Friday, December 29, 2023



On this, the Fifth Day of Christmas, the Church commemorates Saint Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and medieval martyr, murdered by royal knights in service of King Henry II's expansive power over the English State. According to the famous account of Becket's martyrdom in the Canterbury cathedral, when the priests tried to protect their Archbishop by barring the cathedral's door against the King's knights, Thomas opened it himself, saying, "The house of God may not be defended like a fortress. I gladly face death for the Church of God." Exactly 31 years ago today, I was at Canterbury Cathedral for this feast, where, after Evensong, the Archbishop of Canterbury led us in procession to the site of Becket's death, where an original account of the saint's martyrdom was read. 

That Archbishop was Becket's successor, of course, but in a Church and state totally transformed less than four centuries after Becket's death by Henry VIII's Reformation. No wonder the Reformation removed Becket's feast from the calendar and destroyed his sumptuous shrine! Becket represented a pre-Reformation approach that envisaged a particular sort of partnership between Church and State. The Reformation successfully replaced that with the State in a clear position of dominance over the Church "by law established." 

In a modern world, in which relations between Church and State and between religion and society are increasingly fraught, Becket's challenge to today's Church is not to try to re-establish the Church-state order that Becket died to uphold, or to carve out privileged statuses for religious entities, strategies suitable for Becket's era but obviously less so for ours. Today's challenge rather is to witness to Christian faith in a world without the the kind of cultural supports the Church and religion once enjoyed and in which there are many other attractive alternatives to religion, which challenge 
religion's role in our increasingly secularized culture. 

Meanwhile, whatever else we do, let Becket's own words never be forgotten, "The house of God may not be defended like a fortress."

Image: One of the earliest known depictions of Saint Thomas Becket's assassination (c. 1175–1225).

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