THE martyrdom of St Thomas Becket is a reminder that the Church must be ever-prepared to stand up to the State, leaders of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches told a symposium at Lambeth Palace last week.
The gathering was held as part of "Becket week", during which relics of St Thomas have travelled around the country, coming to rest at Canterbury Cathedral at the weekend (News, 27 May).It was attended by Hungarian dignitaries, scholars, and experts.
In a personal reflection, the Archbishop of Canterbury described Becket as a "sign of eternal hope", before reflecting on the challenge facing the Church: to be "visible, flesh and bone, incarnated, and real", without losing sight of the eternal. The Church was called to be "a people of the resurrection, not simply of the incarnate".
Archbishop Welby went on: "Without the resurrection, to use Pope Francis’s words, we can become functionally atheist, when we become too locked into the incarnational ministry; where, although we are deeply committed to neighbour, God is merely a useful excuse for what we do." Becket avoided easy options that would have saved his life, Archbishop Welby suggested, and his death prompted an "immense renewal of the Church across Europe".
The Archbishop did not chide those who questioned Becket’s motives or actions, but argued that the relics primarily called the Church "to renewal of life with Christ and to renewal of love for the poor. . . He was a politician to his fingertips."
This was true even though "sometimes the Church’s motives will be misjudged; sometimes it will not even know its own motives." The state, he warned, "seeks control of all agencies, especially when it feels threatened, and it especially wants control of those who may have a different view, and whose view, which is always true of the Church, may be seen as overriding the state itself."
The RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, also reflected on the relationship between Church and State, which was "never an easy one. It is always a point of tension, a daily struggle in conscience and in public debate."
The martyrdom of Becket was, he said, a reminder of "what can happen when the state seeks to dominate religious belief and reshape it to its own ends, to its own selection of values. . .
"The example of St Thomas stands before us as a reminder to every age that the point may come when there is no longer any space left for religious freedom, such a basic human right, which permits the holding and expressing of religious belief in word and action in the public forum."