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St Edmund’s Abbey ecumenical 1000-year celebration

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

Numbers are sometimes important in our lives.  Abbey 1000 is the umbrella name for events being held in Bury St Edmunds to commemorate 1000 years since the founding of the Benedictine Abbey of St Edmund which was dissolved in 1539. 

Although the celebrations were planned for 2020, Covid-19 caused delay but led to the planning of a wider programme of events which can be viewed at

The founding monks in 1020 came from Hulme (Norfolk) and Ely and 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 nuggets of 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 7 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

The weekend concluded with Sung Vespers in the Cathedral attended by clergy, civic dignitaries and a congregation in excess of 200 following which 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 those who have not yet experienced any of the Abbey 1000 events, awaiting you are exhibitions, sculptures, concerts, services, a floral festival and a day of free entertainment in the Abbey Gardens.  Special Abbey tours can be booked at 

Remember, a millennium only comes around every 1000 years so there is no point in waiting for the next one!

Pictured above is Bishop Alan Hopes with Bishop Martin Seeley at the original site of St Edmunds Abbey. Picture by Tom Soper.