St Thomas Becket on Dialogue between Faith and the State

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Given at the Symposium on St Thomas Becket at Lambeth Palace on 27 May 2016. 

This morning we have heard so much that flows from the dramatic moment in 1170 when, in the phrase of Christopher Howse, four knights who came to do great harm to Thomas actually made him a saint. 

What does this mean for us today? 

Saints, like Cardinals, are rapidly given extra responsibilities. Thomas' tasks include being the patron saint of the English, and Hungarian, parochial clergy and of English Brewers. Quite a combination! 

His patronage of the brewers has doubtful historical pedigree and is tied up with the unappealing and surely unhealthy practice of using the water from the duck pond in the process of brewing. 

His patronage of the clergy is more easily appreciated, an appreciation surely comes from the moment of his life when, after great struggle, he accepted nomination and consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury and, to the shock of the King, embraced it with a radical seriousness. 

He reminds us all, then, and especially us clergy, that the dedication we make, certainly at ordination, is that of turning our backs on alternative ways of life, ways which focus on possessions, on style, on fashion, on calculations based on power, ownership and popularity. Our focus now is to be only on fidelity to Christ as the measure and motivation of our words and actions. 

This alone is reason enough to welcome the visit of the Esztergom relic of Thomas Becket. Its presence serves as a reminder of our calling, one we constantly need, and which, with prayer and effort, can help us to renew the essential dedication in our lives. This, of course, is of immediate relevance not only to the clergy but to every disciple of Jesus, for Thomas’ decision, and the life and death which followed, shows us the true  'cost of discipleship', a cost never to be resented but always to be embraced. 

I think immediately of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his great work of that title. I think of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the intensity of dedication that his call to the office of Archbishop effected in his life. There are so many dedicated men and women, in ministries of different kinds, in faithful Christian living, all of whom embody the words of St Paul: I have come to consider all these advantages that I had as disadvantages. Not only that, but I believe nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him’ (Phil 3.7-8). 

For Thomas it was martyrdom that lay at the heart of his sainthood. 

Martyrdom is a much used word. But we should be clear: no Christian ever seeks martyrdom. The Christian's purpose is the faithful following of the Master in works of truth and love. Martyrdom is not sought. For the Christian it is always a death imposed by others. Yet the same Christian never shirks death, if that is what is required. We both love life and embrace death, when it comes, however it comes. 

I think we know that the twentieth century is probably the century of the greatest flowering of Christian martyrs: across Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, in communist regimes in Latin America and other places too. Now the twenty-first century is following a similar pattern in other parts of the world: the Middle East, parts of Africa, Pakistan. This moment of prominence for St Thomas Becket helps us to remember and focus on this fruitfulness of courage and faith which is always the seed of the Church. 

For some, Thomas died a traitor, betraying the loyalty they believe he owed to the King. For others he died a martyr, put to death for his defence of the things of the Lord, in this case the honour and rights of the Church. 

We know that this relationship between the role and powers of the state on the one hand, and the role and commitment of the Church on the other, is never an easy one. It is always a point of tension, a daily struggle in conscience and in public debate. But 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. When observance of those particular values becomes absolute requirement then we are on a path of confrontation. The example of Thomas Becket stands before us as a reminder to every age that the point may come where there is no longer any space left for that religious freedom, such a basic human right, which permits the holding and expressing of religious belief in word and action in the public forum. 

The tensions that can lead to that point were well delineated in the speech given by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 when he spoke in Westminster Hall. He said: 

‘Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authorities can moral dilemmas be resolved. These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.’ 

Pope Benedict went on to argue that ethical norms are accessible to right reason, and that religious faith, rather than see itself supplying those norms, can illuminate and deepen the perception and appreciation of them. He proposed a ‘corrective role’ for faith in the application of reason noting, and I quote, ‘that this corrective role is not always welcomed partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion.’ 

Pope Benedict called modern democracies, including our own, to engage in constructive dialogue which brings together faith and reason, affirming that ‘religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to national conversation.’ 

These words are surely more relevant to our situation today than they were when spoken in 2010.  As we try to fashion safeguards against the threats we face it is crucial that this dialogue between secular authorities and communities of faith is strengthened and deepened. Solutions will be found only when working together, from a presumption of trust and within our traditions of mutual respect. Thankfully this is the strong tradition of our land. The challenge we now face is that of broadening the embrace of this dialogue without losing the specific Judeo-Christian sources of our strength and inspiration, sources which indeed need to be nurtured and not marginalised. Today we must be confident in this task. Multiple and complex identities and loyalties have to be brought together, not separated out, if we are to meet the challenges we face. 

At the same time, St Thomas reminds us to be on our toes, to know the line to hold in order to defend those arenas of life in which true religion flourishes, open to the challenges of its day yet confident that its insights and gifts are so rooted in human reality as to possess qualities that truly endure. The narrowing of a perspective towards a single test of loyalty will serve only to betray the complexity of our human nature and impoverish the richness of the fabric of our society. 

Such moments, tragically, do occur. I have only to think of another Thomas, four hundred years after Becket, whose dilemma and heroism echoes that of the earlier Thomas. Thomas More was also asked to show where his fundamental loyalty lay and he too, lacking support from his fellow clergy, stood alone, an uncompromising figure, yet never seeking conflict or confrontation. What was well summed up of him, in words beautifully attributed to him, can also be applied to Thomas Becket. ‘I am indeed the King's good servant, but God's first.’ 

Thomas is our patron and was a stalwart champion of Christ: may we too be inspired today by this Saint whose memory we venerate and whose intercession we seek. 

Thank you.