they rowed from the land, and Sir Bedivere beheld all those ladies go from him. Then Sir Bedivere cried: “Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies?” “Comfort thyself,” said the king, “and do as well as thou mayst, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.” But ever the queens and ladies wept and shrieked, that it was pity to hear. And as soon as Sir Bedivere had lost the sight of the barge, he wept and wailed, and so took the forest; and so he went all that night, and in the morning he was ware betwixt two holts hoar, of a chapel and an hermitage.

Arthur’s situation here is as that of the historical Church at this moment in time following the Fall of Ireland, the mass resignation of the Chilean bishops, the McCarrick scandal, the report of the Pennsylvania Attorney General, and whatever is to come, all covered in sexual sin. And more will come.

Malory’s denouement, however, is perhaps a bit ambiguous:

YET some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus [Here lies Arthur, the once and future King].

In Malory’s telling, the demise of the Round Table is anticipated long in advance and Arthur’s knights embark upon the Quest of the Holy Grail as a way to avoid it. Clearly, the chalice is a supreme symbol of the Eucharist, of the regenerative Blood of Christ, and true communio. But also, as others have noted, this quest for the chalice is in many ways a quest for the feminine, an attempt to find psychic balance in a world over-dominated by the masculine. Here, too, is an image of the historical Church at our moment.

Following the death of Arthur, Bedivere, Lancelot, and Guinevere all enter into religious life and live out their days in prayer, fasting, and repentance.The analogy to our current predicament could not be more apt.

Some say the Church is not dead, nor can it ever die, though it most certainly wanders in the Wasteland. I will venture no predictions, offer no diagnoses, other than to say that to win the holy cross it is incumbent in this world that one changes one’s life.

Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water.

~ T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland

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