Mercers’ Hall

The Bishop gave an address at Mercers’ Hall on 24 May 2016.

Mercers’ Hall

Very close to this spot in 1120, a child was born to a Norman merchant and his wife, Gilbert and Matilda. It was St Thomas’s day and the child was baptised the same evening at the neighbouring St Mary Colechurch.

Thomas did not himself use the name Becket which was an indication of non-noble status. He was one of us born in Cheapside and often reproached for his relatively humble origins in a caste conscious time. He was first known as Thomas of London, then Thomas the Chancellor, and finally Thomas the Archbishop.

During these days the story of Thomas will be told by a host of authorities on the mediaeval world. No doubt some mention will be made of my predecessor as Bishop of London, Gilbert Foliot who was one of Thomas’s fiercest critics. This morning, however, in hospitable Mercers’ Hall in the presence of the celebrated relic of the saint and our Hungarian friends I thought that I would focus on some significant reverberations of Thomas’s murder as it was rapidly communicated throughout Europe and not least in Hungary.

Last night I had the privilege of greeting Cardinal Erdo and hearing him preach. He had been a generous host to me in Esztergom. My mind went back to the very early 1980’s when I was part of the group who welcomed Cardinal Lekai to Canterbury. Cardinal Lekai we honour and remember as one who had done so much to revive devotion to Thomas both in England and Hungary.

Not only does the memory of Thomas constitute a bond between our two countries, Hungary and England but Cardinal Lekai’s experience of leading a church which was constrained under a regime in which law was regarded as merely the instrument of the all-powerful ruling party pointed to yet another aspect of Thomas’s legacy.

The cultural heritage of Western Europe has been informed by a millennium of debate between elements in society none of which was ever quite able to subordinate the others – the king, the church, the nobility, the merchant elite and the commons. In Thomas’s time there was a particular question about the relation between sacred and secular, between God and Caesar.

The resistance to claims of absolute royal power received huge reinforcement from the truculence of Thomas and the way in which his murder reverberated throughout Europe in the years after 1170.

In 1220 exactly a centenary after Thomas’s birth here birth Archbishop Stephen Langton presided at the ceremony in which the remains of the saint were translated to the magnificent, bejewelled shrine in Canterbury Cathedral. He took the opportunity to detach some relics which were presented to significant allies throughout Europe, not least in Hungary.  

Stephen Langton of course had a short while before played a crucial role in the preparation of Magna Charta. The example of the martyred Thomas together with his studies as a scholar in the University of Paris into the Book of Deuteronomy, inspired Stephen Langton to argue for a written form of law that would set out the rightful activity of kings and restrain their habitual excesses.

Throughout much of the ancient world Caesar was regarded as god and there is always a temptation to hedge political power with some kind of divinity whether conferred from above or from the abstract notion of the “People” from below. Law was sometimes regarded as the expression of the will of the ruler just as in more recent times it has been seen as the servant of the Party or the revolutionary avant garde.

Religion too has often been tempted to turn this position on its head and proclaim God as Caesar. There are contemporary examples in Daesh propaganda as well as the strange mediaeval delusion that if political power were to be confided to clergymen, all would be well. The Judaeo-Christian tradition derived from the Bible and powerfully sanctified by the murder of St Thomas not only sees royal power as limited by law but also potentially opens up a space for secular life in which Caesar is not God and God is not Caesar.

When Jesus was provocatively asked whether it was acceptable to pay taxes to the Roman occupying power, he pointed to Caesar’s head on a coin and said “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”. This has led to a dynamic culture in which there is a perpetual and salutary negotiation about the balance and relationship between the sphere of God and that of political power. An Erastian church which has become a dull echo of the fashionable political consensus just like a church that will have nothing to do with the affairs of the political world are alike incompatible with the words and works of Jesus Christ. Such Christian communities do not serve their times well. But against the totalitarians both religious and political Jesus opens up a space for secular life in which we can all participate and cooperate. It is time to rehabilitate the concept of the secular and to distinguish it from establishment atheism.

I am certainly not claiming that Thomas foresaw all these implications but he has his part in the continuing story of resistance to the subordination of law to the will to the ruling powers whether secular or religious.

Jesus Christ, whose participation in the divine life as one of the persons of the Holy Trinity we celebrate in this season of the church year, taught that the very first step in becoming a human being is to refuse to be a little god. He came in the form of a servant and he was baptised in the river Jordan at the lowest place on earth, 1300 feet below sea level to be precise. One of the things that impressed contemporaries was the discipline that Thomas imposed upon himself after all his years at the top table and the way in which he did not shrink, as a servant of the Christian community, from death in the defence of what he believed.

For any civilisation to flourish; for any city to prosper, we need Kings, Presidents, Judges, Mayors and even Bishops with a servant spirit, who know that far from being entitled to special treatment they are accountable to the Spirit who informs the Common Good and is expressed in the Law which is above us all. Thomas with all his flaws died for this truth and we honour him for it.