A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 29 December 2019 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(Isaiah 63.7-9; Matthew 2.13-end)
Earlier this year the Pope canonised John Henry Newman, once a vicar near Oxford; that took place 129 years after his death. In 1457 the then Pope canonised Osmund, once a bishop of Salisbury and a big figure in the life of this cathedral church; this had proved a longer process, having taken 358 years. But there is a hands-down winner among saints under consideration, and that is Thomas a Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his own cathedral on this day, 29th December 1170, and canonised a mere 2 and a bit years later.
Becket, you might say, was on a roll, albeit posthumous. And it was a roll which rolled on, with a huge cult of pilgrimage to Canterbury, a very high status within all of Europe - as is illustrated for us here by the stones of this city of New Salisbury, where construction began 50 years after his death, and where the parish church was dedicated to him and one of the main chapels in this cathedral church bore his name. For hundreds of years Becket was a key figure in English life; Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written over 200 years after his death, illustrate just how normal it was for anyone who could afford it to make the pilgrimage.
This Thomas was a controversial figure in his lifetime. He was a really efficient and able government servant, rising as a young man to the most powerful position in the royal service as Chancellor of England and doing great work in consolidating the power of Henry II. He was then the king’s personal appointee as archbishop of Canterbury, and Henry no doubt assumed Becket would continue the good work on his behalf. By modern standards it is beyond credit that someone known only for his work as a servant of the king could be ordained priest one day and quite literally the next day become the head of the Church in England. No wonder the monks at Canterbury tried to stop his appointment.
But as soon as he took that office, Thomas sought to serve the Church and not the king. This was ultimately what brought about his murder and his status as a holy martyr. But things weren’t as black and white as this suggests: he also fell out with other bishops, and sought powers for his own position which might be understood as an urge to centralise and control the levers of Church power as he had previously those of the royal realm. Thomas a Becket was not, in either phase of his life, an other-worldly man; he understood power, and sought always to exercise its levers effectively, whilst not being managed and manipulated by others. So his removal or death, while genuinely shocking and a political disaster for King Henry II, would have had their appeal for by the king and many other people at the time. And it shouldn’t perhaps surprise us that another power-obsessed King Henry, Henry VIII, used the opportunity of his break with Rome to eradicate completely every vestige of the cult of Thomas a Becket, whose memory gave palpable evidence that the Church had trump cards over even a l monarch. So the feast day of Thomas on this 29th December was physically expunged from the calendar; pages of prayer books were snipped out; the churches and chapels which bore his name made a swift switch to the politically safer dedication of Thomas the Apostle; and pilgrimage stopped.
These now are safer times, and the Church in England as well as the Pope in Rome, is far less powerful than before - so it’s not dangerous to honour Becket in ways that hint at what our forbears used to do. But is Becket really a saint for our times?
Consider for a moment another man, born soon after Becket died, and who himself died within a year of the first use for worship of the completed parts of this new cathedral here in Salisbury - Francis of Assisi. He too was canonised within a couple of years of his death, he too reputedly had dealings with popes and rulers of various kinds. But what stood out in him was not his association with (and problems with) power, but his almost compulsive urge to be poor and obedient to Christ. One would have to say that the example and cult of Francis seems to resonate with our times. How interesting that the present pope chose that unique name for himself. Simplicity, the urge for poverty in Christ’s service, and the respect for everything and everyone which God has made, have striking places in the world you and I inhabit, with its generalised but empty prosperity alongside knowledge of desperate poverty near and far, and its growing awareness of the consequences of human rapaciousness towards the created order.
Two men who lived in the 12th century. Two people fast-tracked to sainthood in their own time, and whose influence far outlived them. Both in very different ways prepared to die in the service of Christ. One, Francis, in my view at least, a far more attractive and admirable character than the other, and certainly much more in tune with the spiritual aspirations of our own times. But both these men thought in very different ways compared with our own; both prioritised things which everyone today would happily never see again; both were figures of their own times and not of ours.
But both have much to teach us in our lives as Christians. Both inhabited the drama in play between sanctity and power. Their different routes through that drama serve both as examples and challenges to us, that we cannot retreat from the world we inhabit, with its currents of power and weakness, politics and godliness - but must instead inhabit it wholeheartedly and faithfully, embracing the mess and entrusting the after effects to the good grace of God.