Thursday, May 19, 2016

Thomas a Becket - The Battle Continues

Thomas a Becket was a key figure in the ongoing struggle between the church organization and the state. My initial sympathy is with the church organization, which wanted to stop the political leaders from appointing church leaders and often putting in people without spiritual or educational qualifications, who then farmed the work out to others equally unqualified. But in the end, the church organization became so concerned with its own power that it became more corrupt than the political leaders. Now Thomas a Beckett was a determined, principled, and courageous individual (he died for his principles). I do not know his heart, but I would like to believe there was there some genuine desire to honor God. But he does represent a step away from protecting the congregation to maintaining the independence and dignity of the clergy.

Thomas had one problem, holding multiple offices in the church organization and presumably farming them out. But the issue he fought over was whether the clergy could be tried in the civil courts or only in their own courts. Now Scripture says we should be subject to civil authorities on civil matters. It was objected that the clerical courts were more just and less cruel than the royal courts. But maybe they should have worked to make the courts better for everyone. There was also the danger that the royal courts could try to trump up charges against clergy they did not like. But this should have been handled on a case-by-case basis. However, the final issue was that Thomas had refused to remove excommunications from clergy that had taken the King's side (Henry II of England) and had invaded Thomas' prerogatives. Whether this was lack of forgiveness or standing on principles (there is no indication these individuals had repented) may be argued.

Thomas was the kings' chancellor and had been appointed by the king as Archbishop of Canterbury. He appears to have been a conscientious individual who tried to fulfill all his offices according to his sense of duty. Thomas ended up in conflict with the king and went into self-imposed exile, to urge the pope (Alexander III) to take action against the king. But the pope, being under pressure politically and not wanting to offend Henry, tried to negotiate. Ultimately, Thomas was restored, but Henry in a fit of rage asked to be rid of him. Four of his knights, whether rightly or wrongly, took him literally and killed Thomas. Thomas faced his death bravely and became considered a martyr. Henry was forced to concede the principles in question and to allow himself to be scourged before Beckett's tomb as penance for his deeds. This did much to further the clerical cause. And to lead it into what it ultimately became.   

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