By Leander Harding

Today the Church remembers Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, violently murdered in his own cathedral in the late afternoon of December 29, 1170. Thomas was of Norman ancestry and was educated in France. He came to the notice of Archbishop Theobald, who sent him to Italy to study law, ordained him a deacon, and made Thomas the Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. In 1155 King Henry II made him Lord Chancellor. The king and the chancellor were pals, and Becket helped the king assert the royal privilege over the Church by putting his finger on the legal scales in favor of the crown. When Henry engineered Becket’s election as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, Henry thought he was putting his royal fox in to guard the Church’s chicken coop.

After his election to Canterbury, Thomas became a changed man. The king’s former drinking and hunting buddy adopted an austere clerical life and developed a reputation for liberality with the poor. He also became as fierce an advocate of the Church’s prerogatives as he was of the king’s when he was solely the king’s man. Conflict was inevitable, and it came with a dispute about the jurisdiction of the royal and ecclesiastical courts.

A cleric could only be tried in Church courts that could not pronounce a sentence of death. The king wanted clerics to be liable to trial in the regular courts. Thomas repudiated the change in the law and threatened to discipline any cleric who accepted it. The archbishop fled to France to escape the king’s wrath. Eventually a settlement between Henry, Thomas, and the pope was negotiated. Thomas returned to England on November 30 and was welcomed as a popular hero by the people.


Once back in office, Thomas refused to absolve the bishops who had supported the king unless they swore obedience to the pope. This sent the king into a fit of rage during which he uttered the words, “Have I no friend who will rid me of this upstart priest?” Four of his knights overheard and promptly traveled to Canterbury to confront the archbishop. Unable to persuade Becket to relent, they murdered him in front of the high altar on the evening of December 29, 1170. Traditional images of the event show one knight digging his sword into the exposed brain of the saint.

The outrage about the murder was so great that Henry had to repent publicly and had himself whipped in front of the shrine. The tomb of Thomas à Becket became one of the great pilgrimage sites in all of Europe and was a place of miracles and healing. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales records the story of a band of pilgrims to the shrine. Thomas à Becket was canonized by Alexander III in 1174.

In 1964 the movie Becket starred Peter O’Toole as Henry and Richard Burton as Thomas. The movie depicted the king and his chancellor as two high-living and hard-playing rascals who loved drinking, hunting, fighting, and women. They top off a night of debauchery with some cold calculation about how to next feather the royal nest at the expense of the Church. Then Henry comes up with the plan to put his own man in Canterbury.

The scene may or may not be historically accurate, but it is wonderfully done by both actors. O’Toole as the king is ebullient and nearly carried away with the brilliance of his plan. Burton as Becket plays the contrast of masterfully switching from intoxicated mirth to dead seriousness in an instant.

“I beg you not to do this thing,” says Burton as Becket.

Burton conveys with great economy the sense of a man who suddenly realizes that the fun has become a mortal danger. From beneath the surface of the playboy there emerges a man who knows enough not to take the things of God lightly. I cannot call to mind a scene in any other popular film that so powerfully portrays a person taking the sacredness of holy things seriously. Thomas knows that if he takes up the role there can be no more playacting. If there is no more playacting, then a deadly confrontation with the crown is inevitable.

It is one of the conceits of modernity that integrity and authenticity are by their nature constrained and constricted by social roles. When I was teaching at a seminary, one of the questions that students asked with angst was whether one could be one’s self in the priesthood. The answer is of course No. If you say Yes to this role you will have to say Yes to being conformed to it and constrained by it. You will, if you are not to do an evil, act and be in ways appropriate to being God’s servant as a priest in the Church. This will be a blessing. It will not be the end of you but the beginning of you. The sadness and wickedness of not surrendering to the demands of the role are now much in the news.

What is true of holy orders is true of all us if we say Yesto the role that Jesus is calling us into as members of his body the Church. You will, if you are not to do an evil, from henceforth be and act as appropriate for a member of the body of Christ, with the ministry of husband or wife or mother or father or butcher, or baker or candlestick maker, or anyone in the universe of Christian vocations to which the Lord calls his people. In and through Christ you are called to fulfill a role, and the role is not the enemy of authentic selfhood but its condition.

In the intensity of the call to holy orders the awesomeness and dreadfulness of God’s call on each and every one of us is brought to light. In Becket, Burton masterfully plays a man who has suddenly recognized that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. He can spot at once that it means death and the end of things as he knows them. He does not yet have the faith to know that “your life is hid with God in Christ” (Col. 3:3).

What makes Thomas à Becket a saint is not his loyalty to the prerogatives of ecclesiastical law over secular law. What makes him a saint is that he found the life that God had hidden for him in the role to which he was called and to which he reluctantly answered. Having thus found himself in Christ, he would not let go even at the price of his life.

Dear God, give us the eye of this saint to see what is at stake in your call upon our life and then like him to play our part until we know it by heart. Amen.

About The Author

The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, is entering his fourth decade as a priest of the Episcopal Church.

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