Tuesday, 29 December 2009

St Thomas Becket: the struggle between Church and State

St Thomas Becket in stained glass in Chartres Cathedral

One of the first acts of the still theologically “Catholic” but now Caesaro-papalist Henry VIII was the destruction of the Shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury in 1538. Most of the histories of that period with which we grew up tell us that St Thomas’ shrine was a symbol of the overarching power and the discredited privileges and the accompanying corruption of the late medieval Church.
Imagine – all that wealth and not even in private hands!

The one word which was conveniently left out was the crucial one – “independence.” This independence of the Ecclesia Anglicana was guaranteed by the link with the See of Peter and the person of the Pope. This was a freedom and independence for which, at root, St Thomas himself was murdered under Henry II (who repented) and St Thomas More later executed after a rigged trial under Henry VIII (who did not!)
The despoilation of Becket’s tomb was only a physical clearing of the ground for the more thorough and profound theological and political desecration which was to follow.

Enough contentious historical polemic, please! It’s Christmas, and there are always at least two sides to every question!

But unfortunately the implications of all this are not dead and buried with the greatest monster of the Tudor era. His legacy lives on. Ironically, even those of us who are proud to be called Anglo-Papalists are heavily (if not inextricably) implicated in it; in fact, we hope to be able to engage in a little extrication of our own very shortly.
So first destroy the guarantee of the Church’s independence of the State (any state will do, from Tudor despotism to the illiberal – liberal, nanny capitalist model we have now) and you end up with a State Church whose culture inevitably takes its colour from the surrounding society. We start out with Henry VIII and embark upon a progression from his Ten, and then Six, Articles to the sinisterly idolatrous Elizabeth I (whose title the “Virgin Queen” did she appropriate?) and her Thirty Nine Articles, and we end up in the twenty first century with what we might think is the bathos of those who support the ordination of women for the asinine reason that the Church, particularly a state church (and its associated provinces; and remember the “Church in Wales” is much more a creation of the State than the Church of England ever was) has a duty to keep in step with the views of contemporary society.
But is it bathos? Not really, in many ways this is an even more ominous trend, and real persecution can, and already has, come in its wake. Curiously, the prevailing western philosophy of liberal inclusion, and its theory of the overriding values of justice and rights for all, whether this emanates from “Church” or State, seems equally dismissive of the rights of conscience, particularly if that conscience is religiously driven.

Now is the time we need that independence from the State most urgently if we are to preserve any kind of recognisable faith and be able to hand it on to the generations to come. Like St Thomas (both Becket and More) we know where to go to find that independence and that spiritual freedom. It may not spare us the inconvenience of harassment and persecution, but it does prevent the subversion of the Church's faith from within, and it will give us a solid Rock on which to plant our feet.
St Thomas of Canterbury, St Thomas More, pray for us.

This is an excerpt from Becket’s Sermon in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (Anglo-Catholic patrimony again):

“Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.
Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.”

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