Crime without a votive?

1961-Arthur-Michael-RamseyWant to read something that's really bizarre? What we have here is either a crime story, a liturgical mystery or a sad story about one of the most distinguished and important Anglo-Catholic leaders of the 20th century. I have no idea which choice is the correct one, but I hope its a crime mystery. Here is the top of the Associated Press report:

LONDON -- A fresh mystery is gripping Britain's religious community: Just how did a treasure trove of rare medallions and coins collected by a former archbishop of Canterbury end up at the bottom of the River Wear?

The coins, medals, goblets and other religious items were found over the last few years by two divers, Gary and Trevor Bankhead, in the frigid, murky river waters that loop around Durham Cathedral, a Norman-style classic.

Research shows many of the artifacts are linked to the late Michael Ramsey, a former archbishop of Canterbury with longtime ties to Durham, a city 280 miles north of London where he served as bishop and spent some of his retirement years before his death in 1988. The find was revealed ... by cathedral officials -- who believe the items may have been robbed from Ramsey -- and by the Bankhead brothers, two intrepid amateur divers who collected the unusual items during a series of dives over the last three years.

Note that Ramsey spent some of his retirement years in Durham, placing him near this river and the cathedral during the final stages of his life. That could be a clue as to what happened.

Some of the 300 or so items could only have belong to Ramsey -- the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury and a towering figure in traditional Anglicanism. He was best known for his important ecumenical work, primarily with the Eastern Orthodox and with Rome.

The cathedral staff has posted a helpful statement that notes:

Some of the artefacts appear to have close links to Archbishop Michael Ramsey who retired to Durham in 1974. These include medals and medallions presented to him during his work and travels as Archbishop of Canterbury. There is a silver trowel presented to the Archbishop on the occasion of his laying of the foundation stone for a new church in India. Other items include a copper and enamel icon. ...

Now that the finds have come to light it is hoped that many of them will be displayed next year when a new window dedicated to Michael Ramsey is installed in the Cathedral.

This is where things get a bit strange. You see, the experts on liturgy fall silent, while one of the divers starts speculating about matters of theology and the archbishop's private life.

... Gary Bankhead does not believe a robbery was involved. Based on the location of the finds, he has concluded that Ramsey himself probably dropped the items into the river. He thinks some of them were dropped from Prebends Bridge, a popular site near the retirement apartment where Ramsey lived with his wife in their latter years, as a slightly bizarre offering to the people of Durham.

"He was linked to the city since the early 1940s, and it's my belief that he did this as a votive offering to the river and to the people of Durham, who he loved," said Bankhead.

This unusual interpretation is supported by a friend of Ramsey's who told British newspapers that it is consistent with Ramsey's character that he would have thrown the items in the river. ... Bankhead said it also is possible that Ramsey threw the items into the waters because of his Christian belief that a person enters the world with nothing and leaves it with nothing.

The key term in that strange explanation is "votive offering." If you look up the word "votive," you'll find definitions that resemble this one:

vo*tive ... Function: adjective Etymology: Latin votivus, from votum vow ...

1: consisting of or expressing a vow, wish, or desire a votive prayer 2: offered or performed in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude or devotion

That doesn't help much, does it?

Since Ramsey was a very high-church Anglican, readers who care about these kinds of issues may have assumed that this was part of some kind of liturgical rite. The story, however, does not offer us a clue about that, let alone information from an authoritative source -- perhaps a dean or an historian at that cathedral -- who could tell us if such a rite even exists. Let's face it, The Book of Occasional Services (at least, that's what it is called in the U.S.) contains many interesting rites that are rarely used on public occasions.

So I sent an email to some friends who are priests, including one with wide historical knowledge of liturgics in East and West, asking if they knew of any rite that may have been linked to this act. They all drew a blank. One observed:

... If he threw stuff away, it might have been an act of humility or something. But not an "offering." Unless he had gone a bit nuts. Old people are allowed that.

Like I said, a very strange story. It could be sad. It could be inspiring. But there's no way to know, based on this report, what is going on. Maybe the authorities -- and many journalists on the other side of the pond who are trying to cover this mysterious story -- are simply grasping at straws, as well.

But quoting a treasure diver on matters of liturgy? Now that's strange.

Illustration: A formal portrait of the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey.

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