The spirit of Thomas Becket


Today, Dec. 29th, marks the 847th anniversary of the death of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, protector of the Church, martyr for the faith and saint.

The feast day of St. Thomas Becket is worthy of remembrance in its own right, but in today’s atmosphere of American politics and the mix of Church and political affairs it takes on special significance.

To understand this significance we need to look back briefly at St. Thomas Becket’s rise to the archbishopric, his role in the English government prior to that position, and the uncompromising protection of the church from secular encroachment that ultimately would lead to his death.

From an early age Becket’s career was a complicated mix of secular and religious endeavors. Becket, the son of a Norman merchant family, undertook training as a clerk and then joined the household of Theobold of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Becket studied civil and canon law and was made Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. His energy and efficiency in this role gained the attention of King Henry II, who made Becket his Lord Chancellor in 1155.

Becket retained his ordination as a deacon while advising the king, overseeing royal construction projects, even raising and leading English troops in war. It was perhaps that willingness to hold both religious and secular authority that led Henry to believe Becket would be a pliable and subservient Archbishop.

Henry, with aims of gaining more royal control over the Church and using the Church to consolidate power over the nobles, used his influence to help elevate Becket to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury several months after the death of Becket’s mentor and second father, Theobold.

Becket was ordained to the priesthood all of one day before he was confirmed as Archbishop on May 23, 1162. It was an artfully placed appointment that Henry hoped would give him a Church subservient to the wishes of the crown.

It did not, however, take Henry long to discover he would be disappointed in his new Archbishop. Instead of placing the state first, Becket quickly stepped down from the office of Lord Chancellor to focus on the archbishopric and assumed a pious, penitent and unassuming demeanor in his new post.

The rift between king and archbishop widened quickly as Henry attempted to exert secular authority over clergy, gain control over church properties and generally bring Becket back to heel. Becket refused to succumb to the royal pressure, making the king – to whom he had previously been as much a brother as adviser – his bitter enemy.

The conflict came to a head in October, 1164, when the king brought Becket before a royal court on charges of contempt of royal authority and supposed malfeasance while serving as Chancellor. Becket was predictably convicted on the charges after he refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have given the king authority over clergy.

Becket fled England after the verdict, seeking sanctuary with Cistercian monks under the protection of the King of France. He remained in exile for almost seven years until Pope Alexander III brokered an agreement with Henry for Becket to return to the See of Canterbury.

The peace, however, was short-lived. After the king further challenged the authority of both the Pope and Becket by having the Archbishop of York, instead of Canterbury, crown his son co-king, Becket excommunicated the bishops involved.

Henry, enraged, uttered something (sources disagree) to the effect of “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest!” Four knights took the king’s words as an order, and confronted Becket as he was preparing for vespers at Canterbury Cathedral. They demanded Becket absolve the bishops and accept the king’s edicts on the church. Becket refused, and was cut down within footsteps of the monks chanting the evening prayers.

Becket’s final words were to accept death in defense of the Church, stating “For the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church I am willing to die.” His words and actions made him a martyr, and within three years of his death Becket was canonized.

Becket was by no means perfect in his life, and Henry had many redeeming qualities of his own. But, throughout his time as archbishop, Becket proved steadfast in protecting the church from the excesses and corrupting influence of secular power, even to the point of accepting death for the Church he served.

Becket’s life would have been far more peaceful and prosperous, and far easier, if he had simply gone along with his bishops and king and accepted the Church becoming a tool of the king. But, he understood the corrupting influence of secular authority on the Church, and the degrading effect when the Church sells itself to worldly leaders. It was a risk too great to bear, even under the shadow of death.

Becket’s story is inspiring. But, how does it relate to our current state of secular-religious affairs in America? Well, that story is not so inspiring.

In contrast to the archbishop who gave his life rather than accept consolidation of power with the throne, American Evangelical Christians have tripped over themselves in the last two years to sell the pulpit to secular power.

Big-name pastors like Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. have fawned over a president who is unrepentant in his greed, misogyny, self-proclaimed sexual exploitation and who stands accused of assaulting numerous women.

In hopes of owning a president, they have sold the Church to a man who has no respect for the faithful outside of their ability to elect him to office, and who has no reverence for the Sacraments beyond referring to the Eucharist as “my little wine … my little cracker.”

Rather than focus on communion between God and God’s people, these pastors brag about their access to the president.

Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins told the New York Times in August  “I’ve been to the White House I don’t know how many more times in the first six months this year than I was during the entire Bush administration.”

Johnnie Moore, an evangelical activist and former Liberty University executive told Newsweek in August “It’s a totally different time now. They’re (the Trump administration) not only on our speed dial, we’re on their speed dial. In my opinion, it’s good for America.”

The blind sale of Christian virtue for political position was even more apparent in the recent Alabama Senate race, when Evangelical pastors like Falwell and Graham actively campaigned for accused pedophile and professed racist Roy Moore.

As accusations mounted against Moore, Evangelicals doubled down on their support, not for the Church but for their preferred political party.

On Nov. 12, Newsweek reported this: “Nearly 40 percent of evangelical Christians in Alabama say they’re now more likely to vote for Roy Moore after multiple allegations that he molested children, even as voters across the historically red state now seem to be punishing Moore for his past actions, a new poll shows.”

Of course, we now know Moore narrowly lost to Doug Jones, thanks in large part to minority and women voters, and to a number of Christian pastors and leaders who spoke out against Moore and his ambitions. But, the damage was done.

In an essay published on election day, Christianity Today editor Mark Galli wrote that whoever won the election, “there is already one loser: Christian faith.”

“No one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation,” Galli wrote. “Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”

“It grieves me,” Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, told the New York Times on Dec. 14. “I don’t want ‘evangelical’ to mean people who supported candidates with significant and credible accusations against them. If evangelical means that, it has serious ramifications for the work of Christians and churches.”

Of course, not all American Christians — not even a majority — subscribe to the Evangelical school that has sold itself cheaply to this moment in American politics. Many of us have sat for too long, in disbelief, echoing the words of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby. When he was asked about why American Evangelicals support Trump, Welby replied: “No, I don’t understand it. I really genuinely do not understand where that is coming from.”

Many of us, trying in our imperfection to be led by the Gospel, really genuinely do not understand how Evangelicals justify selling the Church to today’s cheap crown.

What we, as American Christians, collectively need is a little more of the courage and conviction of St. Thomas Becket. Worldly power comes and goes. The Body of Christ is eternal. If we are to bear the name of the latter, we cannot trade it in cheap and cowardly fashion for the former.

O God, our strength and our salvation, you called your servant Thomas Becket to be a shepherd of your people and a defender of your Church: Keep your household from all evil and raise up among us faithful pastors and leaders who are wise in the ways of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ the shepherd of our souls, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

One thought on “The spirit of Thomas Becket

  1. “Becket’s life would have been far more peaceful and prosperous, and far easier, if he had simply gone along with his bishops and king and accepted the Church becoming a tool of the king.”
    I think this line captures so much of what is happening in some Christian churches–especially the “prosperous” part. For wealth and prestige, they have become tools.

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