The Archbishop of Canterbury reflects on the relics of one of his predecessors
The ownership of Thomas of Canterbury was claimed by Rome and was then rejected at the Reformation by Henry VIII. Thomas Becket was held up as a model in the Counter-Reformation, but as time has gone he has become one of the symbols within Europe for the whole church. As a sign to the whole church, he calls us together.
On 29 December at Canterbury, huge numbers of people gather – we think quite often well over a thousand, sometimes almost two thousand – for a service in which the murder of Thomas is recalled vividly in drama. After Vespers is sung in Latin the Archbishop of the day goes and stands on the very spot where Thomas was killed, and the account of the murder is acted out. For the current Archbishop, whoever that may be, it is a very remarkable feeling. But people come from all over to be at the cathedral at that service. It’s one of the great services of the year at Canterbury.
Thomas is a figure who brings us together and enables us to reflect on the task and call of the Church in the light of the challenges we face in modern Europe; and within the Church, he is a sign of eternal hope. Relics point to two essential parts of what it is to be a Christian: that the Church is to be visible, flesh and bone, incarnated, and real; and that the Church is to live as a body that trusts in the Resurrection of the Body, in which all that we are is put into the hands of God.
We are meant to be a people of the Resurrection, not simply of the Incarnation. To quote a former churchwarden of mine, ‘we must not be Rotary with a pointed roof.’ We are not to be quietist and detached from life. The Rotary Club does much good; but we are not to be the Rotary Club with the appendage of buildings and strange ceremonies.
To use Pope Francis’s words: without the Resurrection we can become functionally atheist when we become too locked into Incarnational ministry; where, although we are deeply committed to neighbour, God is merely a useful excuse for what we do. To live in the Resurrection, so that all other things become secondary, requires a deepening spiritual life. Adoration, the Sacrament, participation with the apparent fragility and actual presence in overwhelming strength of the Eucharist, immersion in prayer, commitment to holiness, engagement with Scripture – all that draws us into the presence of God.
But at the same time we are flesh and bone, just as Thomas was. We are to love our neighbour, to interfere in politics on behalf of the poor and the lost, to question sinful structures, and to resist the encompassing power of the world around us. We are to be immersed in schools, in hospitals, in prisons; and in the love and care of refugee and stranger. We are physically to be both a blessing to the poor and weak, and an irritation to the strong and determined.
Thomas could easily have done two things that would have been failures. He could have stayed abroad, in a monastery, immersed in prayer. Or he could have come back and gone along with King Henry, taken the patriotic high ground against papal claims of European government. Either course of action would have saved his life; neither course of action would have opened the way to the immense renewal of the church across Europe caused by his death, a renewal that came as a second surge to spiritual reform already underway.
Of course we question his motives. We question his actions, and we bring anachronistic judgements to bear on what he stood for. And so we should, in one sense. But the relics of Thomas do not call us to political calculation as our first response, but to renewal of life with Christ and to renewal of love for the poor.
And yet – and yet – Thomas does call us to political awareness. St Gregory the Great spoke eloquently of the church’s need to be politically conscious. In a homily on Ezekiel, he wrote:
Note that a man whom the Lord sends forth as a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming. Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height for all his life to help them by his foresight.
I am forced to consider the affairs of the Church and of the monasteries. I must weigh the lives and acts of individuals. I am responsible for the concerns of our citizens. I must worry about the invasions of roving bands of barbarians, and beware of the wolves who lie in wait for my flock. I must become an administrator lest the religious go in want. I must put up with certain robbers without losing patience and at times I must deal with them in all charity. [Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, 1.11, 4-6]
Thomas, who very probably knew that passage, may have felt the same. He was a politician to his fingertips – and so he had to be, and so must the Church be. His physicality reminds me of the need to be a politically aware watchman each time I walk past the Martyrdom in Canterbury; and each time I walk past I stop, and I think, and I pray.
Like Thomas, the church must be in a place of seeing what is happening around us, and it must be in a place of standing for what is right. Thomas did, and sometime his motives will be misjudged. Sometimes the Church’s motives will be misjudged; and sometimes it will not even know its own motives. That complexity of political judgement becomes worse when a country or a continent is uncertain and feels threatened, as is true today.
In the late twelfth century – shortly before the Third Crusade – there was a sense, justifiably, of threat. The result of being threatened is always a greater call by a state or states for the Church to be on side: ‘you must be with us, you must be on message.’ The state seeks control of all agencies, especially when it feels threatened; and it especially wants control of those which may have a different view, and whose view – which is always true of the Church – may be seen as overriding the state itself. Thomas may have acted wrongly or rightly, but he acted to keep the Church, as he understood it, faithful to its call. That faithfulness is our challenge today. Threat cannot be answered in our society with violence; nor fear with aggression.
T. S. Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ is a profound meditation on weakness and strength, not only with the famous words ‘the last temptation is the greatest treason/ To do the right thing for the wrong reason’; but more for the dialogue as the knights seek to break in – the words read at Canterbury every year – taken and adjusted by Eliot from contemporary accounts. Thomas calls out “Unbar the doors! Throw open the doors! I will not have the house of prayer, the Church of Christ, the sanctuary, turned into a fortress. The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not as oak and stone; stone and oak decay, give no stay, but the Church shall endure. The church shall be open, even to our enemies. Open the door!’ Then the door behind the Archbishop crashes open, and the cold air sweeps in.
Today the Church must also be faithful in its own way. Thomas of Canterbury is challenge, reassurance, and inspiration; but ultimately a fellow receiver of the grace of God. May his inspiration continue, and may his example be translated into right action in our time amidst much threat, and amidst much fear; but with the same God and Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.
This is an edited version of an address given at Lambeth Palace on 27 May, during the visit from Hungary of the relics of St Thomas of Canterbury. We are grateful for permission to reproduce it here.