St. Thomas à Becket — the power of his elbow

Nearly 850 years after he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, St. Thomas à Becket was back over the weekend — at least, a bit of his elbow was — after a week’s tour that raised some oddly topical ghosts and uncomfortable questions.

Hundreds came to services to see a translucent fragment that belongs to one of the earliest martyrs to religious freedom. The then-Archbishop of Canterbury was slain at his altar in 1170 by Henry II’s knights, to whom the king had uttered the fateful words: “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

So far, so twenty-first century. The parallels with Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, gunned down at the altar after a right-wing paramilitary leader issued a similar invitation to his gunslingers in 1980, are obvious.

Less obvious are the parallels with the Church and the modern British state, which are often at odds over marriage, education and the treatment of foreigners.

“St Thomas’ martyrdom reminds us what can happen when the state seeks to dominate religious belief and reshape it to its own ends, to its own selection of values,” warned the (Catholic) Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, at a symposium at the London headquarters of the (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace.

“When observance of those particular values becomes absolute requirements,” he warned, “then we are on a path of confrontation.”

The cardinal raised the ghost of that other English period of Church-state friction by citing another martyr called Thomas, who also died at the hand of a king called Henry.

After the third swordblow to his head, Thomas à Becket apparently said: “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.”

St Thomas More — who, like Becket, had once been close to the king, but who could not endorse Henry VIII’s state takeover of the Church — famously said before his execution in 1535 that he died “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Continue reading


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