3rd October 2016
Patronal Festival Eucharist by The Bishop of Portsmouth
“Had Becket concurred with the King’s wishes, we should have had an almost ideal State: a union of spiritual and temporal administration.”
TS Eliot’s words in the mouth of Hugh de Morville, the Second Knight in Murder in the Cathedral excellently and so appropriately performed here last night, emphasises the thrust of many of the questions asked of me and the other panellists at Friday’s 6th Form Question Time in the Nave. The church is often accused of answering questions no one is asking. We attempted to answer some tough questions posed by the students.
The most relevant for us today, celebrating the patronal festival and honouring Becket, was How much say do religious bodies really have in politics and should it be any different?
T.S. Eliot’s great play, the only play in which I’ve ever performed on a public stage if you exclude the drama of the Eucharist, is set during the last month of Becket’s life. He’s been made Archbishop of Canterbury by the King because he was his closet advisor, confidante and loyal Chancellor, being ordained priest and bishop on consecutive days. It was, we might say, a bit unseemly and irregular and didn’t work out as planned. Thomas did not do as his king anticipated, refused to be his puppet and defended his clergy, people and church, the faith and his Lord. He did not, as the knight points out in the text I’ve quoted, allow the church to become an arm of the state.
At the end of the play the four knights who murdered the archbishop step forward, directly address the audience, and not only defend their actions but assert that we the people concur with them and the king rather than Becket. The murder was justified, they explain, and amounted to suicide while of unsound mind, for the best because Becket had failed to bring the church’s authority and power into line with the interests of the king and the state. “Had Becket concurred with the King’s wishes, we should have had an almost ideal State: a union of spiritual and temporal administration.”
Do we agree with the knights? How do we respond to the students’ question about the role of the church in society? Across the Middle East terrible things are being done in the name of Islam by those who believe that the way to bring in God’s kingdom is through violence and armed struggle. Becket himself faced this question about involvement, motives and actions, the challenge of willing and serving the best outcome for the right reason and by the right means. He brought the same gifts, clarity and determination to his leadership of the church as he had to his leadership in national politics. He was not a retiring accommodating cleric. He was clear he could not look aside and ignore the challenge.
And it was in the cathedral that he wrestled with the dilemmas facing him. How interesting that he retreated to it but he did so not to escape but to address the deepest challenges, as Elijah went into the cave to discern the way forward before he returns to further immersion in the rough and tumble of politics as he anoints new kings for Aram (Syria) and Israel. Becket, of course, never left the cathedral but he ordered that the doors be open and the world of dispute, violence and politics came, as we commemorate today, right to the altar.
Our mission here in the name of Jesus is inspired by our accidental archbishop and saint, Thomas Becket. We come to hear sublime music and to step back from the daily dilemmas of our individual and corporate life, to retreat from the complexities out there. But we do so because we want to lead a life that has significance and makes a difference. Becket had the same motivation which made him prey not just to the three temptations which parallel those of Jesus in the wilderness of physical safety, riches and fame, and an unholy political alliance but another. He is tempted to seek glory through martyrdom, as the fourth tempter invites him to bask in the luxury of heaven as he looks down and sees his enemies in the torment of hell and the adoration and worship of countless pilgrims at his shrine.
Becket responds to the immorality of that motivation:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
The natural human inclination to want to find significance, to earn glory or at least a role for ourselves may go some way to explain the allure of militant Islam and the attraction of a fast track to heaven with its delights. While we reject that, we seek here to be renewed and refreshed for more than the wishy-washy Christianity of which others accuse us, a pallid complacency of faith and a desire to lead a simple 9 to 5 life until a peaceful and long retirement. Here, like Becket in his cathedral and Elijah in the cave, we come to seek courage and the strengthening of the Holy Spirit for the hard work of being disciples in what we say and do. We are challenged by Becket as I was by those 6th formers to consider what we have to say, what it’s worth, and what commitment you bring to your life as a disciple of Jesus as the doors are opened and you go out.
Thomas Becket is at the heart of the life of this cathedral and our diocese. We are the most relational, earthed and human of dioceses where we can know each other as we are and honour the God who works through us in our fallibility as well as our gifts. Giving thanks for the beauty and wonder of this cathedral and its worship this morning, we come to be renewed and inspired to go out into the messiness of our world bearing the light of Jesus into the darkness of conflict, his warmth into the pains and sorrows of our society, his courage into politics and debate. If we truly honour Becket we cannot be risk averse in offering ourselves for the transformation of relationships, society and world. Here we seek to lay aside personal ambition, to clarify our motives, and to find the way of Christ – to be like Becket, like Jesus.