Tuesday saw the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket on 29th December 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. His story is well known, or at least we think it is. King Henry II’s ill-judged comment ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ leading to four Knights out to make an impression travelling to Canterbury and murdering the archbishop as he prayed in the north transept of the cathedral.
Not all of those facts are accurate – Henry does not utter those words. The accounts actually have Henry railing against Becket’s ingratitude for how he had been raised from middle-class merchant’s son to the highest office of the realm, beside the king himself. At heart here was, look what I’ve done for you and yet you don’t do what I want! That offended Henry’s pride – Becket should have been more grateful and fallen in line. Their friendship was clearly to be on Henry’s terms or not at all.
On the other side, Becket has been described as being like a hedgehog – as prickly as he was smooth, also prone to being impulsive. He managed to make too many enemies, including fellow bishops, barons and of course the king. Quite a few people wanted to bash his head in with a sword.
The other side of his complex character, is that he seems to have undergone a conversion on becoming archbishop – taking devotion seriously, even to the point of wearing a hair shirt under his fine robes. He carried a personal primer, a prayer book, which may have been identified recently as having once belonged to his martyred predecessor, Archbishop Alphege, who was beaten to death by drunken Danes nearly two centuries before him. Becket commended himself to God and Alphege, among others, when he knew he was about to die.
One of the witnesses to his murder has a local connection for Peterborough. Benedict was a monk of Canterbury and went on to become Abbot of Peterborough. He was behind the construction of the Becket Chapel at the entrance to the precincts and some of the stones from there were used to build this church. Benedict hid when the knights attacked, either under an altar or nearby in the crypt of the cathedral.
The point of principle which led to Becket’s death is rather tricky to understand today. It goes back to the idea of there being two swords for a realm, one of the church and one of the state. This was held to mean that the pope governed in partnership with the secular rulers: one tending to the needs of the spirit and the other to the needs of the body.
For Becket, the pope, as the Vicar of St Peter, was the controlling authority over church and state. Henry had other ideas. He saw himself as the senior partner – in fact the job of the church was to do what he wanted, so a clash was inevitable. There are plenty of politicians who see it that way today too.
It’s not a long journey from there to clergy being seen as a separate order of society and so subject to the discipline of the church and not the state. Remember they are separate arms of the realm. Becket wanted to defend and protect the independence of the church at a time of tyrannical rulers. That only works in reality with consent. Ultimately the one who can wave the sword around has the power – though for Becket, he had the power to excommunicate and therefore the ultimate sanction of blocking someone from salvation. When he used that power, and he did, he didn’t exactly win friends or influence people.
All power relationships work best when there are checks and balances and when something is acknowledged to stand over it. Today, as we remember the magi, sometimes called kings, bowing before the infant Jesus, we have three gifts which stand for power and what should guide it. So a few thoughts springing from Becket and the magi.
The first gift they produce is gold. Gold shows status and so the reredos behind me is decorated with gold paint or leaf to show the status of those commemorated there – principally Christ enthroned in majesty. All power and authority owes allegiance to God in Jesus Christ and the magi bow down.
Today we squirm at Becket’s drive for independence from state accountability. We have seen just how bad that can be when vice goes unpunished and we have seen with IICSA and abuse scandals that the church should not be allowed to cover up or escape justice when it abuses others. At the same time tyrannical rulers need to be called to account – and that can be and often is costly.
The second gift is frankincense. Incense is burnt to show worth, worship and where prayers are due. We worship God alone and our lives are subject to him because that is the only treasure worth having. There are values that stand above party political allegiance and just because a ruler can do something does not make it right.
Those values of justice and honour stem from honouring the image of the one we worship being seen in each person and all people. When we worship God, we are also to worship his image seen in those around us – friend and stranger, powerful and powerless.
The third gift is myrrh. This is the sanitising, healing ointment to relieve ailments and afflictions of the body. In a pandemic where we long for vaccines, use more santiser than we have ever seen before, and have learnt to value those who heal and ensure society functions, myrrh may well feel like it should have pride of place.
We remember that power should serve wellbeing, and so we have to make decisions to protect at times and closing the church to public worship is part of that. Our government is rolling out a vaccine programme on a scale never seen before. They are accountable for that, and all of us have a part to play in how we help constrain this virus.
As we remember Thomas Becket and also the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus, all power is accountable to God and with the magi bows before the infant king. All leadership should serve moral values of justice and all that honours the image of God in the other. Faith leaders have a role in keeping these moral values in front of us all, and so politics naturally mixes with faith because both guide the direction of travel.
Without values and higher service, power is just the exercise of muscle and whim. Without the political organisation, values remain theoretical. The magi bring these before the throne of grace, as this takes up residence in the child in the manger. Becket and Henry, and all who stand in their place today, are to kneel with the magi to adore, worship and serve his kingdom above all else.
Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 3rd January 2021.