Friday 7 July 2023, 11.00am, Northampton Cathedral.

Bishop David shares his homily from the Feast of the Translation of the Relics of Saint Thomas Becket:

There is a question we might all ponder as we celebrate the memory of St Thomas of Canterbury, Patron of Pastoral Clergy in England and Wales, a Patron of the Diocese of Northampton. What does this only surviving son of a draper’s merchant from Cheapside, aspiring courtier, bureaucrat and judge, warrior, one-time chancellor of England, only lately taking matters of faith seriously when he became Archbishop of Canterbury, have to teach us gathered here together in Northampton today?

There is no doubt, Northampton was not a happy place for Thomas Becket. King Henry II had planned things that way. When Thomas rode into town on Wednesday 7th October 1164 his plight was desperate. The great council had gathered at the Castle the day before. This was to be a state trial. Because of the humiliating mix-up, Thomas’ chamber in the castle was occupied and the Archbishop had to seek lodging at the nearby priory of St Andrew. This probably saved his life at that point. What is certain, Thomas saw which way the wind was blowing. An hour before dawn, some few days after arriving here, Thomas Becket fled Northampton. When Henry of Winchester knocked on the priory door to enquire after the archbishop’s health, his chamberlain put things this way, ‘He is doing rather well, since he left late last night in a hurry and no one knows where he has gone.’ King Henry saw things somewhat differently. He barked, Nondum finivimus cum isto, ‘We’ve not finished with this wretched fellow yet.’ And as we know, he certainly hadn’t. The Archbishop of Canterbury returned to England after some time in exile on the Continent. And on Tuesday 29th December 1170, Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights from the court of Henry II.

So what may we learn from this extraordinary man? In many respects, our patron saint is quite a modern character. Beginning his life in modest circumstances, he made the most of opportunities which came his way. He bettered himself and was bettered. But his social advancement was not always a virtuous progress. What would the words of the Gospel, we have just shared together, mean for the first forty-two years of Thomas Becket’s life? Not very much it would seem. Lowly born, he had moved socially well beyond the merchants of Cheapside. But then, he never quite fitted into the elite of the nobility, many of whom despised him. And let’s put things this way, if he lived today, he would make a most interesting subject for psychoanalysis.

Thomas lived in an age when the scholastics taught, grace builds upon nature. But the nature here was complex indeed. Burdened with an awareness of what had not been done well, he found freedom through the grace which was generously offered him by the Lord. Through grace, he was moved from the ranks of those who lord it over others to one who served at the table of the Lord and stood faithfully by his heavenly Master. Things were done differently in those days. Ordained priest on June 2nd 1162, Thomas was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the following day. The grace of office began to work its blessing soon afterwards. There were still signs of the old Thomas, even towards the end. But nature had been transformed. He had triumphed through the blood of the Lamb, before his blood was spilt over the stones of his own cathedral. We may not be called upon to finish things in this fashion. Nevertheless, that same grace also flows to us. And from the same source, the blood of our Saviour on the Cross. So there is no need for discouragement. We too can find healing and saving grace in the Lord’s infinite love for us.

The second lesson we may learn from St Thomas Becket is more challenging. Historians will argue over the conflict between king and archbishop, about who was in the right and who was wrong. We should beware an inappropriate simplification of these things, and hindsight is always a great teacher. What we might reflect upon though, is the relationship of the disciple of Christ and the officers of civil governance in any age. The word martyr means witness. And we too are called to bear witness to the truths of the faith, handed on to us from the apostles. In the midst of his song, the psalmist hints at the shadow side of repose and rest, the realities of the valley of darkness in which we are sometimes called to walk.

We must stand up for what is right. As the apostle Paul witnesses in his own life, the mystery of Christ amongst us may sometimes invite suffering on our part. We must be prepared to deliver God’s message, whether it is acceptable or not. We may come to know what it means to become overwhelmed by the love of Christ rather than our own weaknesses. Aware of his own frailties in this world, our patron saint now intercedes for us when we seek what is needed graciously to build the Kingdom of God in our society. In this regard, it is not our destiny to flee Northampton today. Rather, we must stand firm and strive to build a diocese, ever focused on justice and truth.

St Thomas Becket, Pray for us.