Friday, 27 May 2016



‘I wait for the stroke of death without fear’ said Archbishop St Thomas Becket, that exemplary turbulent priest, refusing to run away from the wrath of King Henry II. And death did come to him when he was slaughtered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1179.

St Thomas’ medieval shrine drew pilgrims from all over England and Europe, until pillaged by another crowned head, the syphilitic wife-murderer, monster and tyrant Henry VIII. He had the Saint’s remains sacrilegiously destroyed or scattered but after 800 years a bit of Becket is back. Lo and behold, a relic, a surviving bone from Thomas’s elbow kept in Hungary will tour major English churches. A quaint, outmoded veneration to make you smile? Not if it reminds Christians of St Thomas’ immense present significance. Verily, a Saint for our time.

Why so? The King demanded that the Archbishop take an oath that he and the clergy would abide by the ‘customs of the kingdom’. Thomas knew that many of those customs were abusive and unjust, so he added to the oath the rider ‘as far as lawful’. Lawful meaning not just the law of the land, the State’s law, but the Law of God.

Becket’s reasoning was logical, Christian and daring. If the secular law, i.e. the ruler’s, conflicts with Divine Law it is a Christian’s sacrosanct duty to disobey it, to challenge it and to oppose it. This is what Christ commands. As St Peter proclaimed long ago in Jerusalem before the Jewish High Priest: ‘We must obey God rather than men’. (Acts 5:29) Hear! Hear!

Cardinal Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England, spoke so well in answer to a somewhat sneering female on BBC radio. Becket’s relic sends out the powerful message that ‘there comes a point when loyalty to Christ becomes an overriding loyalty for Christians…they may have to pay the final price.’ He meant a price paid with your own blood. It is called achieving the crown of martyrdom.

‘Crown’ is the right word. Till the Reformation the crown-shaped part of Canterbury Cathedral which housed the Saint’s body was known as the Crown Chapel. An allusion to a gruesome detail as to how he was murdered. One of the four Norman knights who did the bloody deed was Richard Le Breton. With a mighty stroke of his big sword he sliced off the top of the Archbishop’s head. So violent was the blow that the knight broke his sword against the pavement, striking sparks as he did.

T.S. Eliot’s fine play about Becket’s death, Murder in the Cathedral, was written in the 1930’s, when communism and fascism were alive and kicking. Was Eliot gunning for dictators? That would date him. Today it is democratic regimes and squalid politicos that hold unrivalled sway over Europe. Secularism – the peculiar lie that God does not matter in the life and mores of the polis, the national community – is the dominant, arrogant hegemony. Secularism tolerates no rivals. It seeks to bully, even criminalise people of faith when they follow their conscience and stand up to the State. Secularism relegates religion to the ghetto of the inner, the private, the merely personal. But you can’t have a private God, an exclusively private religion – anymore that you can have, as Wittgenstein conclusively showed, a private language…

Becket was a man of tremendous holiness, asceticism and character. Virtues that enabled him to resist the will of a bossy, fiery monarch like Henry II. In fact, there is a tradition that the Saint’s mother was a Syrian Arab. A Saracen princess, daughter of an Emir, who had fallen in love with Becket’s father when a pilgrim in the Holy Land. She had followed him to England and embraced her husband’s faith. As an incurable romantic, the priest fancies that the ancient, noble Arab blood running through Thomas’ veins might have fortified his resistance to the obnoxious, secular powers that be.

Like the early Christian martyrs, Becket did not oppose armed resistance to his killers. That is Christ’s example. Besides, as a priest it would have been unbecoming for him to shed human blood, even if self-defence, because a priest is ordained to the ministry of the altar which sacramentally re-enacts Christ’s own sacrifice. However, that rule would not apply to a layman.

Instances come from the 1925 Mexican Cristero War. The fanatical, anti-clerical masonic President Calles sought to suppress Mexican Christianity. Public worship became illegal. Even using phrases like ‘God willing’ was made a criminal offence. Then the faithful formed themselves in Cristeros – Soldiers of Christ. They felt they had no choice. The Cristeros took up arms to defend themselves and their religion. Many were killed, martyred but they fell fighting. Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, alludes to that impressive struggle.

British Christians are not like hot-blooded Mexicans. Cannot see them rising up in rebellion against the ungodly ensconced at Westminster and Downing Street. Unless the Becket’s holy relic works the most impossible miracle…But of course Archbishop Nichols is right. The bit of the Saint’s elbow bone will perform a miracle if it reminds faithful people of that timeless verity: the will of God must be accomplished – whatever the cost. Even martyrdom.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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