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Becket’s 20th-century successor Welby sees parallels with the past

14 December 2020

Eve Milner

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, prays in front of a relic of St Thomas Becket during a service in Southwark Cathedral on Friday

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, prays in front of a relic of St Thomas Becket during a service in Southwark Cathedral on Fri...

THE desire to “take back control” dates from the 16th-century reign of Henry VIII, who believed that one law gave the monarch complete control over the Church and courts, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

Archbishop Welby was preaching at a special evensong at Southwark Cathedral on Friday, to mark 850 years since the final sermon of his predecessor St Thomas Becket was delivered on the same spot, then the Priory of St Mary Overie. St Thomas was murdered shortly afterwards in Canterbury Cathedral in the 12th century by four knights of King Henry II, apparently on orders of the monarch.

“The event united Western Christendom in horror,” Archbishop Welby said. “Henry may never have given a direct order for Becket’s death, but he acknowledged his own guilt.” The King embarked on a long and abject pilgrimage through Canterbury to atone for the murder.

Archbishop Welby went on: “Most of Henry’s successors struggled with how to remember Becket. Henry VIII solved the problem in his own fairly typical way by destroying the shrine entirely. . . The clash was over benefit of clergy, and whether they were subject to the secular courts or only to the church courts.

“From the view of the Pope and of the senior clergy at the time, God was above kings, thus the Church above secular law. Henry, though, was ahead of his time. He believed in one law for all, provided it was the King’s law. Since he had struggled with the barons, and bishops were in those days very baronial, he could not see why they should be exempt.

“Essentially, he wanted to take back control: it is not a new feeling.”

“Take back control” was a slogan of the Leave campaign during the EU referendum. The Prime Minister is currently in extended talks with the EU to secure a trade deal, which reports suggest is unlikely before the New Year, if at all (News, 11 December).

The Archbishop said of the murder: “In the 21st century, we instinctively see this event in terms of power, not principle, sovereignty of Church or State, not God and the emperor. We recognise now the complexity of motivation, the danger of power; the psychology that leads to its abuse.”

The belief that individuals and institutions can be above the law is an abuse of power in the same way as clericalism has proved to be in the Church of England, he went on, whereby clerics place the reputation of the institution above the rights of the victims of abuse (News, 9 October).

“The frail humanity of the Church results in terrible things happening when those who profess to follow Christ think themselves above the law. Evil itself is invited when they hold and abuse spiritual authority, and shelter sin and crime.

“Yet the scriptures, our church history, our theology, teach us that divine truth is, indeed, above political power — and is incorruptible. God is no democrat, nor does God overlook sin. What is wrong is wrong, and, at times, that necessitates confrontation with the courage of Becket — albeit not his cause.”

The Church must show the same courage and speak up, Archbishop Welby said. “When children go hungry in 21st-century Britain, we must speak — because God says so in scripture. . . When aid to the world’s poorest is cut, we must speak — because Christ commands a bias to the poor, not the trickle-down theory of economics [News, 25 November]. . .

“When the refugee or the immigrant are vilified; when a Muslim woman cannot go on public transport without insult, or a Christian cannot read a Bible without persecution; when a man has his neck knelt on till he suffocates [News, 5 June]; when a pastor is arrested for speaking of Christ — the Church of that and every country must say this is wrong, whatever the democratic vote or popular thinking or government collusion.”

The Archbishop concluded: “Becket’s cause is not our own. We do know better than him in some areas. But, too often, his courage is not our own either. . . Simplicity, humility, and boldness must be our virtues as a Church.”

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, officiated at the service. A relic of St Thomas, which is kept at St George’s RC Cathedral, Southwark, was processed into the cathedral. The Dean, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, said: “This was the very last place where Becket preached. We wanted to mark this part of the story with a special service.”

Other events to mark the anniversary had to be cancelled owing to the pandemic.

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