December 29: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1170

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

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About this commemoration

The life and death of Thomas Becket have intrigued scholars and church people for centuries. Was he a politician or a saint? or perhaps both?

He was born in London in 1118 of a wealthy Norman family and educated in England and in France. He then became an administrator for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. Later he was sent to study law in Italy and France and, after being ordained deacon, he was appointed Archdeacon of Canterbury. His administrative skills eventually brought him to the notice of King Henry II, who to Thomas’s surprise, appointed him Chancellor of England. He and the King became intimate friends, and because of Becket’s unquestioning loyalty and support of the King’s interests in both Church and State, Henry secured Thomas’s election as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Becket, foreseeing a break with his Royal Master, was reluctant to accept. As Archbishop he changed, as he tells us, “from a patron of play actors and a follower of hounds, to being a shepherd of souls.”

He also defended the interests of the Church against those of his former friend and patron, the King. The struggle between the two became so bitter that Thomas sought exile at an abbey in France. When he returned to England six years later, the fragile reconciliation between Henry and the Archbishop broke down. In a fit of rage the King is alleged to have asked his courtiers, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four barons, taking Henry’s words as an order, made their way to Canterbury, and upon finding the Archbishop in the cathedral, struck him down with their swords. Later, when the monks of Canterbury undressed Thomas’s body to wash it and prepare it for burial, they discovered that under his episcopal robes their worldly and determined Archbishop was wearing a hair shirt. While such a garment hardly proves that a person is a saint, it clearly indicates that Thomas was motivated in the exercise of his office by far more than political considerations. His final words to the four barons before receiving the fatal blow were, “Willingly I die for the name of Jesus and in the defense of the Church.”

Collects

I O God, our strength and our salvation, who didst call thy servant Thomas Becket to be a shepherd of thy people and a defender of thy Church: Keep thy household from all evil and raise up among us faithful pastors and leaders who are wise in the ways of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ the shepherd of our souls, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II O God, our strength and our salvation, you called your servant Thomas Becket to be a shepherd of your people and a defender of your Church: Keep your household from all evil and raise up among us faithful pastors and leaders who are wise in the ways of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ the shepherd of our souls, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lessons

2 Esdras 2:42–48

1 John 2:3–6,15–17

Mark 11:24–33

Psalm

125

Preface of a Saint (3)

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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15 Responses to December 29: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1170

  1. Michael Hartney says:

    Readings. The new New Testament and Gospel readings seem to be good choices

    Bio. His bio lacks the information that he died on December 29, 1170, in Canterbury Cathedral (which seems a significant omission). A clear ‘who he is’ and ‘why he is important’ statement would be helpful, too.

  2. Celinda Scott says:

    Just curious about when he was added to LFF. He’s not in the 1980 edition, but he is in the 1997 and 2006 ones (I don’t have the others).

    • Michael Hartney says:

      The good Archbishop was denied Trial Use by General Convention in 1985 (Resolutions regarding liturgy originate in the House of Bishops. It was rejected in the House of Bishops.) D-110
      General Convention requested consideration for Trial Use in 1991. A-120
      General Convention authorized Trial Use in 1994. A-079
      General Convention approved for inclusion in LFF in 1997. A-080

  3. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    Would a brief reference to T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” be appropriate? We have staged this in our church – very moving.

  4. Nigel Renton says:

    I suggest the subtitle read: “Archbishop and Martyr”.That he was Archbishop of Canterbury is stated in the text.

    Line 11, second paragraph: I suggest lower case initial letters for “royal master”.

  5. Celinda Scott says:

    Grisly, realistic detail about his hair shirt: I read somewhere months ago that the nuns who washed his body said the hair shirt was full of fleas, etc. In other words, scratchiness wasn’t the only unpleasant thing one was likely to experience with that particular discipline. –Does anyone know why the HOB rejected Becket’s addition to the calendar in 1985, apparently ignoring the issue in 1988, and then taking it up again in 1991? Thanks, Fr. Hartney, for those dates. Was it Becket in particular who was rejected by the HOB in 1985, or additions to the calendar in general?

    • John LaVoe says:

      You asked, “Does anyone know why the HOB rejected Becket’s addition …?”
      I don’t. (They didn’t want the hair shirt thing to catch on at a convention that was ready to vote?)

    • Michael Hartney says:

      D-110 rejected by the House of Bishops in 1985 dealt solely with adding Becket. The text was:

      Whereas, Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, died defending the faith and the autonomy of the Church and the Episcopate against insurmountable odds; and

      Whereas, in the modern Church throughout the world, bishops are under severe attack in their defense of the Church and its protection of powerless people; and

      Whereas, there are many Proper Books of the Anglican Communion which include Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury; and

      Whereas, there are Episcopal Churches in the United States bearing his name; therefore be it

      Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That this 68th General Convention of the Episcopal Church instruct the Prayer Book and Liturgy Committee to include the name of St. Thomas a Becket of Canterbury in the list of additional names to be added to the Prayer Book Calendar.

      Proposed Committee Substitute:

      Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 68th General Convention request the Standing Liturgical Commission to consider adding Thomas a Becket to the Calendar and report their decision to the 69th General Convention.

  6. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    With or wothout hair shirt, most people in the Middle Ages lived with fleas – one reason for the speed and thoroughness of the spread of the Black Death. Read Connie Willis’ execellent novel “Doomsday Book.” [ Maybe Domesday? Don’t have my copy with me]. Time travellers to the medieval past are offered the option of having their noses cauterized for the trip, and are given multiple vaccines.

  7. Celinda Scott says:

    Perhaps the hair shirt had more fleas and lice than contemporaries were used to (even though they were a dally fact of life), since so many of Becket’s contemporaries commented on them (this from a Google search a little while ago). –Thanks for the reminder of the Connie Willis novel–I heard a review of another of her books a few months ago, had forgotten all about the time traveller theme (for historical research purposes only, no attempt to change the direction of history or there would be dire results, trying not to get caught in a time warp, and the other things you mention).

  8. John LaVoe says:

    I think it’s an excellent set of materials, except for the psalm. The Second Esdras lesson is appropriate. Psalm 125 is a psalm that teaches good things come to good people, bad things to bad people — I’m not fond of it especially in this commemoration’s context. Something more “real” (like Ps 62) would be more appropriate. The two NT selections are perfect as they are.

    In the final paragraph of the bio, I had very minor observations about its first three sentences.
    Sentence #1: “also” doesn’t continue anything; I’d drop that word. (“He also defended the interests of the Church against those of his former friend and patron, the King.”)
    Sentence #2: I don’t think one “seeks exile.” It’s usually imposed by an external authority, although a fifth definition allowed for voluntary exile. I’d say he fled to ___ for his safety for six years. At any rate he did more than “seek” for it. (“The struggle between the two became so bitter that Thomas sought exile at an abbey in France.”)
    Sentence #3: If “6 years” could be moved into the previous sentence, this one could be simplified to “When he returned to England his fragile reconciliation with the King broke down.” (“When he returned to England six years later, the fragile reconciliation between Henry and the Archbishop broke down.”)

    The collect is a bit uninspired. To me, a good “so that” clause ties the observance to the whole praying community AND to the baptismal calling of each individual praying. Devoid of a “so that” clause (which many of the new collects ted to be) collects tend to formulate a petition (a “to-do” list for God) that is most often bland, formulaic, generic and meant to apply to somebody else (but not those praying the prayer). Today’s asks God to keep the church from evil and ” raise up among us faithful pastors and leaders who are wise in the ways of the Gospel.” Sounds good, would be nice, — lets me off the hook. (That’s a sign of a weak collect.)

  9. Philip Wainwright says:

    If the bio can’t state with confidence that he was more of a saint than a politician (and preferably much more), he doesn’t belong in the calendar. After reading his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, it’s hard for me to believe that he can seriously be held up as an example for Christians to follow, or that he in any way advanced the ministry (as opposed to the power) of the church. It’s a very complicated biography, but the major issue for which he fought seems to have been to keep ‘the church’ (by which he apparently meant the clergy) free from lay control, particularly when it came to clergy guilty of some crime or other. Apparently the idea was that the church, not the state, should punish clergy, which as we all know is to this day too often simply a matter of removing them to a diocese or parish where their wrongdoings are unknown. The biography is depressing reading not just about Becket but about every cleric it mentions. It also suggests that Henry’s famous statement about a turbulent priest is myth, as are Becket’s alleged last words.

    His shrine at Canterbury was destroyed at the Reformation, and a 17th century bishop, John Bramhall, criticised the Roman church for canonising him, and said that while the Church of England condemned the murder, ‘we do not believe that the cause of his suffering was sufficient to make him a Martyr’, since the argument between him and the king was about political rather than spiritual matters, and in pursuit of his object Becket had perjured himself and violated an oath he took to stop opposing the state’s punishment of ‘criminous clerks’ (A Just Vindication of the Church of England) pp 141f.

    It would be interesting to know when, and why, the Anglican attitude to him changed. I suspect it was part of the romanticisation of all things medieval that began in Victorian times and still continues in some quarters. It’s a commemoration I will politely avoid.

  10. Leonel L. Mitchell says:

    St. Thomas of Canterbury seems to have survived Henry VIII’s attempt to remove him from the calendar. His festival seems so traditional that I feel it ought to be moved along like the Red Letter Days which get moved by Christmas l, as they did in 2010,and I celebrated it on December 30,

  11. Sharon Laborde says:

    I’m interested in this image of Saint Thomas. Does anyone know where it is located and if it is in the public domain for publication?

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