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Reconsidering Thomas Becket: Wendy Dackson

Reconsidering Thomas Becket

We have just passed the church’s annual commemoration of Archbishop Thomas Becket, murdered (and often said to be ‘martyred’) in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. Many hold Becket as a brave and holy man who died for his principles in the course of standing up to a tyrannical monarch in the form of Henry II. There are some indisputable facts here—Henry was at best a bit of a head-case, and Thomas died as a result of his conflict with the king. Henry made dubious claims concerning his authority over the English church, invoking ‘ancestral customs’ to support his right to make key ecclesiastical appointments (without which power we might never have heard of Becket), and to benefit materially from the productivity of lands owned by the church. And whether Thomas had been an excellent, or execrable, archbishop, it is certainly tragic that his brains got knocked out on the floor of his cathedral. It is doubtful whether Henry II ever truly uttered the words, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Although it is nearly certain that four of his knights, in an attempt to curry royal favour, proceeded to Canterbury with no good intentions towards Becket, it was probably not a direct royal order that resulted in one of history’s most famous ecclesiastical murders.

John Guy, in his new biography, Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, brings much of the Becket saga to life, and does much to balance the hagiography that surrounds the existing literature concerning the Archbishop. For that much, I am thankful. However, it does not erase my main concern from a social/public theology standpoint: the commemoration and veneration of Thomas Becket is not an unqualified good for the church today.

Had Thomas Becket not been a high-profile murder victim, we would not give him a second thought today. He would be one of many undistinguished ecclesiastical figures. Guy’s biography points out that Becket had almost no theological training prior to a sort of crash course of directed self-study undertaken after his appointment to Canterbury, nor was he more than conventionally pious for his time prior to his elevation. He felt no distinct calling to a holy life, and Guy (along with earlier analysts of the ‘Becket event’, David Knowles and William Urry) that Becket’s eventual acceptance of the archiepiscopate was more a career move than a vocation (he was reluctantly in deacon’s orders prior to being made Archbishop, and even that was more a job requirement than a sacred longing). He left us no substantial work of theology, as had his predecessor Anselm, no devotional exercises or liturgical contributions. While he did nothing to merit a death as messy as the one he encountered, from a theological standpoint, Becket did nothing much that was noteworthy.
So, what is left of Becket’s life that is worthy of theological reflection? Certainly, it is his resistance of a secular ruler in favour of the rights and privileges of the church that lies at the heart of our admiration. It is undeniable that it took a great deal of courage (even, as Guy says, to the point where it ‘smacks of arrogance’) for Thomas to tell Henry that he did not have to answer to the king for actions carried out in the performance of his archiepiscopal functions. That Becket showed courage in travelling out of Britain to appeal to the Pope concerning his disputes with the king is also beyond dispute. One gives to Caesar what rightly belongs to Caesar, and to God (through his earthly Vicar) what belongs to God.

The big question for social or public theology today, and what gives me almost all of my unease concerning the Becket phenomenon, is where the dividing line between the spiritual and the secular lies. In 12th century England, for commoners not in holy orders, it was fairly clear—just about all of life was in the secular sphere (even if their feudal lord was an abbot or bishop, most of their business was of a secular nature). For royalty and church dignitaries, the lines were significantly fuzzy. Henry could claim, because of his ‘ancestral customs’ concerning his authority over the church, that most if not all church activity was subject to secular law. Thomas claimed the opposite—if one were a priest, monk, bishop or abbot, all of one’s activities were subject to canon law. And this became, if not the major, the most important issue for deciding whether continued commemoration of the Becket phenomenon is good for the church today.

As Guy points out, the crux was how to deal with criminous clerks (priests, deacons, and others in minor orders, such as subdeacons and acolytes) who were convicted of a serious crime against the king’s peace, such as murder, robbery, larceny, or rape, for which, if the offender were a layman and not a clerk, the punishment would be death or mutilation. According to Henry, the royal judges had complained that more than a hundred homicides by those who claimed exemption from trial in the secular courts had gone unpunished on account of their holy orders. Church courts did not inflict capital or corporal punishments “lest in man the image of God should be deformed,” preferring instead to impose unfrocking, imprisonment in a bishop’s prison, confinement to a monastery, penances, or pilgrimages, either alone or in various combinations.

Guy points out that such exemption (known as ‘benefit of clergy’) was a relative novelty. It was not stricken from English law until 1827, and I believe that this is at least in part a residual effect of honouring Becket’s having died for his ‘principles’. Guy also says that church courts were not always a ‘soft option’, but the only case which he cites in which a harsher penalty was imposed than might have been given in a secular court was one in which Henry took a special interest, and where Becket presided. Furthermore, it was often the case that a cleric’s ‘first offense’ was completely unpunished in the ecclesiastical courts. Thus, it is hardly convincing that the church, left to its own devices, was a particularly strict disciplinarian when it came to clerical misconduct.

The question this raises from a public theology standpoint is whether this is (in the words of retired Canon Theologian of Manchester, John Atherton) ‘for the good of the city’, as opposed to merely protecting the status (financial and social) of the institutional church. By contemporary standards, it is evident that this ‘principle’ for which Thomas was willing to defy the king is unacceptable. We can hardly ignore the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church by which priests accused of serious sexual misconduct have been moved from parish to parish—and even to different dioceses—because they were not to be tried under secular law, but were only subjected to ecclesiastical discipline. Not only has this harmed many innocent individuals (and Guy even tells of instances when Becket himself covered up the precise crimes for which we now criticize the church for disciplining ‘in house’, so to speak), but the clergy misconduct and the lack of transparency surrounding it have harmed the credibility of the church more generally.

Becket, of course, had no control over how the story of his life would be handled after his murder, how he would be honoured, and how the principles on which he staked his survival would play out. We do, and to commemorate Becket without questioning the less-savoury consequences is not in keeping with good contemporary public theology. After what I have said, I am sure that people wonder whether I have anything good to say about the Becket phenomenon in terms of public theology. The answer is yes, and it may seem surprising on two counts—first, that I say it at all. But secondly, the actual moment, and principal actor, that I find redemptive may raise an eyebrow or two. The public penance of Henry II for his role in the affair is perhaps the most positive social outcome in the saga. Guy says that Henry could not beat the cult-like following Becket’s memory was gaining, so he had no political choice but to join it. That may be, as Eliot said in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, yet one more instance of doing ‘the right thing for the wrong reason.’ This instance used the church to give a public forum to call the secular ruler to account—a liturgical ritual in which the king could be seen by the people to have been in the wrong (at least in his actions and their consequences, if not fully in the underlying motivations). This is far less messy than open revolution, as liturgy and ritual are, in one sense, a way of acting out some of our most intense (and sometimes, most intensely dark) human desires and impulses, but in a limited, controlled setting. Some eight and a bit centuries later, the recently retired Archbishop Rowan Williams claimed this role for the church, most notably in the aftermath London 2011 riots. The actions were not excused, but they were put into a context where they could be publicly and safely dealt with. This is contemporary public theology at its best.

I do not think that Thomas Becket was wrong to stand up for his principles—but I do think we have much to answer for if we only admire him for that, and do not examine the principles for which he was willing to die, and make some contemporary judgment as to whether this is something we should continue to hold dear. All theological advances stem from asking two questions. The first is ‘What is enduring about the text or issue under discussion?’ The second is its shadow, ‘What is now problematic about this?’ The Becket phenomenon is a particularly dramatic case of having failed to ask this latter question.

The illustration is a frieze depicting the murder of Thomas Becket in Antwerpener Schnitzaltar in der Kirche St. Marien zu Waase (St Mary’s Church Antwerp) photographed in August 2009 by Karl-Heinz Meurer (–Charlie1965nrw) via Wikimedia

5 comments on this post:

Simon Martin said...

Fascinating reflection, Wendy. It has made me write myself a note to find my old copy of Eliot out of storage … and possibly get Guy’s book on Kindle!

Wendy said...

I read the John Guy book on Kindle, Simon! I’ve long had an uneasiness about Becket (not helped at all by 2.5 years in Canterbury, perhaps made worse!). But the real thing I’d like to flag up is that *all* of our church traditions, saints, customs, dearly-held prejudices, etc., need to be examined by those final two questions.

1. What is enduring?
2. What is now problematic?

Perhaps adding a third (with a hat-tip to Avery Dulles’ ‘Models of the Church’)
3. Who benefits from this?

To an extent, what you do at Arthur Rank pushes those questions along on a daily basis, and so many blessings on you and your work!

Simon Martin said...

“Cui bono?” is always the bottom line.
I’m sure the very recent BBC TV programme by ++Rowan “Goodbye to Canterbury” hasn’t been made available in the US yet; but it was very good and he asked some pretty penetrating questions about the sort of things you mention – focusing on Canterbury’s 2nd most famous ‘son’ (Becket).

Wendy said...

And even the shadow side of ‘cui bono?’ has to be asked–who is *harmed*? I think there’s a clear, if unacknowledged, link between upholding Becket’s principles and covering up all kinds of clerical abuses. Who benefits, and who is harmed? And is continuing it without examination problematic (clearly, my answer is ‘yes’)?

03 January 2013 21:58
03 January 2013 21:54
03 January 2013 21:46
03 January 2013 21:41

[…] concerning my ambivalence about Becket for the excellent Lay Anglicana blog.  I’m copying it here, by way of explaining why I’m not entirely comfortable with honoring Becket as a […]

21 December 2014 15:58

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