Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 19th February 2012

19 February 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

'Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?'

The journalist Benedict Brogan, writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper last June under the title ‘David Cameron and the troublesome priest’, said:

Battle stations in No 10 [Downing Street] this morning. How does Team Dave respond to the fire and brimstone raining down on them from Lambeth Palace? Dr Rowan Williams is too often wrongly portrayed as a harmless bearded intellectual who wouldn't say boo to a goose, but beneath the wild eyebrows is a fierce mind driven by a passion for justice and truth.

What had happened? Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the guest editor of a serious political magazine, the New Statesman, had just penned a forthright critique of the Government’s programme of social reform and financial cuts. ‘The public’, according to the Archbishop, ‘is gripped with "fear" at the thought of the Government's cornerstone reforms of education, health and welfare "for which no one voted", and [he] dismissed the Big Society as "painfully stale" …"The Government needs to know how afraid people are"’.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this was a full-blown constitutional crisis marking a low-point in Church-State relations. But the reality is quite different, and it begins here in the Abbey on an autumnal Sunday morning many years ago.

During February, I have been preaching about ‘Saints and their Churches’, I have spoken about St Clement of Rome and St Macarius in the Egyptian Desert. For each I am thinking not only about what they were in the their own lifetime, but reflecting on the lessons we might learn from them today.

You see, on that Sunday morning in October 1163, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, and the King of England, Henry II (or more accurately: ‘King of England, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Nantes and Lord of Ireland!) were stood side-by-side just here in front of the High Altar at a ceremony to create a shrine for the newly–canonised St Edward the Confessor. Little did they realise that in less than ten years, the Archbishop would himself be made a Saint, having apparently been murdered on the orders of the King.

But let’s rewind the tape and see how we arrived at this extraordinary situation.

The Archbishop began life as plain Thomas Becket, the son of Gilbert and Matilda, a petty noble family who had Norman ancestry in their blood. Gilbert had a family connection with Thierville in Normandy, the home-town of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec, and through this secured a place in Theobald’s household for the young Thomas when times were hard.

Thomas proved to be a trustworthy administrator and loyal servant: not only was he sent on diplomatic missions, but Theobald even recommended Thomas to be the Lord Chancellor under King Henry. Thomas Becket turned out to have a flair for tax collection, extracting revenues from all and sundry: just the sort of Chancellor a king appreciates.

Within months of Theobald’s death, Thomas was himself nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was not yet in priest’s orders, so he was ordained priest one day and consecrated bishop the next!

But then something of a transformation occurred. King Henry thought he was installing his own right-hand man. Thomas underwent nothing short of a conversion, and as we say in England, the poacher turned game-keeper. As Henry began to assert his royal rights, including the jurisdiction of the secular courts over the clergy, Thomas dug his heels in.

And when they met here in Westminster Abbey on that Sunday morning, 13th October 1163, what was played out on the surface masked a deep rift between them. There is little doubt that as Henry himself shouldered the casket containing the bones of Saint Edward the Confessor, who had been King of England a century before, Henry as King was establishing his royal claim to spiritual authority: the King was putting the Archbishop well and truly in his place.

In the years that followed, the rift deepened. Thomas was accused of contempt of royal authority and spent years in exile, until finally Pope Alexander intervened to reconcile the parties.

In May 1170, Thomas’s fellow bishops of York, London and Salisbury crowned Henry’s son as King-in-Waiting – an outrageous breach of Becket’s right and pre-eminence as Archbishop of Canterbury. So, as an act of compromise, Thomas agreed to return to England and carry out a second Coronation.

But on his arrival Becket excommunicated not only these three bishops, but moved on to deal with his other enemies within the Church. King Henry was outraged, hence the fateful words borne of exasperation: 'Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?'

Whatever the rhetoric of this question, the answer was given by four knights who rode to Canterbury and confronted Thomas à Becket in the Cathedral itself. When he refused to accompany them to give an account of his actions to the King, they struck him down and murdered him in cold blood.

But in less than two years, Becket was himself canonised and Canterbury Cathedral became an international centre of pilgrimage: King Henry, in his remorse, made his pilgrimage there in a public act of penance.

So the tradition of ‘troublesome priests’ is one of which the Church in England should be rightly proud. Undoubtedly, this was irksome, inconvenient, unexpected for Henry II, but the relationship between the two brought into sharp focus the disputes which are very real on the boundaries of the spiritual and political spheres.

It is a tradition which persists to this day. Within recent weeks, the United Kingdom has experienced a whole range of controversies which hinge around the delineation of these boundaries. Whether it is the Prime Minister’s speech in Oxford re-asserting that this is a Christian country, or the recent action of bishops in the House of Lords voting down the Coalition’s Welfare Reform Bill.

On Friday of this week, Trevor Phillips – the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission – argued that for religious bodies to have an influence over secular law was tantamount to introducing ‘Sharia’ law into the United Kingdom. Religious authority, he said, should be left a ‘the temple door’.

By contrast, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has issued a Parliamentary order over-turning last week’s High Court ruling against the saying of prayers at the start of Local Council meetings.

What each of these examples show is that the tradition of confrontation, seen in Saint Thomas à Becket, is far from dead. It is, and must be, a continuing part of our political and social landscape. Not that the Church has special or privileged access to moral truth, but religious leaders do have a role in speaking truth to authority. This may be deeply uncomfortable. It may be deeply divisive within both the Church and the society we are serving. But at a profound level, it is also in the nature of our Christian calling whether we are a troublesome priest or a simple disciple of Christ.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure