Saturday, 29 December 2007

Here let us stand

‘Since Christmas a day: and the day of St Stephen, First Martyr.
‘Since St Stephen a day: and the day of St John the Apostle.
‘Since St John the Apostle a day: and the day of the Holy Innocents.
‘Since the Holy Innocents a day: the fourth day from Christmas.
‘To-day, what is to-day?’

So wrote T S Eliot at the start of the second act of his play Murder in the Cathedral, written for the 1935 Canterbury Festival, and first performed in the Chapter House at Canterbury, just a few yards from where, on this day in 1170, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was killed.

The murder, or assassination, of Thomas Becket within his cathedral church shocked the whole of western Christendom. Within three years he had been canonized, his name added to the roll of saints of the Church, and King Henry II forced to do penance for his role in Becket’s death. From Iceland to Italy there are churches dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, and relics, statues and images from just a few years after 1170.

The cause for which Becket died, however, is not one that today we necessarily regard as unambiguously right. As Eliot has the assassins remind his audience, the rule of law that we treasure as a great protection was begun by the reforms of Henry II that Becket stood against. ‘Remember,’ says the Second Knight in his speech to the audience, ‘remember that it is we who took the first step. We have been instrumental in bringing about the state of affairs that you approve.’ On the other hand, the rule of law that Henry II was introducing was harsh, whereas the rule of the Church, which Becket wanted to encompass as many people as possible, was more lenient.

And yet we cannot easily regard the murder of Becket as justified, even if we can agree with some of the sentiments Eliot has the knights express. The end does not justify the means. The powerful cannot go around murdering those they disagree with, whether they be political rivals or obstacles (as Becket had become to Henry II), or the weak and impoverished (as the boys of Bethlehem were to Herod, or indeed today). The prophets of the Old Testament remind us of this too: we see David brought to book by Nathan for arranging the death of Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11, 12); and Elijah foretells disaster on the house of Ahab for his complicity in bearing false witness against Naboth and causing him to be executed (1 Kings 21); and there are plenty of other examples.

The very rule of law that Henry II wanted to introduce requires that arbitrary exercise of power is not allowed. The murder of Thomas Becket reminds us still that the rule of law (tempered by equity and mercy) is fundamental to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and that it applies as much if not more to the rich and powerful and to the rulers as it does to the dispossessed, the powerless and the ruled. Those in power must always be held to account for their treatment of those who are in their power.

‘To-day, what is to-day?’
‘Let our thanks ascend
To God, who has given us another Saint in Canterbury.’
‘Blessed Thomas, pray for us.’

Posted by Simon Kershaw on Saturday, 29 December 2007 at 10:25am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking
Comments

A lovely post Simon - and I unreservedly mean that - but on the day after the Holy Innocents we should not forget the thread of action and thought that directly connects the cause for which Beckett died - the right of those in Holy Orders to be exempt from trial and punishment in the civil courts - to the actions of Bernard, cardinal Law, late archbishop of Boston, and of many of his colleagues in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, in repeatedly concealing the criminal activities of child abusers in holy orders from the civil authorities and by so doing creating a circumstance in which numerous repeat offenses of child abuse were perpetrated.

Posted by: Lapinbizarre on Saturday, 29 December 2007 at 2:28pm GMT

St Thomas Becket died for his belief that the Pope is the successor of St Peter and Head on earth of the Catholic Church.

He opposed the interference of the Monarch (state), which became a reality in the sixteenth century and still endures today.

St Thomas Becket pray for us

Posted by: Robert Ian Williams on Saturday, 29 December 2007 at 2:43pm GMT

"He opposed the interference of the Monarch (state), which became a reality in the sixteenth century." It's possible that your knowledge of medieval Western European history is a trifle sketchy, Mr. Williams.

Posted by: Lapinbizarre on Saturday, 29 December 2007 at 3:03pm GMT

Thank you for the post. Let me advocate a moment for one group who still remains, in parts of the USA, a subclass and without a fundamental right: namely, adoptees who do not have access to their original birth certificates or any right to knowledge about their own origins. This is often couched in terms that there are competing rights... but it should be seen that knowing one's history is a fundamental human right.

The ability of the state to conceal and with-hold identifying information from the parties directly affected by adoption also supports a sometimes corrupt and even criminal system. This is where we are Today.

Posted by: Mark Diebel on Saturday, 29 December 2007 at 3:51pm GMT

I only have a degree in history and a Masters in Theology, but I do know Thomas Becket died to protect the Catholic Church in England from interference from the crown over the rights of Christ's vicar.

Posted by: Robert Ian Williams on Saturday, 29 December 2007 at 4:48pm GMT

Including the right to conceal and to condone the sexual abuse of children?

Posted by: Lapinbizarre on Saturday, 29 December 2007 at 5:09pm GMT

Any person who condones or assists sin, even if he is the pope is responsible before God, and will be judged.

I think most religions have fallen short in this regard....even those with married clergy.

Posted by: Robert Ian Williams on Saturday, 29 December 2007 at 7:25pm GMT

Thank you dear Simon for that.

Tony

Priest in Charge,
St. Thomas a Becket Episcopal Church,
Morgantown, West Virginia
Diocese of West Virginia
The Episcopal Church (or one of them!)

Posted by: Fr. Tony Clavier on Sunday, 30 December 2007 at 3:23am GMT

Ah, the problems of beatification! 'The Holy Blisful Martir' (or any other saint) can get caught up in a catholic variation on the game of 'What would Jesus do?'

If the church found enough good in the murderer-bully bishop Wilfrid to canonise him, I can acknowledge Thomas for whatever he was without scrutinising his CV.

We do have a mediaeval chapel of St. Thomas of Canterbury here (modern stone altar, sadly), which I like to think was a local franchise for those who couldn't make the journey south....

Posted by: mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) on Sunday, 30 December 2007 at 1:54pm GMT

We do not have to regard everything that a holy person does as good and holy and worthy of honour and repetition. A saint is a sinner too, and in the Anglican world we do not take a fixed view as to any present status of those we commemorate – only that we find some part worthy of commemoration. As I wrote: ‘the cause for which Becket died ... is not one that today we necessarily regard as unambiguously right’ and you can take that to be as large or as small an understatement as you wish.

These pieces are categorized as ‘just thinking’ – and the category has always been intended to be primarily thinking about justice in the context of the proclamation of the kingdom of God.

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Sunday, 30 December 2007 at 2:07pm GMT

It's not the murdered archbishop that makes the saint, mynsterpreost, but the use that Rome can make of his mangled corpse. Is the Holy See at fisticuffs with the murderers or is it hand in glove? I present for your consideration Becket and Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Posted by: Lapinbizarre on Sunday, 30 December 2007 at 2:23pm GMT

Lapinbizarre , you're quite paisleyite in your dislike of Rome...as one famous convert to Catholicism said, "there's one thing worse than being talked about and that's not being talked about".

I was once anti-catholic ( as an Evangelical) and then it suddenly struck me (a lightning flash of grace) why...why was everyone opposed to Rome?..it started me on the way to the Catholic Church! So watch out

Posted by: Robert Ian Williams on Sunday, 30 December 2007 at 5:38pm GMT

A smokescreen, Mr. Williams - a less than subtle one at that - to divert attention from the issue of Archbishop Romero, a "santo subito" case if ever there was one, and the relationship of church and state in Central America. Not having followed your journey from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism, I do not know if it encompassed Anglicanism en route, but I am certainly in the Anglican tradition in my strong distrust of the theology and politics of both the Rev'd Mr. Paisley and the Bishop of Rome. Ricocheting between extremes in search of eternal verities is, to me, a reflexive rather than a thinking response. When we contemplate the consequences of the one time ("upon this rock") that we know with certainty that Our Lord cracked a funny, we ought perhaps to be thankful that he did not go in for humour on a regular basis.

Posted by: Lapinbizarre on Monday, 31 December 2007 at 12:41pm GMT

Simon wrote "These pieces are categorized as ‘just thinking’ – and the category has always been intended to be primarily thinking about justice in the context of the proclamation of the kingdom of God."

Well, thanks for these pieces, Simon. I've enjoyed them this week; please continue when you've got more to say!

Happy Christmas to all at TA (reader/commenters, too). - Jay

Posted by: Jay Vos on Monday, 31 December 2007 at 1:55pm GMT

Out yourself Lapinbizarre...you sound episcopal!

Posted by: Robert Ian Williams on Monday, 31 December 2007 at 4:24pm GMT

In English, please, RIW.

Posted by: Lapinbizarre on Monday, 31 December 2007 at 6:01pm GMT

LapinBizarre to RW : In English please.

Only if you call yourself oddrabbit!

Posted by: Robert Ian Williams on Tuesday, 1 January 2008 at 8:01am GMT

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f8/Internet_dog.jpg

Posted by: Lapinbizarre on Tuesday, 1 January 2008 at 12:50pm GMT

"... the rights of Christ's vicar"

Now that one is a church political invention ;=) if ever there was one.

It dates. It stinks.

Until "Dictatus papae" invariably Emperors and Kings were Christ's vicars, not any one bishop.

Posted by: Göran Koch-Swahne on Thursday, 3 January 2008 at 5:11pm GMT
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