Saturday, December 29, 2007

December 29: Thomas Beckett

On this 5th day of Christmas we remember Thomas Becket, that somewhat enigmatic 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket had been a close friend of King Henry II and his Chancellor, excelling at the political life of England. He had been ordained a deacon, but any continuation in ordained ministry had been interrupted, or even replaced by his political life, although he was officially the Archdeacon of Canterbury.

It appears that Henry saw an opportunity to gain greater control over the church (this was a constant battle in England—it did not begin with the infamous Henry VIII) when the Archbishop of Canterbury died. He saw to the election of his friend Thomas to the post and the Pope confirmed it. Thomas was reluctant, foreseeing damage to his relationship with Henry. Nevertheless the King prevailed and Thomas became Archbishop in 1162. Sparks flew almost from the beginning with Thomas being as zealous in his defense of the Church as he had been as Chancellor. He lived in exile in France for six years. On his return the disagreements continued and Henry was said to have muttered to a group of his barons, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Some of them took it as a command and they murdered Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral on this day in 1170. He was almost instantly declared a saint, and the King was obliged to do public penance. It was at this point that Canterbury came to be a point of great pilgrimmage to his tomb (a la Chaucer’s the Canterbury Tales). Henry VIII had his tomb dismantled, by the way. Today a single candle burns perpetually where his tomb stood behind the ancient throne of St. Augustine, the primatial seat of the Archbishop.

Today may be a good day to remember in our prayers the politicians among us, many of whom sincerely wrestle with the intersection of their faith and their politics, and try to make an intersection work. We should support that work of integration. The separation of church and state in this country has never meant the separation of religion and politics. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “My religion is my politics.” I heard Bishop Barbara Harris quote this in a television interview prior to her consecration as a bishop. Despite the misuse of religion by some of our leaders, and the desire for some of a kind of theocracy among us, this is a value we can and should support among our political leaders.

Pray for politicians today, and also for the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who needs all the prayers he can get.