Judging by the queues and packed rooms of the Thomas Becket exhibition at the British Museum, the story of the tension between Church and State continues to hold fascination. Archbishops of Canterbury tend to come and go without too much fuss, and seldom leave anything approaching the legacy of Becket. The impact of this Archbishop’s murder catapulted Canterbury into the top flight of European destinations for Medieval pilgrims. The elaborate shrine that housed the remains of the Saint drew visitors from far and wide. It is the cause of the journey that features the many characters of The Canterbury Tales, drawing into one text figures from a range of classes.
The exhibition is in its final week and appears to have been very popular. The alabaster reliefs, elaborate reliquaries, and fine stained glass portray the channeling of wealth in honour of a saint whose significance across the continent lasted until the 16th century. At the same time, as Chaucer’s fiction depicts, the motives of pilgrims varied considerable. The corruption of spiritual practices through avarice is evident in The Canterbury Tales. Nevertheless, the portrayal of corruption demonstrates a common agreement about the the kind of life clergy should lead and the way in which the Church should carry out its vocation. The ‘poor parson’ is a priest unswayed by wealth or the social standing of the parishioners. We are told that ‘first he wrought, and afterwards he taught’.
For if a priest be foul in whom we trust
No wonder that a common man should rust;
And shame it is to see – let priests take stock –
A shitten shepherd and a snowy flock.
The most notable work of literature in the 20th century which focused on the life of Becket was penned by TS Eliot. Many years ago I was a member of the the cast for an eleven performance run of the play in a parish church. At the interval one evening I overheard someone telling their friend that they had come thinking Murder in the Cathedral was a whodunit – but they kindly stayed for the second half. Of course, at one level, any consideration of the events of 1170 involves reflection on who was truly responsible for the deed.
Both Chaucer and Eliot explore the concept of the decisions and choices made by Christian leaders. Whether in a parish or at a cathedral, the doing and saying must be closely aligned. Eliot’s rendering of Becket shows the power of temptation to deflect the pilgrim from their path – to choose an accommodation with sin rather than try to confront and resolve our true calling. Like Jesus in Gethsemane, Becket is in the path of inexorable events. There is a moment for possible escape, and in both cases soul-searching arrives at a point of spiritual peace and steadfastness.
In all the various discussions about the future of the Church of England I hope that somewhere this same kind of spiritual examination is underway. I fear it isn’t. There is understandable angst among the hierarchy that the trajectory of attendance figures and finances will ultimately undo the C of E. As this likelihood marches towards us, it seems that our concerns are narrowing to focus on how best to escape this apparent failure. I think the lesson of Becket gives us a different model for how to confront our demise.
The Church is renewed all the time by the food it offers to Christians seeking to discern the best way forward. Patterns of Bible readings ensure that we are guided by the wide sweep of religious experience and thought, not becalmed by the vagaries of a particular day. For anyone reading this who hasn’t discovered it, the Church of England Daily Prayer app is an excellent resource, now with an audio option. Reading the Hebrew Scriptures at morning prayer this week has reminded me of the pith and power of wisdom. Here is thought distilled through faith and experience – the kind of guidance the Church needs today more than ever. Rather than haste and urgency a greater stillness and listening to God is required. As the parish priest David Ford argues in last week’s Church Times, the excitement of those bent on evangelising their way out of decline appears not to register the faithful, quiet and fruitful witness of many parishioners.
“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever else you get, get insight.
Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honour you if you embrace her.
She will place on your head a fair garland;
she will bestow on you a beautiful crown”.Proverbs 3: 7-9
There is much in Scripture about not making a show of faith or kindness. Jesus is clear that performing self-righteous prayers in public, and brandishing conspicuous generosity, are to be avoided by his followers. He knows from his harrowing in the wilderness that there are temptations in religion which can give even the holiest human a moment’s hesitation. Lesser mortals need to live with clerical identity and its claims with as much humility as possible. When have a divine conviction that our course of action is the right one, or the only one, we risk falling prey to a sin that is both subtle and persuasive.
Chaucer’s poor parson or Eliot’s saintly Archbishop both demonstrate considerable wisdom. Perhaps having the insight to risk perishing while doing the right thing is not the least faithful route available to the Church. Who knows what good may grow out of the seeds of diligent pastoral care, or the hearts that will be turned to God by the witness of an Archbishop who resisted the greatest temptation of all: ‘to do the right thing for the wrong reason’.
- Blog title image by Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK – York Minster Window n9 1b, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71373927